MassINC study finds Gateway City residents priced-out of public transit

Report says state must reduce rail fares in order to achieve more equitable growth

To address the state’s transportation woes, planners and policymakers are evaluating major upgrades to the Commonwealth’s rail network. At the same time, a report from the nonpartisan think tank MassINC argues state leaders must consider new methods of discounting train fares so that low- and moderate-income residents can afford to ride.

The new report presents data to show that in Gateway Cities, regional urban hubs with thousands of potential transit riders, high commuter rail fares effectively price-out most residents. In Worcester, for example, each trip to Boston costs $12.25. This adds up to more than $4,600 a year for a regular weekday commuter, a sum that exceeds 10 percent of Worcester’s median household income. As a share of income, the median Worcester household pays five times more than what  residents of Boston’s more affluent suburbs spend to get downtown on commuter rail.

“As a resident of Lawrence who commutes to Boston daily, I can attest,” says Juana Matias, COO at MassINC. “My neighbors aren’t able to take advantage of trains that stop in our city because we’ve set the fares well-beyond their means.”

The data MassINC collected for the report reveal the extent to which Gateway City residents are left behind each day. Two-thirds of households living near the Lynn station are low-income and yet low-income riders account for just 7 percent of those boarding in Lynn. While the train should be more accessible to station-area residents by virtue of proximity, cost-prohibitive fares make it all but impossible for them to use on a regular basis. This pattern holds across the Gateway Cities, where households living downtown tend to have especially limited means.

The concentration of low-income households in Gateway City downtowns is partially related to the location of large affordable housing developments. In Lynn, for example, more than 40 percent of housing units in the half-mile radius around the commuter rail station are income-restricted. This inventory of affordable housing should position Gateway Cities to achieve equitable development, as commuter rail service improves and spurs new residential investment in the station area. However, without changes to fare policy, residents will feel increasingly disconnected from their own community and vulnerable to displacement, as new market-rate housing draws in residents who can afford to ride the trains.

The study also notes that it is important to evaluate commuter fare policy in the context of the broader housing market. High housing costs are increasingly pushing low- and moderate-income residents out of Boston and surrounding areas to Gateway Cities. In Boston, public transit is ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive. In Gateway Cities, weak bus systems mean most households opt for a car to reach nearby destinations and commuting back to Boston on public transit, where jobs are more plentiful, is costly.

The study points out that the average Gateway City resident spends more than $12,000 a year on car travel. Insurance rates in Gateway Cities are significantly higher than in neighboring communities, driving up vehicle expenses. Also, poor credit forces many to rely on high-interest-rate loans to finance car purchases.

“A lot of families haven’t benefitted from the state’s impressive economic gains,” says Dr. Tracy Corley, MassINC’s Transit-Oriented Development Fellow and a co-author of the study. “We can make growth more equitable by increasing access to jobs, education, and quality healthcare across the state, and by giving residents more mobility options so that they are better positioned to maintain social relationships. To make this happen, we need fare policies that give everyone the option to ride the trains regularly. That will improve ridership and make the case for more frequent service.”

The report recommends immediately discounting off-peak travel and reverse commute trips. Trains that run midday and against the flow of rush-hour travel often have lots of empty seats. The report also argues that lower prices would likely generate additional revenue for the MBTA by making train travel a more affordable alternative to driving, and by inspiring more people to visit other communities. It also suggests piloting income-based fares.

Corley believes testing different fare structures will give planners better data on how would-be riders in Gateway Cities are likely to respond to lower prices. “Pilot programs in metro Boston are not enough. We need this information to make more informed decisions about how we build and operate a regional rail system that efficiently gets everyone to where they need to go.”

Meet The Author

Llyr Johansen

Communications Director, MassINC

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