Study: Mass. Residents In Gateway Cities Are Priced Out Of Public Transit

Download Audio
The long and so far fruitless effort to bring steady wireless service to tens of thousands of MBTA commuter rail riders has taken an uncertain turn. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A commuter rail train speeds by. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A new study from MassINC finds that many residents in the state's gateway cities can't afford to use the commuter rail — and in effect lack access to major job centers and economic opportunities elsewhere in the state.

The study looked at access to commuter rail service in Massachusetts' gateway cities — defined by state law as midsize municipalities where the median household income and rates of a bachelor's degree (or above) are below the state average.

The study finds that commuter rail fares make up a larger percent of median household incomes in gateway cities than in more affluent suburbs closer to Boston. For example, the cost of traveling to Boston from Fall River is $4,656 yearly — about 15% of the city's median household income — compared to Winchester, where the cost of riding the commuter rail yearly amounts to just 2% of the city's median household income.

These costs put the commuter rail out of reach for many lower income residents in gateway cities, the study noted. For example, just 7% of those who board the Lynn commuter rail station are low-income residents, even though they make up two-thirds of the residents in the area, the study found.

"We have this really great resource and piece of infrastructure that the entire state pays for, that a lot of people cannot use because it is very cost prohibitive," study co-author Tracy Corley said in a phone interview.

The study noted that some residents end up riding buses to the end of commuter rail lines when they can't avoid taking the train and in turn, have longer travel times and even higher transportation costs, according to the report.

(Courtesy MassINC)
(Courtesy MassINC)
(Courtesy MassINC)
(Courtesy MassINC)

The report recommends that the MBTA take a deeper look at implementing lower fares on the commuter rail for some riders — including experimenting with income-based fares, reducing fares for off-peak travel times and decreasing fares for people who commute away from Boston.

"The goal should be to get more people onto the trains as possible so that we can boost service reliability and availability, so that more people can be using the train not just to commute into downtown Boston, but to get around our entire state," Corley said.

The study argues that the MBTA could generate more revenue for the commuter rail by getting people who aren't using the service now on the system. The study points to the MBTA's pilot program that offered unlimited commuter rail rides for $10 on the weekends as an example of how a new fare structure that increased revenue. The goal of the pilot was to boost ridership on trains that were mostly empty. The $10 weekend fares have since become permanent.

The MBTA is currently looking at income-based fares for commuter rail trips as part of a "means-tested fares feasibility" study, said spokeswoman Lisa Battiston. The results of that study are expected in December. The transit agency is also examining reduced fares for off-peak travel and trips going away from Boston as part of a commuter rail zone study, Battiston said. Those study results are expected in March 2020.

WBUR's Jack Lepiarz spoke with MassINC's Ben Forman about the study. Hit the audio button atop the post to hear their Morning Edition conversation.

This segment aired on September 5, 2019.


Headshot of Zeninjor Enwemeka

Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



More from WBUR

Listen Live