Monday, August 24, 2015

A quick look at the T's privatization bus list

If you follow this page, you'll know that I've gone on in the past about hyperbole about MBTA privatization. And today, with the list of routes out that are up for bid, a few comments. The idea, apparently, is to reallocate the resources from these routes to core services, so that there will be an increase in service by covering these few routes with other vehicles (the T can't buy any more vehicles because it is out of room to store and maintain buses), except for late night. The T breaks it down in to three groups—low ridership local routes, express buses (most but not all) and late night routes—but I'd split the first group further in to routes under 200 (core MBTA service routes originally run by the MTA) and routes numbered above 200 (peripheral or suburban routes run by other providers).

If this is as far as privatization goes, it seems to make sense, especially reallocating the service hours and vehicles of large buses being used on low volume routes to other routes and times of day. The T shouldn't spend time and money to maintain smaller vehicles, and for the few routes where smaller vehicles would work, as long as this expands service rather than replacing it (i.e., the buses are put to better use on other routes) it will help service and ridership. The fear, of course, is that in the long run the number of Carmen-operated 40-foot buses goes down, with, perhaps, a deterioration of service. I'm less sure about the express buses, where I think the idea might be to use coach-style buses for these trips, see below.

A couple of resources:
The 2014 MBTA Blue Book
Changes to transit service since 1964
Miles on the MBTA (a kid—a rising sophomore now?—who had ridden nearly every route the T operates, which is impressive)

Note: service hours are estimated, as are riders per hour and riders per trip. Ridership is from the Blue Book, cost is net cost from a separate spreadsheet from the T.

Core Routes

5. The 5 is a social service route; it completely duplicates the 10 except for the stretch along the McCormack Housing Project which would not have service during the midday. It operates with few passengers, most of whom could probably take the 10. (It's not as bad as the 48, but similar.) It could be operated with smaller buses, easily, which would probably yield cost savings.
6.5 service hours per day
161 riders, 25 riders per service hour, or 12 per trip.
$0.91/passenger mile

18. The 18 is a local route that runs on Dot Ave from Andrew to Ashmont. Because it runs roughly parallel to the Red Line on 30 to 60 minute headways, most people would opt for the Red Line. So it is likely used for short hops by people unable to walk as far. It is likely similar to the 5 in that is is more a social service route than anything else, and could also be operated with smaller vehicles.
17 service hours per day
619 riders, 36 riders per service hour, 18 riders per trip
$0.65/passenger mile

68. The 68 is a lot like the 18: it parallels the Red Line, has few passengers and rarely-if-ever a full bus (except when the Red Line has a fault, but it is doubtful that enough people know about it to use it) and has the main purpose of getting people between Kendall, Harvard, Cambridge city offices and the library. Nearly all of its functions are duplicated elsewhere, and it didn't even run between 1981 and 1998. It, too, could be operated with smaller buses to carry the passengers necessary, and the bus used for the 68 could be pressed in to service on Mass Ave where it would carry far more passengers.
12 service hours per day
468 riders, 39 riders per hour, 20 riders per trip
$1.00/passenger mile

99.  This one is harder to explain. The 99 is a subway feeder trip, and at rush hour runs every 20 minutes, which leads me to believe that if it has two or three heavy Orange Line trains empty on to it, it will need a full-sized bus. It's not a route like the 5, 18, or 68: it has a purpose other than shortening a walk slightly for a few people. It has more than the ridership of those three routes combined. Could it be better integrated with the 106 to provide even headways where they share a route? Certainly. But other than cheaper operators, I don't see how you get away with operating this with smaller buses.
30 service hours per day
1555 riders, 52 riders per service hour, 26 riders per trip
$0.49/passenger mile

201/202. These are two variations of what was Route 20 from Neponset to Fields Corner. The two trips now combine to run every 15 minutes (or so) on a variety of routes. The route is short and it seems that it has relatively low ridership per bus but high frequency; and most people who would take it instead walk to the Red Line (a station at Neponset on the Braintree Branch would obviate much of the need for the route). Depending on rush hour loads, smaller buses may suffice.
72 (?) service hours per day
1339 riders, 19 riders per hour, 9 riders per trip

Suburban routes

52. The 52 is an old M&B Route through Newton on Centre Street in Newton and through to the Dedham Mall. It has minimal rush hour feeder ridership since it traverses a not-so-dense part of Newton and most people can walk to the 57 or Green Line or Express bus instead. Whether its ridership merits a smaller bus depends on the loading at different times of day.
17 service hours per day
766 riders per day, 30 riders per hour, 23 riders per trip
$0.49/passenger mile

