City Living and Telecommuting Take Market Share, But Commuter Rail Remains Important

The Boston Globe is up today with a story on the recent decline in commuter rail ridership in the Greater Boston area. Citing data showing that average weekly ridership on the MBTA’s commuter rail system fell by 12.5% over the course of a decade, the story suggests that the system’s current operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad (whose contract is up for renewal next year), is somehow to blame.

There may be some truth to that claim. After all, nobody likes late or uncomfortable trains. But by targeting issues such as timeliness, reliability and customer dissatisfaction with rail service as the cause of the recent decline, the Globe missed the more interesting and relevant story: the story of how the recent drop in commuter rail use is linked to rapid changes in living and commuting patterns in Greater Boston – changes that are similar to those taking place in cities across the country.

Before digging into the data, let’s ask a simple question: what market is commuter rail built to serve? In Greater Boston, as in most cities, commuter rail is designed primarily to whisk residents of distant suburbs to jobs in the urban core.

Between 1980 and 2000, the market for commuting from these far-off Boston suburbs to the central city was booming. Using Census data compiled by the Central Transportation Planning Staff of the Greater Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization, we calculated the number of commuters living within the “urban core” (essentially, Boston and those communities connected by the core MBTA bus and subway system), the suburbs (those communities within the boundaries of the Greater Boston MPO), and the exurbs (a category that also includes a few secondary cities such as Lawrence and Lowell).

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of commuters living in exurban areas increased more than twice as quickly as the number living in the urban core and the suburbs. (See Table 1.) Since 2000, however, the pattern has reversed, with the number of commuters living in the urban core increasing rapidly, while exurbs grew more slowly and the number of suburban commuters actually fell.

Table 1


As the number of commuters in the exurbs increased between 1980 and 2000, so too did the share of those commuters using transit, the fruit of the expansion of the MBTA’s commuter rail network in the 1990s. But again, since 2000, that trend has reversed – transit usage in the urban core surged, while transit’s share of a barely-growing suburban and exurban commuter market struggled to keep pace. (See Table 2.)

Table 2


The upshot is that the number of transit commuters living in the suburbs and exurbs declined during the last decade. But here is the kicker: so too did the number of commuters in those areas getting to work by car.

How can that be? Consider that the fastest-growing form of travel to work doesn’t involve commuting at all, but rather working from home. Between 2000 and 2006-10, about 4,000 fewer residents of Boston’s suburbs and exurbs traveled to work by car and about 1,600 fewer of them took transit. But a whopping 15,000 more of them worked from home, while about 2,600 more biked to work.

A greater proportion of urban, suburban and exurban workers are now getting to work by means other than driving, even though the change has been most dramatic among residents of the urban core. (See Table 3.)

Table 3


So while fewer people may be riding commuter rail than a decade ago, they are likely not ditching the train for their cars. Rather, the recent decline in rail ridership is likely a symptom of a broader shift toward other non-driving forms of commuting (especially telecommuting), played out against a backdrop of slower growth in the number of suburban and exurban workers.

The flipside of that trend is also worth noting. The number of workers living in the urban core is increasing rapidly and those commuters are increasingly likely to use non-driving modes for their commutes. Indeed, the day is likely not far off when fewer than half of all commuters living in Greater Boston’s urban core will be getting to work by car.

What does all this mean for the future of commuter rail? First, recent ridership declines aside, commuter rail remains central to the region’s economic vitality. As employers continue to grow their businesses in core neighborhoods such as the South Boston “Innovation District,” the ability to access those jobs by transit from throughout the metropolitan area will remain a critical selling point. In addition, commuter rail may emerge as an important tool to support job growth in smaller peripheral cities such as Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, and eventually Fall River and New Bedford – cities with ample capacity for growth.

It also means that while poor service may not be the biggest reason for reduced commuter rail ridership declines, better service may be a big part of the solution, as public transportation battles for market share amid a stagnant market of suburban and exurban commuters.

The more profound implications, however, are for the rest of the transportation system. The transition away from driving is happening rapidly in Greater Boston, especially in the region’s center, increasing the urgency of expanding the capacity of the core of the transit system (as we wrote about recently) and providing more opportunities for people to travel to work by means other than the car.

Far from being a symptom of failure of the MBTA or of public transportation in general, the recent downward trend in commuter rail ridership is a symbol of the Boston region’s success in developing a vital urban core where an increasing number of residents have the opportunity to leave the car behind when traveling to work.

A strong and reliable commuter rail network has an important role in building on that success in the years to come.