Feedback for the MBTA


Here are my thoughts after listening to MBTA CTO David Block-Schachter.

I believe that MBTA CTO David Block-Schachter is doing the right thing by focusing on a user-centered approach when dealing with MBTA problems. I specifically appreciated that he was thinking about solutions while being cognizant of all users, such as those in deep poverty who may not have smartphones. Focusing on a better user experience not only helps those that ride on the MBTA, but it also gives David some serious firepower for justifying his projects.

However, I believe his office can do something more than just make the MBTA a more efficient and comfortable experience. His office could actually make housing around Boston more affordable. From my anecdotal experience there seems to be a correlation between rental/home prices and proximity to the T. If the MBTA could better serve areas with lower rentals, perhaps they could equalize the rental market.

I will caveat this by admitting that I’m not sure what data the MBTA tracks, but I’m assuming they do not track rental prices.

After accepting admission to the Harvard Kennedy School, one of the biggest challenges before moving to Boston was finding a place to live. The problem is, I am not your orthodox HKS student. I have a family. So I couldn’t sign up for just any housing arrangement with roommates. I needed to find an “affordable” place (whatever that means in Boston) suitable for my family: wife, two kids, a pug, and a cat. Having an extensive background in real estate–specifically researching and buying properties sight unseen–this didn’t seem too daunting.

I originally wanted to be within a 20-minute walking distance from campus, but quickly realized two things: Harvard housing is overpriced and housing around Harvard is overpriced. So I started expanding my search. I figured a 20-minute commute was the same it didn’t really matter if I walked or took the subway. Except everything within walking distance of a subway stop was just as small and expensive as the places near Harvard!

I expanded my search to basically anywhere within a few miles of Harvard, and reluctantly settled on a place in Brighton. Although the place was perfect for my family, it meant that I would have to take two buses to get to campus. But, that’s ok because the MBTA website says that it’s a 36-minute commute. And I can endure 16 extra minutes if it meant that my family was happy.

Prior to my first day of class, I had it all mapped out. Thanks to the MBTA website I knew the “optimal” time to leave my house in Brighton to take the 57, and then transfer to the 86 which drops off right in front of the Ihop across from HKS. However, from August 2016 to December 2016 was the only time I would regularly use the MBTA to get to school.

So why didn’t I keep taking bus? The problem was the transfer from the 57 to the 86. If the 57 was late or the 86 was early, then I would miss the 86 bus that would get me to school on time, and would have to wait 20+ minutes for the next 86 bus.  I would say about 55 percent of the time, I would miss the 86. This meant that my commute would take anywhere from 34 to 54 minutes, but I was still showing up five minutes late to my early class. So, to make it on-time, I would leave 15 minutes earlier to catch the earlier 57 bus, which made my commute a consistent 48-minutes, each way. This is pretty crazy when you consider the distance from Brighton to HKS is 3.7 miles, and the bus was only about 23-minutes faster than walking.

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I quickly abandoned the bus after Uber had a $2 fare in January and February 2017, lowering my commute time to somewhere between 13 and 18 minutes. Of course, I had to pay regular fares in March and April. I figure Uber saved me from about 55 hours on the bus, but it cost an extra $220 ($4 an hour).

The first thing the MBTA could do is better coordinate transfers. Or at the very least have a way to look at two estimated bus arrival times at the same time. Such as, what time the 57 would arrive at Brighton Central, at the same time, what time the 86 would arrive at Brighton Central (instead of having to look between two different routes on the app). For me, this would have made all the difference in the world in coordinating my timing, and would make it easier for me to take the bus to school.

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