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Public Transit

I write in response to Mr. Ken Nesmith’s column “The MBTA, Palestine, and You” [April 29].

I applaud the individuals running the transportation network in Ramallah, under very difficult conditions, as the author points out. He neglects to mention, however, that Ramallah city has an area of approximately 20 sq km, and a population of 40,000. There are 220,000 people in all of Ramallah district. By contrast, the urbanized Boston area is 891 sq km with a population of 2.8 million (more than the entire West Bank), and the full service area of the MBTA is 3,244 sq km, with a population of 4.5 million. The approximate number of one-way trips on the MBTA is 842,000 every weekday. The operating expenses per passenger trip are less than $3, and including capital expenses, is about $4. I wouldn’t characterize that as very expensive.

I must also observe that as far as I know, there is nothing preventing private enterprise from offering a parallel transport network in Boston and the surrounding areas. The fact that they don’t suggests that it is impossible to run a profitable service at the fares currently charged by the MBTA. So to fund it, either fares must be hiked, services must be cut, or taxes must be raised. Of the three alternatives, only the last has a prayer of not hitting the poor hardest.

If you want to talk about efficiency of urban transit, there are probably better examples than Ramallah: the bus network in Mumbai, India, carries 4.7 million passengers daily, at a cost of about $180 million per year. That works out to less than 15 cents a passenger (around 75 cents on a purchasing power parity basis). The highest fares are around 25-30 cents (for distances of 25-odd km). Mumbai also has a suburban rail network that carries over 6 million passengers daily, though I can’t locate budget figures for it. The city itself has a population of about 10 million, spread over (or rather, packed into) 365 sq km, with probably 3-4 million in the surrounding suburbs. Unfortunately for the author’s thesis, of course, both the bus and rail networks in the Mumbai are operated by the public sector.

I will allow that it isn’t such a rosy picture, because the system is massively overloaded, and needs capital improvements.

Arvind Sankar G