Friday, January 23, 2015

Measuring the externalities of late night transit

On the same day that the future of the MBTA's late night service was reportedly imperiled, the Commuter Rail operator Tweeted that its trains would not be held for the end of the Garth Brooks concert slated to begin at 10:30 p.m. There was no such Tweet necessary from the core bus and subway services, because the Friday concert would certainly end in time for the late subway trains which would depart downtown around 2:30.

Which is a big deal. Concerts of this sort are permitted by the city of Boston, and without late night T service, they probably would have not occurred at all. It's not every night that a popular act will play for the first time in nearly two decades in Boston, but the possibility of scheduling later shows brings tens of thousands of extra visitors to the city and whether they ride transit or not, they support the local economy.

Are all of the concert-goers discretionary visitors? No. Certainly some would have come downtown and taken advantage of nightlife if there were not this concert. But many do. The nearest venues on Brooks's current tour are in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, so this is a regional draw; and may even attract some fans from abroad who would come to Boston for the show. There are 15 million people in New England, and only about one in six of those live within a late-night MBTA service corridor (and the Garth Brooks demographic is probably less likely to live in town). But others may book a hotel, or arrive by car for dinner, and then go and see the show.

How much is a concert of this type worth? Let's throw around some numbers (and, yes, these are all guesstimates, yell at me in the comments if I'm off by an order of magnitude but not if I'm off by 25¢):

  • The TD Garden holds about 20,000 people for concerts. The price for each ticket for these shows is $57, and according to this site, about $15 of that goes towards running the facility. That's $300,000. Add to that $10 of food and beverages purchased by each concert-goer, another $200,000. Let's assume that half of this total goes towards staffing and another 10% towards state and local taxes. That's $300,000 for the local economy.
  • What about parking? Let's say half of the people coming to the concert park downtown, and pay an average of $10 to do so (some people will find free meter parking—and may use the MBTA to get to and from it—while some will pony up $40 to park at the Garden). That's another $100,000, with about 7% captured as sales tax (and if Boston had additional parking taxes like many other cities, it could capture more).
  • But those are the direct costs. Let's say that 1000 people at the concert "make a weekend of it" and book a hotel room in town at $200 per night. That's another $200,000 (taxed at 14.45%). They'll have $100 worth of meals, too, so there's another $100,000. A good number (half?) of people will come in early before the concert and go for dinner or a beer (or both), spending, say, $25 per person, or $250,000; if the concert lets out at 12:30 a.m., some may take advantage of late night service and have a beverage afterwards as well.
  • And late night ridership? Let's say 5000 people take the T to the concert, and 1000 of those park at an outlying terminal, and half of these people already have a monthly pass. The numbers aren't huge, but it still accounts for $5000 in additional fares and $4000 in parking fees. Not huge, but not nothing.

Let's add this up. You get about $1,150,000 in additional local spending. With sales, hotel, meal and payroll taxes, local and state governments can recoup about $100,000 directly in sales taxes. And the T gets about $10,000 in additional fares. These concerts won't occur every weekend, but even if there are 10 such events per year, it would pump an extra $11 million in to the local economy, of which at least $1 million would reach tax coffers, and an extra $100,000 for the T. The total cost of running late night service is not offset by this, but these events are only feasible because of the extra service.

Then there's the real game-changer: are acts more likely to come to Boston if they can perform two shows per evening? For a busy venue like the Garden (with the Bruins and Celtics and other events like Mice on Ice), being able to squeeze multiple events per day allows an act to open for only two or three days but have five or six shows. (It's no coincidence that the Garth Brooks concert falls during the NHL All-Star break; shows don't materialize out of thin air, although they do get set up overnight.) If you get a couple extra shows to play Boston which otherwise would not, then you're getting multiple shows on nights the Garden might otherwise sit dark.

This past summer, I participated in a hackathon that showed parallel results over a longer time range: late night T service seemed to increase ridership earlier in the evening and longer-distance taxi fares later on. But we didn't examine the potential for late night events to boost the local economy. If the T looks towards cutting service, it really should make sure to look at events like this which benefit from the availability of late night service (even if not that many people use the service to get to the event). Not doing so may be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Don't use bus routes to subsidize malls …

especially if the mall isn't the final stop on the route.