70A. This is really interesting. The 70 is not listed, because it's a busy trunk route which could never have smaller buses. However, it is one of the most dysfunctional routes the T runs because … of the 70A! I've advocated in the past for splitting the 70A off as a feeder or transfer route to the 70. So in theory this would accomplish exactly that; I would assume that the privatized portion of the route (the 70A) will not run all the way in to Cambridge; otherwise you'll have even less coordination between the two mostly-parallel routes with different operators. (If the T does do this, they should all be sacked.) I still think interlining the route with the 556 makes as much, or more, sense, but splitting the 70A off of the 70 could be very beneficial.

I have no idea what the 70A portion of the ridership is as it is not broken out in the Blue Book. But if the current two buses were allocated to the 70, it could provide 8 to 10 minute headways at rush hour and 15 minute headways midday, allowing it to provide a Key Route level of service, with even headways (something it does not do right now) and alleviating chronic crowding along the route. This could be a major bright spot in this privatization scheme, if implemented properly.

210 and 212 are two local routes in Quincy and Dorchester that parallel the Red Line, although they provide frequent feeder service at rush hour. The 212 is a slight variant and only runs a few trips at rush hour, and has far higher ridership per bus/trip than the 210, which has ridership spread more across the day. Since 212 is a feeder, it may require larger vehicles to cope with rush hour crowding, although 210 is more a Red Line parallel route (although it does provide direct service from Quincy to Dorchester that would otherwise require a transfer).
26 service hours per day (21: 210; 5: 212)
210: 736 riders per day, 35 riders per hour, 18 riders per trip, $0.31/pax/mi
212: 293 riders per day, 59 riders per hour, 30 riders per trip, $0.89/pax/mi

439. This is a great candidate for a smaller bus. It carries 97 riders all day, but is the only service to Nahant; it is one of few cases in the area where a town has transit service at rush hour and not at any other time of the day. Even assuming that all riders go inbound on two trips and outbound on the others, (a fair assumption) this is little more than a feeder to the Lynn Commuter Rail station (and a couple of trips to Wonderland) with 20 riders per trip, which could be handled by a smaller vehicle, and this bus could be put to better use.
6 service hours per day
97 riders, 16 riders per hour, 8 riders per trip.

451. Way out in the suburbs, this is a bus that is a Commuter Rail feeder to Salem, running at rush hours to and from Beverly. It also provides last-mile service between the Commuter Rail station and the Cummings Center. It could probably be operated with smaller vehicles.
9 service hours per day
163 riders, 18 riders per hour, 10 riders per trip

465. Most of the time, this bus runs between Salem and the North Shore and Liberty Tree malls (and you know how I feel about buses to malls; maybe the mall should pay for it). At rush hour, however, it operates like the 451, with more direct service to and from the train station. In fact, during the PM rush hour, passengers to the mall ride the commuter trip first, and can then stay on for the inbound which loops back to the mall. Which actually makes sense. Still, it has relatively low ridership, and a smaller bus may suffice. For a time, the 451 and 465 were through-routed, allowing one-seat rider from Beverly to the malls.
20 service hours per day
414 riders, 21 riders per hour, 16 riders per trip.

Express bus routes

I'm a bit more perplexed about the express routes shown. The 500-series routes to Newton, for example, are heavily used (often standing room only on 40' transit buses) and operate frequently: the type of service transit buses excel at. The same goes for the Medford buses (320 series). The 505, for example, operates 20 inbound trips with 556 inbound riders, meaning that the average load is 28 riders per bus, but this includes a few trips in the 6 and 9 o'clock hours, so at peak times—when the bus runs every 9 minutes—the buses are full. And the bus runs like a city bus from Waltham to West Newton, so a low-floor transit bus is far superior to a high-floor commuter coach. (Many transit agencies do operate coach-style bus service, but it is usually from a park and ride to downtown, which Commuter Rail provides in Boston.) The 502 and 504 provide similar service and frequencies. So in this case you'd need a 40-foot bus, so I'm not sure what the savings would be, unless the successful bidder ran a feeder system to frequent rail service on the Worcester Line that could bypass traffic.

The costs per passenger mile for these express buses ranges from $0.17 to $0.32, with higher fares and longer distances.

