Public Transit vs. Rideshare Companies – Ridership Numbers at Stake

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

With the growth of rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, and other market-based transportation options, many transit providers have seen their ridership decrease. However, there is the potential for transit and these other services to complement each other, enhancing transportation access and mobility for all.

Morgane Matthews drives for Safr, a ridesharing company that focuses on providing safe transportation to women and good jobs for its drivers. (WBUR)

In many large, populated urban areas, mass transit has historically thrived. This could be changing with the popularity of other ride options. A New York Times headline in 2017 asked: “Is Uber Helping or Hurting Mass Transit?” A recent research study by three economists examined a similar question: “Is Uber a substitute or complement for public transit?” The answers to these questions are complicated.

A recent analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that transit ridership is falling in many of the top 50 transit markets in the U.S. and that over the decade nationally, excluding the New York metro area where ridership had been continuing to grow, transit ridership fell 7%. The latest news from New York, reported in the New York Times last month, is that transit ridership is now falling there as well, and dropped 2% between 2015 and 2017.

At the national level, the CRS found two main factors that impact ridership trends. The first is access to transit service. Nationally, the amount of transit provided and areas served has been expanding. However, at the same time, average fares have been increasing faster than inflation, deterring riders who are most sensitive to fare changes and limiting their ability to take transit. The second factor impacting ridership levels is the competition from other travel modes, including driving, using rideshare companies such as Lyft and Uber, car sharing companies such as Zipcar, and bicycling and walking.  Some people choose these other modes because they find them more convenient and more reliable than taking public transit.

In Boston, the MBTA saw its total number of transit trips fall 6% for bus routes and 2% for rail lines, in fiscal year 2017 compared to the previous year. As discussed in the Boston Globe, these overall decreases masked passenger increases in some parts of the system, such as on the subways during rush hours, and with some buses serving Chelsea and northeast Boston. Most of the ridership decline occurred during off-peak and weekend travel times when service is less frequent and potentially less convenient.

In 2017, the Boston region’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) conducted a survey of 1,000 rideshare company passengers. When survey participants were asked how they would have made their current trip if a rideshare option was not available, 42% say they would have taken transit. Some of this transit substitution takes place during commuter rush hours and the MAPC estimated that 12% of all rideshare trips during the morning or afternoon commute periods are substituting for a transit trip. The MAPC study also found that the highest frequency of rideshare trips occurred during the hours between 7 p.m. and midnight, when transit service runs less frequently.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) oversees TNCs and TNC driver and vehicle requirements in the Commonwealth. A DPU website provides rideshare statistics statewide and for counties, cities, and towns, by starting location. In 2017, TNCs provided 64.8 million rideshare trips starting in Massachusetts (178,000 per day on average). To put TNC use into perspective, there were more than 408 million public transit trips statewide (1.1 million per day) in the same year, and each day, more than 5 million vehicles travel over 154 million miles on all roads across Massachusetts.

The DPU data show that over half (54%) of the TNC trips statewide started in Boston and that TNC services are predominantly utilized by residents in urban areas. In addition to Boston, the communities with the greatest number of TNC trips were Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Newton.  Cambridge had the most TNC usage per capita, with 64 trips per person per year. Outside of the Boston metro area, Nantucket had the greatest number of trips per person, 18 trips per year. In Western Massachusetts, Amherst and Hadley had the highest trips per person per year with 8 each. These locations have a high percentage of people without their own cars which could help explain these data.

TNCs do impact and take market share from public transit because of transit schedules, and the places and times transit provides service, are not always meeting the demands of the market and transit is not always convenient for riders. At the same time, TNC services have the potential to complement transit. The economic research study mentioned at the start of this article on whether Uber complements transit service examined 196 metropolitan areas with Uber and transit services. The researchers examined transit ridership trends (2004-2015) in those cities and looked at how transit ridership changed from two years before Uber arrived until two years after. The study found that on average, two years after Uber arrived, the metro area’s ridership was 5 to 8% higher than it would have been otherwise. This positive impact was seen predominantly in the cities with the smallest levels of initial ridership, suggesting that the presence of Uber may have made taking transit in those cities more viable, for example, by offering more flexible transportation access as well as connections to locations not directly served by transit. The researchers noted that consistent with this interpretation, after their analysis period, in 2016 and 2017, some cities partnered with Uber to have Uber supplement their smaller transit systems. These cities included Philadelphia, Tampa, Florida, and Dublin, California.