I recently had the pleasure of riding the entire route of the 34E, one of the MBTA's longest bus routes. The route starts in Walpole Center, makes a beeline to Washington Street (which extends from Boston to Providence) and runs in a straight line to Forest Hill Station. A straight line, that is, except, for a bizarre figure-eight loop through the Dedham Mall. The loop-the-loop to access the mall unnecessarily lengthens the route, costs the T money, costs passengers time, and subsidizes private development, all to service the front door of an auto-centered development.

Instead of continuing on Washington Street, the mall loop takes 8 or 10 minutes as the bus leaves the street, navigates no fewer than eight stop signs and traffic signals, makes two separate looped turn-arounds and traverses the same intersection three times. The route is scheduled for a full hour for the 14 mile trip from Walpole to Forest Hills, so the detour through the mall accounts for 13 to 16% of the total run time, all to serve two stops (out of more than 80 total on the route) which would otherwise require a 2 to 5 minute walk.

In other words, for riders wishing to get to the Dedham Mall, it would likely be faster if the bus ran straight on Washington Street and they got off and walked in to the mall, rather than taking a circuitous route to be dropped near the door. And for everyone else, it would save 8 to 10 minutes each way of not riding through the mall parking lot.

I rode the route on a weekday evening a few days before Christmas. This should have been a high water mark for people using the 34E to get to the mall. While my bus was full—there were probably between 45 and 50 passengers on board at any given time (and probably 70 or more served along the route)—only two or three got on or off at the mall. So, in order to serve this small number of passengers, the rest of the bus had to loop in and out and in and out of endless parking lots and driveways, because front-door service to the mall is apparently required.

What is particularly irksome is that in this case—and it's not isolated, but, at least in Boston, perhaps the most egregious (the 350 serves the Burlington Mall with a similar detour, but much closer to the terminus of the route, meaning that many fewer passengers are inconvenienced by the route's detour)—is that anyone who rides the bus past the mall has their trip dramatically lengthened (how dramatically? 18 minutes a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year adds up to 75 hours of extra time on the bus annually). Jarrett Walker talks of "being on the way" and the mall is decidedly not; the 34E takes what should be a straight-line transit trip and degrades it to a mall circulator, despite the thousands of passengers who ride the bus daily.

In addition, running service via the mall requires several hidden subsidies which degrade service and provide a perverse incentive for people to drive instead of use transit. This one, in turn, further subsidizes the car-centric mall over pedestrian-oriented business districts, several of which are served by this route. There is also the direct subsidy to businesses at the mall. If I open a store on a street near an existing transit line, I would not (and should not) expect the transit agency to reroute the transit line to provide a stop at my front door. Yet we provide this service to the mall.

This subsidy can be quantified, in fact. The T doesn't break down service between the 34E and the 34, but let's assume that slightly more than half the passengers on the route are carried by the 34E (looking at the total number of vehicles on the route at different times of day)—or about 2500 passengers. The route costs $3.09 per passenger to operate (66¢ average bus fare paid plus $2.43 subsidy), or a total cost per day of about $7725. If we calculate 15% of this approximately $1150, meaning that over the course of a year—even given lower service levels on weekends—the cost to serve the mall is well north of $300,000 per year. [Update: these numbers may be somewhat lower given that morning service—before the mall opens—and some peak evening rush hour trips do skip the mall.]

Here's another way to look at this: currently, the 20 minute evening headways on the 34E requires 6 buses running the route in about (or just under), each bus makes a round trip in two hours. If the run time were reduced to 51 minutes by omitting the mall, the same six buses could make seven round trips, reducing headways and, thus increasing capacity on the route. If you could get it to 50 minutes, the same headways could be maintained with 5 buses, which would save 1/6 of the route's operating cost while providing the same service. But, instead, we provide service to the mall, at the expense of everyone who isn't the mall.

What to do? Make the mall subsidize the route—yes, to the tune of $350,000 per year—or have them build an ADA facility from Washington Street to the mall. The extra cost of running this route in to the mall for 10 years could buy a very nice set of bus shelters, crosswalks and a ramp from Washington Street to the mall's front door. Another option would be to run the 34—which ends its route nearby—to the mall, instead of putting this joggle in the middle of the 34E. While it might not have the same cost savings, it would at least not have the effect of costing thousands of passenger hours each day. Or, abandon service to the mall all together. Malls are dying, anyway, and it should not be the business of public transit agencies to help prop them up.