A look at the T’s ridership numbers

The T is a huge operation and when you look at the ridership numbers you begin to grasp the enormous task it faces each morning getting people in, out and around Boston. The MBTA is the nation’s fifth-largest mass transit system measured in terms of ridership. It serves a daily ridership of 1.2 million passengers and covers a district made up of 175 communities in eastern Massachusetts. The Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization has made available the raw numbers (though some are a few years old) and I will try to present them in a concise way.

The numbers on the left are from 2003 and it shows at a glance that 65% of the ridership of the bus-subway system relies on the 4 major subway lines. Ridership has actually increased from these numbers as was cited by the Globe’s Keith O’Brien when he rode the Orange Line for an entire day one year ago to get the pulse of the people who ride the T. The Boston ridership profile is the complete opposite of Chicago where two-thirds of the ridership take buses instead of the L system.

To move this tremendous number of people the T operates 159 bus routes (8,600 bus stops), 3 subway lines, 2 trolley lines that splits into 5 branches), 1 bus rapid transit line (Silver Line), 4 trackless trolley lines, and 11 commuter rail lines. To operate these lines it uses (numbers approximate) 408 subway vehicles, 181 trolleys vehicles, 973 buses, 40 trackless trolleys, 80 commuter rail locomotives, 362 commuter rail coaches, and 421 RIDE (paratransit) vehicles. The T needs to maintain 785 miles of track, 19 miles of tunnel, 275 stations, 560 bridges, 100 elevators and 132 escalators. The T also claims to have 56,213 commuter parking spaces in the system though there are many on the South Shore who would question that number.

So where are all these passengers coming from?

Some of the numbers are surprising to me as for example I was surprised to see that Davis Square (10,891) handles more passengers than Alewife (9,567). I doubt this was anticipated by the Northwest Extension planners back in the 1970’s who were forced by political pressure from Somerville to bend the route to include Somerville. The transformation that has occurred in the Davis area since the subway’s opening in 1984 is stunning. The former Mayor of Somerville, Eugene Brune recalls that even the Chamber of Commerce didn’t want a subway stop in Davis Square. The planners of the Red Line wanted to build the line into Arlington Center but residents of the town did not want the subway and it finally terminated at Alewife.

How the Red Line Extension was designed and built
The high number of boardings at Forest Hills (12,584) show that the Orange Line should have been extended further south to perhaps Rte 128 Station in Westwood. The opportunity existed 30 years ago when the Southwest Expressway was scrapped after the right of way had been cleared but like Arlington the residents of Hyde Park and West Roxbury wanted no part of subway service fearing it would bring changes to the area so the relocated Orange Line continued to terminate at Forest Hills.
On the Blue Line the high number of boardings at Wonderland (6,071) indicate that the line should be extended to at least Lynn and perhaps Salem as well, but that has been talked about for fifty years since the line was extended to Revere. Maverick is by far the heaviest used station with 10,015 boardings because of the number of bus passengers who transfer there after coming from East Boston and Chelsea.
The Green Line numbers also are a surprise to me. Harvard and Commonwealth on the B Line is the heaviest used stop (the numbers listed are from 1995) outside the subway followed by Coolidge Corner and Brookline Village. As any B Line rider would suspect it is the heaviest used of the trolley lines, followed by D, E and C.
The above link breaks down every bus route in the system and it dramatically shows how dependent Roxbury, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain are with their buses. The #39 Forest Hills-Copley bus is the systems busiest with the #1,#23,#28, and #66 all have over 10,000 passengers a day. Other workhorse routes are the #57 and #111. The T has been working hard to modernize the bus fleet with more on the way. There was the unfortunate misstep of ordering buses from NeoplanUSA and it remains to be seen how much of a problem getting parts for the Neoplans will become as the company closed down while filling a T order. The Neoplan buses include the 60 foot buses used on the Silver Line-Washington Street, the #32 and #39, Silver Line-Waterfront-Airport, trackless trolleys serving Cambridge-Watertown-Belmont and heavy use in the Quincy division.

The breakdown for the Commuter Rail stations
shows some problems on several lines with ridership. The Framingham/Worcester line dropped from 9,990 inbound passengers a day in 2003 to 8,248 a year ago. This is no doubt because of the major delays on that line as the T fights with the CSX Railroad over train slots. Major drops can be seen on the Newburyport/Rockport line and Franklin lines but the network also saw increases on the Lowell and Fitchburg lines. The Providence line is the most heavily traveled and that will only increase with all trains now going to Rhode Island and expansion to the Providence Airport slated to open in 2 years.

So now you at least have a better idea at the challenges the T faces every workday morning to shuttle hundreds of thousands of passengers all over Boston. It is not an easy task and while some commuting days can be a nightmare, the T by and large does a decent job.

Hopefully this forum will help make it better.

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7 Comments

Filed under Blue Line, Bus, Commuter Rail, Green Line, MBTA, Orange Line, Red Line, Subway

7 responses to “A look at the T’s ridership numbers

  1. I recall reading that the NYCTA experienced a sharp increase in bus patronage once they fully rolled out MetroCard and instituted the “One City – One Fare” program of free transfers between bus and subway.

    Could this also happen in Boston once people get used to CharlieCard and realize that it offers a similar benefit?

  2. Rob

    Don’t forget that the Red Line would have been extended west to 128, had it not been for what amounted to racist/alarmist pressure from the towns west of Alewife. Now Davis is one of the most successfully revitalized, transit-based neighborhood in the Northeast.

    Ron Newman: yes, NYCTA had huge ridership increases. Giuliani, mayor at the time, launched a massive “one city, one fare” ad campaign on/in all media. The Staten Island ferry was also made free to Manhattan (formerly 50c).

    Many people don’t know that even with the fare increase here, it’s actually cheaper to take the bus and subway than it was before.

    The T could advertise that, but when is the last time you saw the T advertise anything but commuter rail?

  3. They advertise commuter rail?

  4. Rob said…
    Don’t forget that the Red Line would have been extended west to 128, had it not been for what amounted to racist/alarmist pressure from the towns west of Alewife. Now Davis is one of the most successfully revitalized, transit-based neighborhood in the Northeast.

    The nerve center of the protests in Arlington was the former St. Jerome’s Catholic Church on Route 2. I went to several meetings there and it was ugly. The same happened in Hyde Park with the Orange Line. I doubt you will ever see these lines extended now. 25 years ago the land and money was available, that is no longer the case.

    The Southwest side of Chicago has also resisted expansion of the CTA’s Orange Line for the same reasons. The trains all had roll signs that say FORD CITY on them, but the line was never extended past Midway Airport.

  5. Charlie D.

    I don’t understand why so many people are opposed to extending subway lines. It’s the same thing that happens when a path is proposed on an old rail corridor in many cases… many neighbors are terrified that the path will bring criminals on bikes throwing rocks at the windows and stealing their TVs. Same thing with the subway… they are afraid that the “criminals from the city” will take the subway out to their town and rob them. The statistics are clear that this does NOT happen. Subway lines and paths revitalize a community. Look at Davis Square! Look at the Minuteman trail!

  6. Red Liner

    The daily boarding information is very interesting. Equally interesting is that, according to the numbers, and the T’s 2006 service plan, the T hasn’t looked at the daily boardings on the Red Line north corridor since 1997! Considering the enormous ridership numbers on that section of the Red Line, and the incredible crowds that form on those platforms during rush hour, I would think the T would take a look at these numbers and try to adjust their service accordingly.

  7. Anonymous

    I’ve heard that there’s some crime on the Minuteman bike path, particularly at the east end. And all those walkways and underpasses around the back entrance to Alewife are notorious crime spots.

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