The MBTA is currently conducting a pilot program that allows eligible paratransit customers of the MBTA’s paratransit service, The RIDE, to use taxicabs, Uber, and Lyft for subsidized trips. This option can help these customers reach their destinations more quickly and directly and can also provide them with rides at times when paratransit is not typically available. UMass Amherst Civil Engineering professor Eric Gonzales is working on a MassDOT-funded study evaluating the pilot program.

TNCs and other rideshare options can help provide transportation access to areas for which it is not feasible to provide fixed-route transit service. There is often a geographic gap, referred to as the last mile, between where fixed-route services end and people’s final destinations. One possibility for last-mile service is micro transit, which combines elements from TNCs and transit. Microtransit includes features of traditional demand-response transit, including smaller transit vehicles that serve areas off main transit corridors and can vary based on passenger needs and requests. Microtransit also incorporates TNC features such as mobile smartphone applications to improve passengers’ ease of use, and longer service hours than traditional transit, even up to 24 hours per day. Microtransit can be provided by private companies, though two micro transit companies, Chariot and Bridj, serving the Boston area left due to lack of funding. Some transit systems, including in California and Detroit, are now considering adding micro transit options themselves. With public micro transit and public-private partnerships, one benefit, in addition to better more convenient service, could be fares that are more affordable than market-rate TNC trips, allowing them to be a viable equitable option for a larger range of riders. Such options deserve more exploration as communities and transit agencies look at ways to improve transportation access and mobility.

Transportation Systems Software – Reliable and Resilient

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

A research team led by Dr. Lance Fiondella, UMTC Research Affiliate, and professor at UMass Dartmouth, studies software reliability related to various transportation systems; and has developed a quantitative approach to assess the dynamic vulnerability of transportation networks.

In September 2017, flights for many airlines worldwide were temporary disrupted when the check-in system software experienced a network glitch. (Mike Schuh/Twitter)

The role of computers in operating, optimizing, and securing transportation networks and systems has grown tremendously in the last few decades. Onboard computers help run, sometimes autonomously, individual vehicles for land, sea, and air. On a larger scale, computers assist with the monitoring of traffic and transportation infrastructure to help transportation networks operate safely and efficiently.

Unfortunately, the computers performing such tasks do not always run as intended. For example, in September 2017, the New York Times described how air travel was temporarily delayed at airports on at least four continents when airline software that manages customer reservations and check-ins for close to 200 airlines worldwide experienced network glitches. In another example, in February 2018, traffic signal lights for an estimated 600 intersections in New York City failed to work properly after a “routine software upgrade” was carried out overnight. CBS news reported that some signal lights became flashing red lights and others went completely dark. Drivers, pedestrians, and others traveling through those intersections needed to exercise extra caution until the impacted traffic lights were fixed; over 99% of the lights were fixed within 18 hours.

Dr. Lance Fiondella, UMTC Research Affiliate and a professor at UMass Dartmouth in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, conducts research on software reliability engineering, and transportation. The American National Standards Institute defines software reliability as the probability of failure-free operation for a certain amount of time in a certain environment. Unlike hardware, software does not fail due to physical flaws and wear, but due to design flaws, which as described in the Handbook of Software Reliability Engineering (Michael Lyu, editor), can be harder than hardware flaws to visualize, detect, and correct.

Dr. Fiondella and his Ph.D. student Vidhyashree Nagaraju authored a chapter in the recently published Handbook of RAMS in Railway Systems: Theory and Practice. RAMS stands for Reliability, Availability, Maintainability, and Safety, and Fiondella and their chapter focused on software reliability in RAMS management. As the chapter describes, “In the context of railway systems, software reliability is important in critical applications such as dynamic control of safe separation between trains in railway signaling, railway interlocking systems, monitoring and real-time control software, and hardware control software.” The chapter presents different software reliability models, discussing their mathematical formulation, the underlying assumptions, and procedures to fit these models to failure data obtained during testing with examples from the research literature. The chapter also provides a web link to an open source software failure and reliability tool created at Fiondella’s lab that implements many of the concepts discussed in the chapter.

