Public Transit Misery Is Bad for the Environment

As I recently waited in a crumbling subway station for an overcrowded train, I couldn’t help but consider finding another way to work - like an Uber. And I wondered: How many other people skip transit because of poor conditions? And what are the costs of those skipped rides?

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

The other day I got to the Orange Line station at Sullivan Square to take the T downtown. The station is an ugly, crumbling, concrete box under a highway. It was raining hard, and water fell in sheets around the platform, splashing everywhere. I waited 10 minutes for the first train to come. When it arrived, passengers were already packed like sardines, and not a soul could squeeze on. Ten minutes later another train finally came that, by a minor miracle, I was able to wedge my way onto for a cramped, hot, and thankfully short ride downtown.

As I waited, I couldn’t help but consider finding another way to work – like an Uber. And I wondered: How many other people skip transit because of poor conditions? And what are the costs of those skipped rides?

The more people who travel by bus or train, the better off our environment and society are. Per passenger mile, a ride on the MBTA here in Boston emits about one quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions of a car ride (and there is basically no emissions cost for adding passengers to a bus or train that is already running). Electric trains also don’t emit ground-level pollution that contributes to smog and threatens human health. 

So if uncomfortable or unpleasant transit conditions are causing lots of people to take a car instead, that’s bad news for public health and the climate. And that’s just what seems to be happening. 

Here in Boston, a recent poll found that our public transit system causes four out of five riders to feel “stressed, angry or frustrated.” And ridership recently dropped by more than 10 percent – or around 20,0000 riders per day – after the derailment of a Red Line subway train caused damage that triggered months of service disruptions. Down the coast, the New York Times recently identified the “very worst commuter train in America” – New Jersey Transit’s Train 2606, which has plagued riders with nearly 20 cancellations so far in 2019. The Times interviewed some riders who have found ways to skip their commutes by just staying home. But it’s a good bet that some other frustrated riders ended up in a car.

Miserable transit can cause people to look for other options, but the opposite is also true. As Transit Center has pointed out, transit quality is “one major factor under agency control” that can help build ridership. Transit Center’s study went on to say:

Reliability and frequency in corridors of great demand, connectivity, stop facilities, and cleanliness are service characteristics within the agency’s power to improve, and we found that they are important factors of rider satisfaction. And higher satisfaction with transit (one point on a five-point scale) is associated with higher transit use: almost one extra day a month, even controlling for age, home and work location, changes in income, and other demographic and household factors. 

Today, transportation is climate enemy #1, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy. Until taking transit is as quick, comfortable, safe, reliable and affordable as traveling by car, we are going to struggle to gain traction in helping people to drive less and live more. There’s lots of work to do. Expanding service, improving reliability and keeping transit affordable are all big parts of the equation. 

But it sure wouldn’t hurt if transit agencies and cities also made it possible to wait for the train without getting soaked.

Image: Sullivan Station in 2017, via Wikimedia user Pi.1415926535 (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

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