On the heels of another MBTA train derailment, the T announced this week that it will shut down major sections of the Orange and Red lines, as well as Green Line branches to carry out repairs throughout the fall. While the MBTA moves forward with these projects, it is important that the agency communicates clearly with its riders as it faces heightened scrutiny from its customers, the public, and the media.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been providing its services for about 122 years, America’s first subway. With 1.22M average weekly trips taken on the MBTA a lot of people rely on the T. This summer, T customers were reminded of decades of overlooked investment and updating of the train system as the MBTA dealt with intense pressure to fix its aging system.
In addition to thanking riders for their patience, apologizing for delays in service and pledging to work as quickly as possible to improve service, the MBTA faced another communications challenge as it rolled out its previously planned fare hikes during an already difficult summer for riders. On March 11, 2019 the fare proposal was approved by the Fiscal and Management Control Board. To its credit, the T made it very hard to not know about the new fare hike, informing riders about upcoming changes with posters at all T-stations, including the digital boards at the platforms. Without exception, subways, bus lines and fare vending machines had fliers surrounding them. All fares affected had a $0.15 to $5.50 hike. On the Official MBTA website, the agency explained why an average of 5.8% fare hike was necessary to continue with the T’s improvement plans.
Although the MBTA worked to communicate with riders about the fare hikes, a lot of people were furious, questioning why prices were being raised when the service wasn’t improving. In the Boston Globe article, “For Red Line commutes, a roll of the dice and branch determine timing” commuters gave insight on the displeasure they experienced every day on the Red Line. They described the stress that comes from the unpredictable daily commute, and how it affects the rest of their day at work. MBTA Commuters have lashed out through social media platforms using hashtags like #UnfairHikes, #BostonTParty and #mbtafail. Many T-riders as well as Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu have also campaigned at different T stations educating other commuters about fighting against the fare hike. Many also noted how fare hikes take a huge toll on those who earn low-wages, parents or caregivers who travel with young children, hourly workers and people with disabilities.
In response to riders’ concerns, the T is working hard to reassure customers that the revenue from the fare hikes is necessary for the agency to continue making system investments to improve service. The MBTA website includes the specifics surround their projects and improvement plans. The most popular are the Better Bus Project and the Red/Orange Line Improvement Programs. The BBP (Better Bus Project) consists of 47 proposals that focus on making duplicate routes stronger and improving space ability at stops across 63 different bus routes to provide more frequent and reliable service. The BBP also asks the public for feedback to help improve the project overall.
The MBTA has also made it clear that two improvement plans for the Orange/Red Line are in the works. Both lines will be extended and supported with new trains that come with spacious cars. In total, these plans will allow for an additional 95,000 riders between both lines per day. In addition, new digital infrastructure will replace the old signal lines for both lines. The Subway line’s Maintenance Facilities (Wellington and Cabot Yard) are also getting an upgrade to ensure the subway vehicles are stored and in better care in a safe area where more efficient maintenance will be achieved. For some, this information given by the MBTA will finally help put their minds at ease. But for others, they will take more convincing – particularly as the MBTA implements its plan to speed up its improvement work over the fall.
It is very important that the MBTA put even greater effort into communication over the next several months. They are already taking important steps to keep riders informed on the status of its services. In July, the T launched a contest that would help them choose which third-party app will receive the agency’s official endorsement. The Transit App is now featured on the Official MBTA website and helps guide commuters within the Transit system. In the future, the app will also have a built-in feature that can improve feedback with riders. It is also well known that the MBTA has a very active Twitter Page. When commuters tweet out their frustration or express concern in their commute they are quick to respond. Not everyone who tags the T into their tweets get a direct response, but they also use their Twitter for announcements and alerts. On the official website you can also sign up to receive notifications of MBTA service alert by e-mail or text message. The T’s communications ability was really put to the test throughout this hectic summer and it will continue to be an important tool to keep riders informed and engaged with their service as it speeds up improvements on its aging transit system.
Yeslim Santana is an intern with Solomon McCown & Co. through a partnership with Boston Private Industry Council.