Dr. Fiondella and his team have also developed a quantitative approach to assess the dynamic vulnerability of transportation networks. The approach uses methods from traffic simulation and incorporates traffic demand and congestion changes as a function of time, including the peaks in traffic volumes by time of day and for community activities such as large sporting events or other gatherings. Fiondella and his students, including lead author Ph.D. student Venkateswaran Shekar, presented a research paper describing this approach at the 2017 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security, along with a series of examples. The paper stated that “this approach can quantify the time-varying criticality of [network] links, which can inform network defense and resilience planning. Because pervasive deployment of defenses is prohibitively expensive, identifying how the vulnerability of links changes over time will provide greater insight, enabling quantitative assessment of competing for defense strategies to preserve continuity of travel time reliability within a transportation network despite disruptions.”

Fiondella is currently part of a MassDOT sponsored project, multi-campus (Lowell, Dartmouth, and Amherst) UMass research team studying the use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs, commonly referred to as drones) for surface transportation applications. This study is being sponsored by MassDOT.  Fiondella’s project task includes researchers from UMass Dartmouth and UMass Lowell and focuses on the security of UAS systems and data. As described in the study proposal, “there is an urgent need to ensure that UASs are engineered with sufficient security to withstand and recover from inevitable cyber-attacks.” The researchers are conducting a detailed literature search and synthesis on state-of-the-art secure UAS engineering techniques including compliance with national and international standards. The results from this work and the other project tasks will be used to help develop a pilot program for using UASs at MassDOT.

Fiondella recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award and multi-year grant for his research on Software Reliability and Security Assessment: Modeling and Algorithms.


Safety with a Rumble

by Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator

Centerline rumble strips have been shown to reduce lane departure crashes by as much as 25% on rural roads, and are now being installed on undivided, rural, two-lane highways in Massachusetts as appropriate.

The sinusoidal rumble strip uses a wave-shaped rumble strip to create the noise and vibration necessary to alert the driver. (Road and Bridges, 4/3/2017)

Improving safety, at a low-cost, can reduce crashes and save lives. In the U.S., 60% of crashes on rural roads result in a fatality. Of these fatal crashes, approximately 90% are on two-lane roads. Lane departure crashes from vehicles crossing over the centerline on undivided, two-lane, rural roads have been proven to decrease with the installation of centerline rumble strips (CLRS). This reduction can be as high as 25% along certain rural roads, and even higher when CLRS are installed along with shoulder rumble strips (SRS).

Many factors contribute to drivers crossing over the center yellow line, including speeding, fatigue, and drowsiness, and distracted driving. Some common techniques on the roads now that try to mitigate lane departures and improve safety include, but are not limited to centerline and edge line pavement lane markings, higher retroreflectivity of traffic signs (for day and nighttime visibility), and vertical reflective panels. All of these have had some success. A number of studies, however, have shown CLRS to be more effective along certain rural sections of highways, in decreasing lane departures.

The purpose of CLRS is to prevent vehicles from crashing head-on or sideswiping each other. Vehicles tend to veer outside of their lane on all types of roadways, especially on undivided, two-lane rural highways where cross-over crashes are most common. CLRS can also act as a traffic calming tool. Similar in design to the rumble strips on the shoulders of Interstates and other limited access highways, CLRS are located along the centerline. With either placement, the objective of the rumble strips is to alert inattentive drivers that they are veering outside of their lane, and ideally help them correct this action before a crash occurs.

The main reason for CLRS’ effectiveness is their design, specifically the vibrations and noise when tires cross over them. However, this noise has also been a major reason why CLRS are not used on more roads. Abutters and businesses have complained about CLRS being too loud as vehicles cross over them. California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) and Minnesota DOT (MnDOT) have conducted research on creating effective, quieter CLRS. MnDOT has developed the sinusoidal wave-shaped rumble strip. Some study results have shown a decrease in noise levels outside the vehicle, as vehicles cross over these sinusoidal rumble strips, while the CLRS still maintain the effectiveness by alerting drivers of lane departures. In addition to noise, another concern of CLRS is the potential reduction of visibility of the centerline yellow strip, though, in a survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, some respondents reported that the visibility of the centerline yellow strip in the rain was better over CLRS than on flat pavement.

