Boston Pilot Project Finds Free Transit Increases Ridership

Boston Pilot Project Finds Free Transit Increases Ridership

Also: Cities find that replacing parking with something else boosts retail business, and more in this week’s Mobile City.

The Boston MBTA T sign

(Photo by Brian Talbot / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

Boston Pilot Project Finds Ridership Jumps When Workers Get Subsidies

According to a report in Mass Transit, the Boston Transportation Department has found out that workers in neighborhood business districts took to the buses and trains when given a financial incentive to.

Boston’s “Main Street Subsidized Public Transit Pilot” was an effort to reduce the stresses the COVID-19 pandemic placed on employees of neighborhood Main Street businesses. The randomized controlled study, conducted by ideas42 with funding from the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, gave preloaded MBTA passes and unlimited BlueBike bikeshare passes to 1,000 people in five business districts in outlying Boston neighborhoods over two months in the summer of 2021. Half of the participants received $60 passes good for the entire eight weeks, while the other half received a $5 pass for the first four weeks and a $55 pass for the second.

The study found that the participants who received the $60 passes rode the bus or subway an average of 8.29 times over the first four weeks, while those who received the $5 pass first rode an average of 2.09 times. Car owners displayed the same behavior the carless did.

The study also found that the incentives eased stresses on the participants. In one case, a participant became homeless during the eight-week pilot, but the subsidized pass enabled her to continue going to work.
“The success of this pilot program shows that expanding access to transit can accelerate our economic recovery and connect our communities,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said in a city news release. “This program has removed barriers across our neighborhoods, increased ridership during the pandemic and eased congestion on our roads for transit riders and drivers across the city. We will continue to move urgently to expand safe, reliable and accessible transportation for all.”

Like most cities, Boston currently has no free or reduced-fare transit options for low-income, able-bodied riders younger than age 65. The results of the pilot have led the city to extend its free-fare demonstration project on Bus Route 28 (“The Mobile City,” Sept. 8) and is exploring how to extend it to other city bus routes.

Two Cities See Traffic Deaths Increase After Vision Zero

By now, most large US cities have formally adopted “Vision Zero” — a commitment to eliminate traffic deaths over a five- to ten-year period.

Reports from Denver and Washington, however, suggest that those cities may have a difficult time hitting that target.

Westword reports that in Denver, which has set 2030 as the zero-death target date, traffic deaths have risen steadily since 2017, the year after Vision Zero was launched there, with the exception of 2020. So far in 2021, 78 Denverites have been killed in traffic incidents, the highest total in the seven years listed in the report.

Since the 2016 launch of Vision Zero in Denver, there have been 376 traffic deaths in the city, according to data collected by the Denver Streets Partnership. The city, which has a problem with broken and missing sidewalks, received a B- grade from the partnership for infrastructure-related safety improvements put in place over the last year.

Westword’s article lists all 78 of the Denver residents killed in traffic incidents to date this year. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., The Washington Post’s story on Washington’s Vision Zero woes focuses on only one Washingtonian: Jessica Hart, whose five-year-old daughter was struck and killed by a van while riding a bike through a crosswalk near their Northeast Washington home on Sept. 13.

Her daughter’s death turned Hart into a safe-streets activist. She and other safety advocates staged a “chalk-in” at the intersection where her daughter was killed on Dec. 12. Two days before, two more young children were struck by cars in two separate incidents in Southeast and Northeast Washington.

“Allie wasn’t the first and she hasn’t been the last,” said Bryan Hart, 38, the girl’s father. “It just keeps happening. We want the world to know it’s just not okay. […] It takes all of us. The streets aren’t safe. They’re not built safe. We need to make them safe.”

And while Washington has had fewer traffic deaths than Denver, the tally there has risen as well over the last three years, from 27 in 2019 to 37 in 2020 to 39 so far in 2021. Of those killed last year, 10 were on foot and one on a bike. So far this year, 16 pedestrians and three bicyclists have been killed.

When current mayor Muriel Bowser launched the District’s Vision Zero campaign in 2015, the program set 2024 as the zero-death target date. City Council member Charles Allen criticized the mayor for moving too slowly on adding infrastructure to slow motorists down in the story: “We passed Vision Zero, but the mayor is not implementing it,” he said. “It’s frustrating. Several of us have been shouting at the mayor and DDOT [District Department of Transportation] to do more. There will be a lot of people who will keep pushing.”

A Gift to City Retailers for the Holidays: Less Free Parking, More Shoppers

Usually, when a city proposes replacing parking spaces in front of stores with bike lanes, or if it proposes eliminating promotional free parking, local businesses cry foul, saying the moves will hurt them. An article in Bloomberg CityLab says that the opposite happens: Business booms after the changes as more foot traffic passes the stores.

The article notes that a growing body of evidence, some of it mentioned in a previous CityLab article on the same subject, shows that replacing curbside parking spaces with bike lanes at worst has no effect on business and in many cases causes customer volume to go up.

And while the moves mentioned in this latest story cannot be considered “controlled experiments,” the cash-register receipts don’t lie.

A case in point: Toronto, where some Bloor Street businesses vehemently protested a city proposal to install temporary protected bike lanes on a stretch of the street that contains a number of luxury retailers. The retailers predicted a shopping apocalypse in their letter to the mayor, which did not dissuade the city from installing the bike lanes anyway. Had the business owners bothered to consult their colleagues down the street, their fears might have been calmed: An academic analysis showed that both customer counts and customer spending rose after bike lanes were installed on that stretch of Bloor in 2016.

The problem: Business owners overestimate the percentage of their customers who drive to their businesses, in many cases because they assume their customers drive to the shop like they do themselves. So do the researchers: the article mentions a 2012 Portland State University study of 78 Portland-area bars, restaurants and convenience stores that found that 57 percent of bar patrons, 37 percent of diners and 42 percent of convenience-store shoppers used something other than a car to get to their destination. “I didn’t expect a mode share for non-auto trips to be so high,” said Kelly Clifton, the Portland State engineering professor who conducted the study with colleagues. “In one auto-oriented community it was 40 percent.”

And as for spending, while drivers spent more per trip, they made fewer trips, thus canceling out the higher spending.

But the article notes that the experience of businesses during the pandemic has softened opposition to replacing parking with shared infrastructure. Jeffrey Tumlin, the director of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, suggests inviting skeptical business owners to help design pilot projects to demonstrate the effect of pedestrian- and bike-friendly changes (which, he says, are usually positive) when planning such improvements.

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: public transportationwashington dcbostondenverparkingvision zero

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