integrating the northeast’s transit systems

I’m on Amtrak, en route from Boston to New Haven. I’ve also been in Newark, Delaware, the Philadelphia airport, and other points along the Northeast Corridor this week. This means navigating portions of a fragmented public transportation network that is composed of long-distance train lines, commuter rail lines, subways, public buses, and even some ferries. It extends from southern Maine well into Virginia, serving a population of 50 million or more.

FromĀ, which offers a large version (of rail only)

In a way, this network is already connected. Google Maps does a fairly decent job of telling you how to get from an address in one city to an address in a different city by public transportation. Since all these transit systems take US currency, your cash or credit card enables you to move from one mode of transit to another. But because the systems don’t coordinate themselves, the whole network is less efficient, useful, and enticing than it could be.

Imagine that the various transportation networks (municipal, regional, long-distance) kept their autonomy–for political reasons and because a behemoth agency might perform worse–but they coordinated closely through a compact. It could have these features:

  1. One ticket (perhaps either a mobile phone app or a plastic card for those without smartphones) would get you from any point to any other point in this network.
  2. Prices would reflect the needs and capacities of the various components. Traveling one mile might be cheaper within one city than another. But there would be opportunities to set prices to increase ridership for everyone’s benefit. For instance, right now, Amtrak is much more expensive than commuter rail for the same itinerary. This is necessary because of Amtrak’s financing. But Amtrak trains are much faster for longer distances, so it would be better for more people to take them. If the whole system subsidized Amtrak, I think more people would ride, and net revenues would rise.
  3. The network could be enhanced where there is demand for more connectivity. For instance, right now there is only one gap in the commuter rail network that otherwise connects Richmond, VA to New London, CT. It’s 2o miles in Delaware. Whether a lot of people would travel those 20 miles by rail is an empirical question–maybe they wouldn’t. But the integrated system could test such questions and fill in the most significant gaps, wherever they are.
  4. The whole system could also invest in “intermodal” connections, places where people change from one kind of transit to another. Transfers would become a little smoother if a single ticket covered your whole journey, but there is still much need for better stations and other facilities. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 invested in such upgrades, but I can’t believe it solved the problem.
  5. The whole system could advertise, not only with generic messages about public transit, but also by delivering tailored ads to remind you that you can get from, say, my house in Cambridge, MA to a friend’s house in Washington, DC by a combination of Amtrak and subway rides.

I’m certainly for subsidizing public transportation, but it’s significant that other OECD countries actually charge transit customers more, spend proportionally less government money, and provide much better service for many more people. Once public transportation becomes a welfare good, it may be subsidized, but it is degraded. A unified northeastern system should receive federal and state support, but the ideal is a more attractive business model that encourages the riders to pay more for investments. The goal would be to get a lot more people more efficiently from A to B with a lot less carbon.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.