Amid a historic collapse in transit ridership, the Executive Council has approved a $5.4 million contract to design a commuter rail line from New Hampshire to Boston. The contract is financed entirely with federal money, so New Hampshire taxpayers could choose to take some comfort in knowing that the state is throwing away what is mostly other people’s money. Nonetheless, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Americans have in the past year avoided mass transit like the plague, largely because of, well, a plague of sorts. But the trends before the rise of the coronavirus show a longer decline in ridership. 

In 2020, mass transit ridership fell by 50%, according to data kept by the American Public Transit Association. Commuter rail ridership fell by 62%. 

Transit ridership nationwide has been falling for years, according to federal data. (Commuter rail ridership has increased in the last decade, thought it’s leveled off in recent years.) 

In Boston, however, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) commuter rail ridership has been in steady decline. 

The Pioneer Institute reported last year that MBTA commuter rail ridership fell by 11% (or about 4 million riders) from 2012-2018. 

In November, the MBTA reported that commuter rail was down to 13% of its normal ridership level.

Whether transit ridership will rebound to anything near its pre-COVID levels is an open question. It might. But commercial real estate rents, along with announcements by large and small companies that they are preparing to permanently switch portions of their workforce to remote work, suggest that urban work and commute patterns might forever be altered.

Again, even before the arrival of the coronavirus, technological advancements were driving declines in public transit. Ride sharing companies have given people another, more convenient way to move around cities and suburbs without relying on government-provided vehicles that travel pre-set, government-chosen routes. Those services are drawing riders away from mass transit, as this University of Kentucky study shows.

Rail is a 19th century technology that is ill-suited to solving 21st century transportation and environmental issues. The way forward is through innovation. Electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles will get people where they need to go while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and turning commute time into productive work time. They are far more versatile than trains and will serve people’s travel needs better.

That transition is already underway. And flying cars might follow, further changing the way we travel. New Hampshire doesn’t need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a train to serve a declining number of commuters when tech companies are already working on alternatives that will better serve everyone. 

3 replies
  1. JOHN E MANN says:

    When I was living in Somerville, MA and commuting to teach at Bedford, MA High School I could either:
    1. Drive Route 2 and “128” (I-95) and arrive tired.
    2. Walk 1 mile to the Red LIne at Davis Square, take subway 1 stop, wait for bus, take bus to Bedford next to the high school. While riding, go over the day’s lesson. Arrive enthusiastic and refreshed.

    Reply
  2. JOHN E MANN says:

    Traffic on I-93 during rush hour(s) is a nightmare.

    “High tech corridors” like Mass’s Route 128 (I-95) and the San Francisco – and – south region allow people to live anywhere on the corridor and work anywhere on the corridor. Thus people can easily optimize their employment opportunities and companies can optimize their staff. Why not try the same on the I-93 corridor except make it relaxing to do the daily commute?

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  3. Drew Mccal says:

    While I tend to agree with Mr. Cline on the role of government, I find presumptuous statements like “Rail is a 19th century technology…” extremely laughable.

    From the perspective of a physicist who has lived in Europe and experienced firsthand the benefits of choice in transportation providers, the underlying fundamentals of rail technology and detriments of highways are foolish to ignore. Per mile, a double tracked-railroad costs around $4 million, a comparative 4 lane highway is north of $10 million, not to mention has significantly higher maintenance costs over its lifetime.

    Now for volume, the railroad can handle 15x passenger volume and potentially higher freight volume compared to that of the highway. Those are tough fundamental numbers for electric vehicles to overcome when trying to achieve economic efficiency.

    Instead, the conversation of limited government adherents and environmentalists should be about how to best allow for privatization of highways and market forces to drive transportation decisions. In France, nearly all highways are tolled and run by private corporations. Rail would be a clear winner along many corridors, if the US government wouldn’t waste as much time mismanaging crumbling roads. The government needs to get out of the business of picking winners and losers.

    Reply

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