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  • MBTA Systemwide Passenger Survey, 2015–17

    Since 1993, the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) of the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has been conducting systemwide passenger surveys on behalf of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). CTPS conducted the last MBTA systemwide survey in 2008 and 2009. Prior to that, the last comparable survey had been conducted between 1993 and 2000. CTPS conducted the most recent survey between October 2015 and May 2017. In March of 2018, the MBTA publicly released the results of this survey.

    Outreach materials in spanish and english for the online and printed survey.
    Outreach materials for the
    online and printed survey.

    “The MBTA is federally required to collect demographic, travel, and fare payment information about its passengers every five years,” said Katie Pincus Stetner, Manager of the Transit Analysis and Planning group at CTPS. “This survey fulfills that requirement and provides the data required for service planning, ridership analysis, and Title VI equity analyses. The survey information is critical for analyzing whether the MBTA is unintentionally discriminating against minority or low-income passengers when it makes service or fare changes.”

    “The systemwide passenger survey is the most extensive survey of MBTA passengers in terms of services and modes,” said Pincus Stetner, whose team surveyed passengers on all modes with the goal to achieve statistically significant results by bus route, ferry line, and rapid transit and commuter rail station.

    To reduce the cost and time associated with conducting a survey of this magnitude, the MBTA extensively publicized and opened an online version of the survey prior to the distribution of printed surveys. The 2015–17 survey represented the first time that respondents could complete the survey online without receiving a printed version. In 2008–09, to obtain the link to the online version, a passenger first had to receive a printed copy that included a unique serial number. According to Pincus Stetner, “We began collecting responses online to reduce the costs of staff time needed to distribute and enter data from paper surveys. The online software that we used for the survey also gave us the ability to limit the questions that people saw and only show appropriate answer sets based on their answers to previous questions, which also helped reduce data cleaning time.”

    A screenshot of the online survey.
    An example of the online survey.

    When the response rate to the online survey slowed, CTPS distributed the printed surveys at stations/stops and on vehicles, while the online survey remained active. CTPS and the MBTA undertook additional outreach efforts to publicize the survey and emphasize that the survey should be completed only once, either online or on paper. The project team distributed more than 100,000 printed surveys throughout the system, down from 239,275 in 2008–09, and collected approximately 35,000 completed surveys. Approximately one-half of the 35,000 completed responses were obtained via the online form, cutting down significantly on the costs of printing and the time needed for data entry.

    An example of the printed english survey form.
    The printed English survey form.

    The survey asked respondents to provide information about their most recent one-way trip taken on the MBTA, how they paid for their trip, and their demographic information. Respondents were instructed to include information about each service used in the reported MBTA trip. Consequently, each completed survey provided a sample of ridership on one or more MBTA services, or multiple trip links. The 35,000 responses represented approximately 56,000 individual trip links on the MBTA system.

    The information for each route or station used on the trip was included in the summarized results for that mode. For example, a passenger taking a route 73 bus to Harvard Square, then transferring to the Red Line at Harvard Station and alighting at Park Street Station was counted as a passenger on (1) the 73 bus route, (2) Harvard Station on the Red Line, and (3) Park Street Station on the Red Line. This made it possible to obtain much larger samples than in prior surveys for each mode relative to the number of surveys distributed and returned.

    A screenshot of the interactive survey application.
    The interactive survey application allows users to explore
    the results of the 2015-17 survey.

    Pincus Stetner and her team also made advances in compiling and presenting the survey data. In the past, CTPS had compiled survey results in numerous tables in a final report, which was distributed as a PDF file. “We wanted to provide the results in a more usable format, both to make the data readily accessible and to increase awareness of the survey results. We developed an interactive website to present the results where users can explore, sort, filter, and download the data,” she said. Transportation professionals, academic researchers, and members of the public can compare demographic, travel, and fare payment data across all modes using the online tool. Pincus Stetner said that, “There has been a lot of interest in the survey results, and we have gotten a very positive response to the website in particular. People appreciate its interactive features and have found it easy to use.”


    Below are a few highlights from the MBTA Systemwide Passenger Survey, 2015–17.


    Key Results: 2015–17 Survey

    Why People Use the MBTAA graph showing common trip purposes.
    The most common trip purpose reported was travel from home to work or work to home. Overall, 72.9 percent of trips were for commuting purposes.




    Choosing Different Means of TravelA graph showing common alternative means of travel.
    Approximately 55 percent of all survey respondents reported that they sometimes made the same trip described in the survey by another means of travel. The most common alternatives were using a different MBTA service (46.4 percent) and driving alone (23.2 percent).



    Getting to and from MBTA ServiceGraph showing common modes of acces.
    Overall, walking or bicycling accounted for 85.6 percent of the initial access trips to or final egress trips from an entire MBTA trip.



    Paying for TripsGraph showing common fare types.
    The most common method of fare payment reported was some form of monthly pass, at 72.8 percent overall. The fare results differ from the percentage of fare payment types recorded by the MBTA’s automated fare collection system. The survey results show larger percentages of respondents using monthly and 7-day LinkPasses than does the automated fare collection system, suggesting a bias toward frequent passengers.


    AgeA graph showing the age range of riders.
    39.3 percent of respondents reported their age as between 22 to 34. This age range had the largest share of responses from bus, rail rapid transit, and Silver Line riders.




    IncomeGraph showing income classification of riders.
    Household incomes of less than $43,500 were classified as low income. Twenty-nine percent of respondents were low-income. This percentage was largest among bus riders (41.6 percent) and lowest among boat riders (3.7 percent) and commuter rail riders (6.8 percent). This was the least-answered question on the survey, with 4 percent leaving it blank and 17 percent checking “Prefer not to say.”


    Minority Classification of Riders A graph showing minority classification of riders by mode.
    Two questions in the survey were used to determine minority status: “How do you self-identify by race?” and “Are you Hispanic or Latino/Latina?” Respondents who checked any race other than White or checked “Yes” for Hispanic Latino/Latina were classified as minority. Those who checked only “White” for race and checked “No” for Hispanic Latino/Latina were classified as nonminority. All other respondents provided insufficient information to be classified as minority or nonminority. The systemwide survey minority percentage was 34 percent. The minority percentage was largest on buses (48.1 percent) and smallest on commuter rail (14.6) and ferries (1.7 percent).


    A graphic showing the cover of the study report.



    Learn More

    To see detailed information about the survey results, download the 2015–17 MBTA Systemwide Passenger Survey report from the CTPS website or visit the interactive website.