It’s Time for the MBTA to Actively Engage Riders to Understand Their Commuting Plans

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CommonWealth’s recent story, “Pollack floats idea of slowing commuter rail makeover,” cited the precipitous drop in commuter rail mTicket revenue, from $331,341 collected on March 4 to $1,192 collected on April 15. When Governor Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to close effective March 24 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, working from home became a necessity, and it may have triggered a long-term shift in suburbanites’ commuting habits.

According to a 2009 study by the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. It has been 63 days since Baker’s order.

The MBTA had a grand vision for commuter rail with a long-term plan to electrify large swaths of the network. The flagship Worcester/Framingham line was slated to have continued improvements and more capacity because the forthcoming I-90 Allston Multimodal megaproject would snarl turnpike traffic for up to a decade.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said, “it’s unclear how soon ridership will rebound even if the economy reopens,” and intimated that improvement projects would be slowed down, according to the article.

Some level of clarity is needed now.

Will suburban commuters jump back on those trains when the governor gives the green light for businesses to reopen, or will their commutes continue to be from the kitchen to the dining room table? Predicting that is no easy task, but developing a reasonable estimate of the potential change in ridership is key for planning system improvements.

Here’s a thought. The MBTA has access to the email addresses and ticket purchase history of thousands of commuter rail riders through the mTicket app, which allows riders to purchase tickets and have them displayed on their phones for conductors to check. Those email addresses may prove invaluable.

The MBTA should conduct a survey of mTicket app users regarding their future plans. Some may never work in offices again. Some will certainly do some workdays in the office and some at home. Others will be in offices and back to business as usual at some point.

Using their responses, the T can calculate ridership and determine projected revenue in a fairly precise way based on each respondent’s purchase history. While many are uncertain of their future plans, ongoing surveys could provide the MBTA with the information they made to make sound planning decisions.