The 351 makes a lot more sense, in theory. It is an outbound express bus from Alewife to Burlington and carries about 20 passengers on each of its four trips, some of which may serve as pull-outs for other routes. It also serves an area akin to those served by several of the 128 Business Council's shuttles, which serve similar office parks with similar schedules, in areas which otherwise have little if any transit service. It is a good example of a private service that leverages the existing transit network (rather than competing with it) in an area which would likely be hard for the T to justify serving. (Full disclosure, I work for another TMA which operates last-mile shuttles.)

But the issue with the 351 is that it might not operate in a vacuum: some of its trips may be a pullout which then turns as a 350 or a 352. The 352 is also on the list, and I would assume that these would be sold as a package deal. Similarly, it's not surprising to not see the 170 bus because it serves basically as a revenue pull-out trip for 70 buses. (Although a later trip for the 170 during each rush hour would dramatically help that service; perhaps some of the 70A's resources could go towards that.) This is the issue with trying to privatize parts of a network: you often wind up pulling on a string and unraveling the whole sweater. These seem to be surgical enough that they won't dramatically affect it, but—to mix metaphors—it could be a slippery slope.

It will be interesting to see what kind of response the T gets. The union doesn't seem keen on letting anything out of their grasp, and there would be some perceived risk in operating a trip privately and not running afoul of the Carmen. Unlike the lead-up to Pacheco, there are no proposals to privatize an entire garage, but rather a few small routes. It's less likely to ruffle a lot of feathers, but the slippery slope argument holds. First they came for the 68, and I said nothing, because I did not drive the 68. Will they then come for the 28 or the 66?

It will be interesting.


  1. The 70A is a very important route through Waltham - really the only regular bus to North Waltham. Splitting it off so and only running it to say, Watertown, makes sense and would hopefully improve service and timetables through Waltham proper. It is used regularly throughout the day by residents and more heavily during rush feeding people to the 128 corps. and the CR station. Not sure it could function with smaller buses.

  2. Is it possible to estimate the amount of money saved by "rationalizing" routes, i.e. taking a route like the 64 and simplifying it's route to be more direct?

  3. You assume that the intent is to reallocate vehicles to busier routes, but that is not the idea. They want to bring in cheaper operators to save a few dollars.

    In smaller cities there is a commonly "empty buses" myth which has been debunked many times. Aside from having top store, maintain and dispatch a separate fleet of smaller buses -- and the fact that you might get away with 20 seats at most times but then need 40 seats for a few trips -- the savings just don't add up. All you save is on fuel, which is fine, but we're talking pennies.

    The governor and his allies are doing this so they can slowly destroy the union.

  4. Jeremy, I've made your exact argument so many times I call it the "empty bus fallacy" which is basically that someone sees an empty bus and assumes that all buses are empty all the time. And in a lot of cities, there are buses that never really get full. This is not the case for the T. The non-express buses here account for a tiny percentage of the overall buses in the fleet, and they are routes with minimal ridership which, if operated with smaller (and, yes, somewhat less expensive) buses would be cheaper.

    Might it be a ploy to, at some point, privatize more? It might be. But for now, apparently, the plan is to redeploy the resources from these routes to other services. From the linked article:

    All 93 buses and their 65 drivers that would be taken off of those 40 routes if service is privatized would be re-deployed to other areas of the system that need more service, MBTA Interim General Manager Frank DePaola told reporters Thursday.

    For instance, the buses which currently operate the 70A could be put in to the pool for the 70 which could see its frequency and headway variability improve, which would be an improvement for pretty much everyone involved. Other routes, the 5, 18 and 68 especially, are routes which serve a very specific population: people who are not mobile enough to walk a few blocks to a faster service. Those trips could probably get by with a smaller vehicle for those few passengers.

    Do I think it's a great idea? Not really. But there's a decent chance that it is piloted on these routes, doesn't save much money, provides worse service, and is once and for all thrown in to the trash bin of bad ideas. And if private providers are able to provide the same or better level of service for less money while still providing good salaries and benefits for their employees? I'm not sure I'm completely against that (their employees would always be allowed to unionize).

  5. It should be noted that all of the Core and Suburban routes on your lists above were typically operated with shorter buses back in the era of 'New Look' buses. In the 1980's about a quarter or so of the MBTA bus fleet was made up of 35-foot buses.

  6. I'm interested to see if these private operators will be required to accept Charlie Cards and tickets.