Because of safety concerns, the FTA forced the MBTA to cut scheduled service on the Orange, Blue, and Red lines in June, resulting in worse transit access for Boston riders.
The TransitCenter Equity Dashboard tracks how people can connect to services and amenities by public transit in seven U.S. cities. Understanding current inequities in access to opportunity is essential to redesign transit systems that provide the best outcomes for people with the greatest need.
We’ve recently updated the dashboard with data points from March and August 2022, which show how schedule changes at transit agencies in response to historic worker shortfalls and “new normal” ridership patterns affected riders’ access to jobs, healthcare, grocery stores and more.
Part one of our 2022 summary, below, takes a look at how four agencies – Boston’s MBTA, DC’s WMATA, LA Metro, and Chicago’s CTA – responded to crises this year. Part two, which will run Wednesday, looks at how New York’s MTA, Philly’s SEPTA, and Bay-Area transit agencies are running close to pre-pandemic levels of service, but have lapsed back into longstanding access inequities. In a later series, we will drill down further into how transit service affects big picture access to opportunity in cities like Boston and Washington D.C.
Note: these access measures are based on scheduled service and represent the service that the transit agency planned to provide. Deviations from planned service – like traffic delays, trip cancellations, or derailments – are not represented in this data.
Part I: Responding to Crisis
Boston – Inattention to the MBTA’s physical and human capital erupted in disaster for Boston’s public transit riders this year, overshadowing the benefits of new projects like the Green Line Extension and the Columbus Avenue busway.
In early August 2022 (before the Orange Line shutdown), the average Boston resident could access 35,000 fewer potential jobs – 7% less – in 45 minutes by public transit, than they could in 2021. Worker shortfalls up and down the ranks forced the MBTA to pare back its scheduled service frequency. Bus network changes preserved service on high-ridership routes, but the MBTA cut subway service wholesale amid safety violations due to understaffing in its dispatcher unit.
(Our dashboard data doesn’t capture unscheduled disruptions – like a building collapse and train fires, which periodically halted subway lines altogether – meaning that riders actually experienced even lower access at times in 2022.)
Service changes earlier in the pandemic increased transit equity, but those gains were lost in 2022’s constant crisis response, when Black and Latinx people lost access to more jobs than other Boston residents. In September 2021, Black Bostonians could reach 7 jobs for every 10 that white Bostonians could by transit, but the gap worsened to 6 for 10 by August 2022.
Our data ends before Boston riders started to see some relief this fall. The Orange Line was down from mid-August to mid-September for repairs. During the shutdown, the City made a temporary one-mile bus lane to improve alternate means of travel, then made it permanent after the train reopened. By November, the Orange Line was running with the shortest delays riders have experienced since 2019. In December, MBTA opened five new train stations on the Green Line that are estimated to serve 50,000 riders daily.
DC – The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority began 2022 with service in crisis before making a gradual–and still incomplete–recovery throughout the year. But the agency also made important shifts in service aimed at meeting travel needs outside of the “9 to 5.”
Last October, a WMATA train derailed, revealing design flaws in the agency’s train cars that required the development of new safety processes. The agency pulled more than half of its rail cars from operation, leaving gaps of up to 40 minutes between trains on most lines. The agency was able to restore rail service only incrementally through much of 2022. According to National Transit Database reports, WMATA ran only 40% of pre-pandemic rail service in January, rising to 57% by August and 70% by October.
The Dashboard registers a substantial decline in jobs accessible by transit: compared to September 2021, the average Washington DC resident could ride transit to 50,000 fewer jobs in 45 minutes in March 2022. Access to about half of those jobs was restored by August.
A notable bright spot was the continued expansion of bus service; for most of 2022, WMATA ran more bus service than it did before the pandemic. These shifts have benefited off-peak riders, particularly late-night riders. Jobs accessible by transit after 10 pm has steadily increased since the beginning of 2021; in fact, residents of the MSA can access 30% more jobs on weeknights than they could before the pandemic. This May, WMATA expanded bus service in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and restructured late-night service to add new transfers between bus routes. This complemented WMATA’s 2021 extension of rail operating hours (from 11 p.m. to midnight) and increase in late-night bus service. Also factoring into the positive access trends has been an award-winning redesigned bus network in Alexandria, Virginia; and continued service expansion in Montgomery County, Maryland.
LA – Early in the year, LA Metro was short over 600 bus operators, with myriad factors – including COVID burnout, declining job conditions, and uncompetitive pay – to blame.
Without enough drivers for all promised trips, LA Metro had to drop a lot of service. In January, the worst month, it canceled 17% of planned bus trips (its goal is less than 2%). Bus routes serving South LA, where LA Metro has pledged to improve service for equity reasons, were the hardest hit. Canceled trips functionally reduce service, but since cancellations are made as needed, canceled trips are not reflected in schedules or in the Dashboard data.
LA Metro acted quickly. After a particularly rough January, it officially reduced service to a level it could provide in late February. As a result, LA Metro recovered its ability to deliver its scheduled service: monthly bus cancellation rates have stayed between 3-5% since March.
The upshot for LA County transit riders is lower access for most of 2022 compared to 2021, but higher confidence that their trip would arrive. The average person could reach 11% fewer jobs by transit during morning peak time in August 2022 compared to September 2021. But LA Metro’s bus cancellation rate was 100% lower. Additionally, the dashboard shows that LA Metro cut service in a way that preserved higher accessibility for Black, Latinx, and poor people.
Chicago – The Dashboard shows little change in access by transit for Chicagoans in 2022. That’s because transit schedules are the basis for the Dashboard’s accessibility calculations, and this year, the CTA hardly adjusted theirs.
Like many transit agencies, the CTA faced a large operator shortfall this year which lowered its operational capacity. At least since May, when data became available, the agency has dropped about 20% of scheduled bus trips; its rail cancel rate is higher. This elevated rate of cancellations led to frequent ghost buses and extra-long gaps in service, disproportionately so in communities of color in the South and West Sides.
Realistically, Chicagoans had significantly worse access by transit than the dashboard depicts. But without schedules that accurately reflect CTA’s service delivery, it’s impossible to quantify how much access Chicagoans lost this year.
Conclusion: Wanted: Honesty and Investment
Transit riders in several cities experienced big swings in accessibility this year. A common cause of the volatility was disinvestment in public transit’s most crucial assets – its human and physical capital – which harmed transit operations. Successful responses to resolve these issues include publicly acknowledging the problem, rightsizing service delivery if necessary, then committing resources to secure these assets swiftly.
Sometimes, agency leadership had to deliver bad news: reducing service to match current workforce capacity, as LA Metro did in February, or shutting down service entirely to address problems safely and efficiently (leaders from the City of Boston and MBTA made such a call). These decisions were undoubtedly painful to initiate; no one likes having less transit. But the alternative – overpromising and underdelivering – punishes riders with unreliable (or even dangerous) transit options that erode their willingness to use the system.
In the end, disinvestment can only be fixed with money, time, and attention, and LA’s response to the bus operator shortfall suggests a path forward for other agencies. The agency has made hiring and retaining operators an organization-wide priority. In August, the transit worker union renegotiated higher wages for operators. LA Metro has hired aggressively and narrowed its shortfall to 300 bus operators, allowing it to gradually add back service and fully restore 2022’s planned service levels as of December 11.
We are hopeful that conditions are ripe in Boston to address decades of disinvestment in human and physical capital at the MBTA. The recently-passed “Millionaire’s tax” in MA could open up new funds for transit operations that could funnel down to better wages and benefits for badly-needed frontline workers – the agency and advocates must make this a top priority.