MassDOT, along with other DOTs, continues to develop and implement CLRS on their rural, undivided, two-lane highways. MassDOT currently considers implementing CLRS on an as needed basis. Decisions about where to install CLRS are based on a couple of variables, including lane departure crash data and land use (regarding the noise factor). As discussed with Bonnie Polin, MassDOT Highway Division Manager of Highway Safety, CLRS were recently included in a paving project along sections of Route 140 in Gardner and Winchendon. CLRS are easier and more cost effective to install when a roadway is being re-paved as was the case along Route 140. As MassDOT updates its Strategic Highway Safety Plan, CLRS are referenced as a safety measure to prevent lane departures.  MassDOT will continue to support and install CLRS on their secondary roads, where appropriate.



Listening Session on Transit, and Active Transportation, and Mobility – A Recap

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

UMass Amherst faculty and UMTC Research Affiliates Dr. Song Gao and Dr. Eric Gonzales presented at the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation listening session on transit, active transportation, and mobility.

From left: UMass Amherst Professors Eric Gonzales and Song Gao talk with Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack and members of the Commission on the Future of Transportation at the Commission’s listening session at UMass Lowell. (UMTC)

In June, Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in Massachusetts held a listening session to discuss transit, active transportation, and mobility in Massachusetts. This session, at UMass Lowell, was the third of the Commission’s five listening sessions around the state. Each session focused on different transportation topics as the Commission gathered ideas, information and public comment that it will then incorporate into a report with recommendations for transportation investments and policies in Massachusetts for the 2020-2040 period. The report will be sent to the Governor by December 2018.

As with the other listening sessions, this session included brief presentations by UMass researchers followed by an open comment period during which members of the public could offer their suggestions and feedback on the session topic or on future transportation in Massachusetts more generally. Recording of the listening sessions can be viewed on the Commission’s website (direct link to the third session here).

Two UMTC Research Affiliates, UMass Amherst professors Song Gao and Eric Gonzales, presented at this listening session. Gonzales opened his remarks by discussing that when thinking about transit services, it’s important to not only consider specific routes and schedules, but the larger picture of the benefits individuals and society can receive with transit services, including increased mobility and efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reduced environmental impacts. He noted too that active transportation modes, such as walking and biking, can also achieve these same benefits. Gonzales then briefly reviewed the history of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts, including highways and the MBTA subway system, noting how investments in infrastructure can have impacts long beyond the 20-year time horizon on which the Commission is focusing, and should be considered in that context.

Gonzales also spoke about transit’s important role as “a tool for social equity and for inclusion, providing mobility to people across the socioeconomic spectrum, age, and physical ability.” He mentioned challenges for transit, including providing bus access in spread-out rural and suburban areas, but also opportunities. These opportunities could include public-private partnerships, for example, between transit agencies and ridesharing companies such as Lyft and Uber. The MBTA is currently conducting a pilot project under which MBTA paratransit customers can take get rides through Uber or Lyft as an alternative to traditional paratransit vans, to help serve these customers’ needs better; Gonzales led a MassDOT-funded study to evaluate the pilot project. There are also opportunities for more integrated services with the use of technology, where the different travel modes for trips can be better connected and accessed, for example, through a smartphone app that integrates bus, ride-share, and bike-share access and user payments. Gonzales mentioned that Helsinki, Finland has been working on such an integrated transportation service system.  A recent Governing magazine article discussed the push for more seamless urban mobility in Helsinki, and similar efforts underway in the U.S.

Professor Gao’s presentation followed Gonzales’ and focused on the demand for transportation services and how this demand can be better managed. For someone traveling between an origin and a destination, Gao asked questions such as: are there alternatives to making this trip, is there flexibility on when the trip occurs – for example, what time of day – and what different travel modes are feasible for this trip and this particular traveler. Gao discussed how transportation policies and pricing can shape transportation demand and people’s decisions about when and how they travel, and if there are some trips they will not take at all. Some states are using higher pricing, also referred to as congestion pricing, to deter single-occupancy vehicles from traveling during the peak times. Gao said that one concern about congestion pricing is the equity impacts since low-income people are more adversely impacted by travel cost increases than are higher-income people.

