HSPH researchers assess effect on health of proposed fare hikes in Boston area public transportation system

April 20, 2012

Fare increases and service cuts originally proposed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to counter a projected $161 million deficit in 2012 would likely have costly consequences and threaten the health of Boston area residents, according to a health impact assessment released March 13, 2012 by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) of Massachusetts. The report was conducted by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH).

On April 4, 2012 the MBTA board approved plans, effective July 1, to hold average fare increases at 23% for at least a year, to institute modest service cuts, and tap other one-time funding sources to address the budget deficit for one year. The increase was significantly less than the MBTA’s original proposal earlier this year, which had called for raising most fares an average of 35% to 43% while making deep service cuts.

The talk of possible significant fare hikes and service cuts captured the interest of researchers at HSPH and BUSPH. HSPH students Peter James, SD’12, and Mariana Arcaya, SD’13, co-authors of the report, described the findings of their two-month health impact assessment to students, faculty, and guests at a March 26 talk in the FXB building. The talk was sponsored by HealthRoots, an HSPH student group that encourages collaboration and student engagement on public health issues. Jonathan Buonocore, HSPH doctoral student in environmental health, and Jonathan Levy, adjunct professor of environmental health at HSPH and professor of environmental health at BUSPH, also were co-authors.

The researchers found that the MBTA’s original proposals for fare hikes and service cuts would have led to increased air pollution, decreased walking by commuters to transit services, and difficulty getting to medical care, contributing to an estimated 10 to 15 deaths annually, due to obesity, asthma and other conditions.

“Public transportation cuts are not traditionally seen as a health issue but they have a downstream health impact,” James told the audience. He described how the researchers gathered data for the assessment, which was funded by MAPC. The students presented their ideas to MBTA officials March 14.
“You lose a whole lot more than you gain with fare hikes and reduced service,” Arcaya, who is also public health manager at MAPC, told the group. “We need to restructure how we pay for transportation. We need a long term fix.”

The assessment was based on transportation models from the state’s Central Transportation Planning Staff and other scientific data. The researchers estimated the regional impacts of each proposal on vehicle miles traveled, time spent driving, ridership loss, and air quality.

HealthRoots member Jacob Bor, SD’14, an HSPH doctoral candidate in global health and population, said in his introduction how exciting it was to hear HSPH students describe their project. “It’s amazing work,” Bor said. “A lot of us aspire to work for change in policies. We want to become knowledgeable and better advocates,” he said, adding that the researchers’ assessment also is being used by community groups advocating on the MBTA budget issue.

On the April 4 MBTA board vote Arcaya said, “While we applaud the T for being responsive to public input and limiting service cuts, this hike will likely cut daily ridership by approximately 5.5% at a time when we should be encouraging more people to use public transit. MassDOT has done its part to find efficiencies and make other contributions towards a short-term solution; now the Legislature must do its part.”

Bor added, “While the MBTA’s revised proposal is less painful in the short run, it does not solve the longer run budget crisis. Legislative action is necessary to protect the MBTA from future cuts. Massive public outcry caused the MBTA to reduce the cuts this time. We need to keep the pressure on Governor Patrick and our state reps to commit fully to public transportation, for the health of our communities.”

The researchers urged the audience to check out the MAPC’s MBTA Budget Calculator where people can select options for fixing the MBTA’s deficit.

Read a summary, view the presentation, and read the full report of the findings

Read a Boston Globe article on the health impact assessment

Read an MBTA update on the fare increase

–Marge Dwyer