Traffic is back in greater Boston as pandemic restrictions lift, yet the MBTA is noticeably slower to return. Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, says that’s a problem, and he joined Aaron Schachter on Morning Edition Wednesday to discuss why it’s vital to get public transportation ridership back.
“Greater Boston only works when we have a transit system that works,” he said. “The beauty of our economy is bringing smart people together in small spaces, and that requires a well-functioning and healthy transit system.”
Dempsey said while the total vehicles traveled in the state by car is almost back to 2019 numbers, MBTA ridership is still only a fraction of what’s normal. And, there are differences among those modes. Buses are back up to about 50% ridership, a reflection that many of those riders don't own vehicles, yet the commuter rail, which serves many white collar workers who still work from home, is still at 20% of its 2019 ridership.
Even if you don’t live in Boston or take public transportation, you should care about those numbers, according to Dempsey, who stressed the importance of public transport for the environment and economy.
“I don't think anyone wants a future where we're all just getting in a car every day and creating more and more congestion on our roads, more emissions that impact local air pollution, more carbon emissions,” he said. “We want people to ride the T, and I don't think we should be shy about saying that.”
What makes the Massachusetts economy special, Dempsey said, is its knowledge base, which needs public transportation to thrive.
WATCH: Chris Dempsey on the future of the commuter rail
How do you get people back on trains after a pandemic? Dempsey said creative solutions like discounted fares and flexible passes could help, and he anticipates a return of traffic congestion, which will make the commuter rail more appealing.
At the end of the month, the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is set to dissolve. The oversight board was created after the winter of 2015, when snow crippled the MBTA. Dempsey said he is hoping that municipalities in Boston that rely on the MBTA have representation on the board, and is advocating for more direct involvement from Beacon Hill.
“We also want to see a healthy number of appointees from the governor and even from the legislature, because ultimately we want some direct ownership over the system,” he said, hoping that a new board will be in place before the month ends. “We don't want everyone pointing the finger at somebody else for why things are not working. … If we get that right, we'll have a brighter future for transit.”