Another approach for impacting travel demand is rewarding people who make more energy-efficient travel choices, for example, deciding to use transit or bicycle to work instead of driving, or who commute at off-peak hours. Gao mentioned a study from the Netherlands that provided participants with daily monetary and other (smartphone credits) rewards to encourage them to avoid driving during the morning rush hour. The study found that 30-40% of participants changed their behavior as a result of these incentives. Gao also discussed a study that she, and colleagues at UMass Amherst and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are conducting to develop a smartphone app to provide up-to-date travel information and incentivize people to change their travel choices to conserve energy. The app, for the Boston metro area, will use real and simulated personal travel data to reward people who change their departure times, routes, modes, or vehicles based on the app’s real-time data, and thereby reduce their energy consumption. The rewards based on energy savings will be able to be redeemed at local participating vendors. Data from preliminary testing of the app show positive results in terms of reducing energy use and travel times.

During the comment period following the presentations, a number of the commenters talked about the importance of having good infrastructure for biking and walking and better connections between modes. There was also discussion about the need to provide transportation options for the “last mile” section of trips, between where fixed-route transit services end and people’s final destinations. Ridesharing companies, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) can help with those gaps.  A number of the speakers encouraged the creation of more public-private partnerships to help with last-mile service and for addressing the transportation needs of those populations, such as the elderly, disabled, and low-income, who are often underserved by current transportation options and infrastructure. Professor Gao raised the point that there are great opportunities for partnership between public transit and TNCs, but that the goals of TNCs may not always be aligned with public goals since private companies are usually seeking to maximize their profits.

Improving Safety in the Work Zone

by Courtney Murtagh, Intern, and Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

In 2015, 860 vehicle crashes in roadway work zones were reported in Massachusetts, and over 96,000 crashes in work zones nationwide. Researchers and state officials have been examining the causes, and options for reducing work zone crashes, injuries, and fatalities.

Work zone area on the MassPike during the removal of toll booths. (Boston Herald, photo credit Angela Rowlings)

With summer in full swing, we find ourselves in the midst of another road infrastructure improvement and repair season. Drivers may have noticed an increase in the number of work zones along state and town highways in Massachusetts. During these warmer months, drivers need to take extra precautions for their safety and the safety of road construction workers.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recorded a total of 765 work zone traffic fatalities nationwide in 2016, in the Fatality Analysis and Recording System (FARS). This is a 7% increase from 2015.  Many of these fatalities (83%) were of motor vehicle drivers or passengers, the remainder were pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorists. Relatedly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that there were 143 deaths of road workers at construction sites. This count overlaps with the FARS figures. Forty percent of the traffic fatalities in work zones are from rear-end collisions, as vehicles fail to slow down adequately approaching and traveling through the work zones.

According to the FHWA, there were 96,626 crashes in work zones in 2015, a 42% increase since 2013. The same study showed that nationwide there were on average 70 work zone traffic crashes with injury per day that year.

For Massachusetts, the State Police reported 860 work zone crashes for 2015. The data show that work zone crashes occur most often between May and September, during the day, and on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Drivers should be especially cautious and attentive when traveling through work zones, as construction workers may be present and as drivers may be asked to stop.

Speed limits in work zones are set according to state law. The law allows for the doubling of speeding fines in work zone areas.

In 2016, MassDOT created a Work Zone Safety Task Force to consider innovative engineering and technology-related solutions for better work zone safety. The Work Zone Task Force implemented some new safety features in work zones in 2017, including portable rumble strips, and flashing blue LED lights in work zones to simulate a police presence and get drivers to reduce their speed. Another type of technology being considered are smart cones, which communicate with construction workers to warn them when potential threats, such as a speeding or erratically driving vehicle, are approaching a work zone. A previous Innovative Outlook article discussed some of the technology options for improved work zone safety in more detail.

Another potential way to reduce work zone crashes is the ‘zipper’ merge. The zipper occurs when two lanes of traffic equally merge into one. Research conducted at UMass Amherst by Dr. Michael Knodler and Civil Engineering graduate students Alyssa Ryan and Francis Tainter has been investigating the potential use of zipper merges to help improve traffic safety. UMass Amherst’s zipper merge research was discussed in the March and April 2018 Innovative Outlook. An FHWA analysis of FARS crash fatality data found improper merging to be the second most dangerous driving maneuver, behind only inattentive driving. The zipper merge is hypothesized to improve both roadway safety and efficiency, including in work zone areas.