"MBTA gives itself high grades for reliability"

November 22, 2017

T Riders Union and organizer Kimberly Barzola were mentioned in the article of WCVB

Source: http://www.wcvb.com/article/mbta-gives-itself-high-grades-for-reliability/13861863

Report by: Mark Beaudet

The MBTA is giving itself high grades these days – mostly A’s actually -- for subway reliability. That prompted 5 Investigates to go underground, into the subway system, to see if there might be some grade inflation going on at the T. 

It’s the morning rush on the MBTA, and Geoff Whaley is navigating his way from South Boston to the Back Bay. On this particular day, he picked the subway over the bus.

“I just want to get to work at 9 in the morning; that's what I care about,” Whaley said. “You know, I live 2 miles from where I work and I have to leave an hour, an hour and half to get there.”

Whaley made the right choice. He arrived early. But his social media posts on Twitter show a frustrating pattern of problems.

“I can arrive anywhere from now, which is about 8:20-8:25, to 9:15-9:30, and that's all leaving between 7:45 and 8 at Andrew [station],” he said. Whaley is skeptical when he looks at the MBTA performance dashboard online and sees reliability scores higher than 90 percent on the Red Line. 

“For those of us that are riding on a day-to-day basis, it's never running 90 percent,” he said. “Today might be 92 percent, but yesterday it's 70 percent. It's never that high.”

The T’s performance dashboard puts overall subway reliability at 88 percent during the past month. The commuter rail scores 83 percent, and bus reliability trails behind at 66 percent.

5 Investigates teamed up with Northeastern University journalism students to ride the rails and track passenger posts and hashtags on social media.

“There's one who said, ‘Worst commute in a long time,’” said student Melissa McNickles, looking at one of the posts. “He's looking really sad. That was the Red Line.” 

Sometimes there are delays. Sometimes it's smooth sailing. It's not knowing if there's going to be a problem that's frustrating for commuters, even as they see the MBTA giving itself high marks.

Miles Taylor, 17, has ridden every inch of the MBTA's subway lines, as well as every bus route.

“The one [bus] goes from Harvard Square to Dudley Station,” he said, as 5 Investigates randomly quizzed him on where the T’s numbered bus routes begin and end. 

Taylor writes a blog called “Miles on the MBTA” and considers himself a T expert.

He praised the overall quality of the sprawling MBTA system but quickly added, “It can be sketchy a lot of the time, especially at rush hour.”

It's not just riders who wonder if the T is painting a rosy picture.

The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MassPIRG, released a report recently questioning how the MBTA calculates reliability.

The report was critical of the MBTA for measuring reliability by the time passengers wait for the next subway to get to the station but not on overall passenger travel time.

Under the T’s methodology, the subway is still considered reliable even when passengers can't get on a crowded car and are forced to wait for the next train.

5 Investigates asked MassPIRG staff attorney Matt Casale if he thinks the MBTA’s numbers are misleading.

“I think that the way they're perceived by the public makes them seem misleading,” he said. “Ninety percent looks good, it sounds good and I think it's packaged as a good number. But I think it’s important to incorporate overall travel time.”

Kimberly Barzola is with the T Riders Union, which pushes for improvements on the MBTA. She is skeptical about the T’s reliability scores.

"The main issues the riders have come to us talking about [are] reliability, affordability and accessibility," Barzola said. "If I see every time I get on the bus that it's late, by like 15 minutes, then that's kind of where my understanding of reliability comes from."

Marc Ebuna is the founder of TransitMatters.

“It's difficult for the T to gain that trust when the public feels that the numbers they're reporting are not aligned with their personal experience,” Ebuna said. “I do think there are issues with the way the T is measuring that data and presenting it to riders as it is today.

“While the trains may be 90 percent reliable, the experience of riders is not 90 percent reliable because of when people are traveling.”

5 Investigates sat down with Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of strategic operations at the MBTA, and suggested that when people see “90 percent” reliability on the performance dashboard, they probably think the MBTA got an A.

“Yeah, I think that is part of our struggle.” Paget-Seekins said. “We're trying to figure out how to sort of communicate this. Ninety percent doesn't mean an A on this measure. Ninety percent means that 1 in 10 trips, someone could experience a delay, and that's something that needs to be improved.”

“If you think about it, that's a lot of passengers,” she said. “Ten percent of our ridership on the subways is a lot of people, and we want to make sure people aren't experiencing delays on a regular basis."

Paget-Seekins told 5 Investigates the T does measure travel time and is hoping to make that data easily accessible to the public on the performance dashboard.

The T also surveys its customers about reliability. In the most recent survey less than half – 49 percent – called it reliable.


Reporting for this investigation was done as part of a seminar on investigative reporting taught by 5 Investigates' Mike Beaudet, who is also a journalism professor at Northeastern University. The following students participated in the project: Zach Ben-Amots, Danae Bucci, Tong Chen, Joseph Cusack, Jess DeWitt, Jiyi Liu, Melissa McNickles, Sheldia Papa, and Calli Remillard