Public transportation ridership is still down from pre-pandemic levels. But MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak is optimistic that it will recover. Make that somewhat optimistic.
“I think it will definitely come back . . . to some degree,” said Poftak during a telephone interview. A private business would hardly be so blasé about potentially losing so many customers. Yet instead of doing anything dramatic to lure riders back, such as lowering fares across the system, Poftak seems content to wait and see how the new normal develops.
If Poftak is a profile in caution, he’s only taking cues from Governor Charlie Baker, who saw a pandemic as an excuse to downsize service, despite receiving billions in federal relief money. Poftak is trying to tailor post-pandemic service to current data points; looking beyond those data points — shaping the future instead of just reacting to it — requires vision.
While the data show ridership plummeted, they also show that COVID’s impact on transportation breaks down along economic lines. For example, overall rapid transit ridership is at 31 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the T. But Blue Line ridership — which reflects more service workers and lower-income commuters — is at 53 percent. Overall, bus ridership is at 50 percent. But as Commonwealth magazine reported, the lines that serve lower-income commuters have done better than others. The number 16 bus, which serves Dorchester, is at 87 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership. The 111 and 116 buses, which serve Revere, Chelsea, and Everett, are at 70 percent. Overall, commuter rail ridership is 20 percent its pre-pandemic level. But the Fairmount Line, which serves Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park, is at 39 percent.
From those numbers, it looks like people who must show up to work and lack other options are relying on the T. The traditional suburban commuter rail rider who can still work from home is doing that. And, given the return of traffic congestion, it looks like other suburbanites returning to work are driving.
As described by Poftak, the T’s plan for post-pandemic life is so far a series of baby steps forward — and some steps backward.
For example, the T has restarted Charlestown and Hull ferry service but won’t expand it “unless we see a real change in demand,” said Poftak. On Sunday, the T added service on the subway and some bus lines. In July, the commuter rail weekend schedule will be restored. Meanwhile, the T will discontinue a flex pass that offered passengers discounted rides. According to Poftak, that was a pilot program whose test period is ending. Meanwhile, he said the T is “trying to develop fare products that meet this market.”
During the pandemic, bus routes were adjusted to respond to commuter needs. Meanwhile, the T just launched an online survey to support a major bus network redesign that asks two questions: Does the MBTA take you where you want to go? And is riding the MBTA a good option when you need to get somewhere?
The T is working with the city of Boston to launch a free service on the 28 bus route, a busy line that runs from Mattapan Square to Grove Hall to Nubian Square. The start date, however, is unclear.
The March derailment of an Orange Line car forced the T to pull all new Orange and Red Line cars out of service. While that has not yet affected overall service, said Poftak, “we obviously have a lot of work to do to keep older vehicles running.”
Longtime critics, like at-large Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu, are unimpressed with this post-pandemic game plan. “The MBTA continues to fall short,” said Wu in a telephone interview. “This is a moment in our city’s economic growth and racial justice and climate justice needs that relies on public transportation to be accessible and expanding, not just barely making it by.”
What should concern the Baker administration is that business leaders agree with that assessment.
“We need to position the system so it’s better than it was pre-pandemic,” Rick Dimino, the president and CEO of A Better City, which represents more than 100 business leaders, said in a telephone interview. The T, he said, “needs to lean in now to enhance and expand the system.”
To business leaders, Dimino said, leaning in means transitioning from the old rush hour concept to a more flexible schedule that aligns with a new post-pandemic hybrid work model. He said the T needs to commit to a regional rail system that transforms the current commuter rail to better, more frequent service. The needs in the Seaport District are not being met, and a Red-Blue Line connector is key. Business leaders also want to see greater commitment to greenhouse gas reduction and planning for climate change, especially on the Blue Line.
Poftak, however, insists, “The T is in a good spot. . . . We are ready to welcome people back. We are ready to be a key element of community recovery.”
That depends on the meaning of “ready” — and on what kind of communities we want to emerge after the pandemic.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.