Common Connections

The Importance of Public Transportation for College Students and Seniors in Massachusetts

College students and senior citizens account for more than one out of every five Massachusetts residents and share a need for high-quality alternatives to driving—particularly public transportation.


MASSPIRG Education Fund


College students and senior citizens account for more than one out of every five Massachusetts residents and share a need for high-quality alternatives to driving—particularly public transportation.

Public transportation benefits students, seniors, their families, and the Commonwealth as a whole. With the Bay State projected to house 600,000 more seniors (age 65 or older) in 2030 than in 2000—and with today’s young people increasingly seeking new transportation alternatives—the time has come for Massachusetts to reinvest in its public transportation systems.

Public transportation benefits college students, seniors, and the Commonwealth.

• Public transportation can save money for students and seniors by reducing or eliminating the cost of owning and maintaining a car. Transportation accounts for a greater share of household expenditures for people 25 and under than for any other age group, while the costs of owning a car can be a financial burden for seniors living on a fixed income.

• Public transportation links students and seniors to jobs, health care and community activities. An informal survey of 1,373 Massachusetts college students by MASSPIRG Student Chapters found that, of students with jobs, 48 percent use public transportation to get to their jobs very often or sometimes. Meanwhile, transit can provide seniors with a means to remain engaged in their communities, countering the isolation that often comes with aging.

• Public transportation helps students and seniors stay independent, reducing the burden on parents, children or other caregivers to provide rides to classes, jobs or medical appointments.

• Public transportation promotes safety and better health. Drivers under 20 years of age and those over 80 years of age are statistically the most likely to be involved in accidents, imposing costs on other drivers and the Commonwealth. Public transportation is safer than driving and research shows that the simple act of walking to a transit stop can help people meet minimum daily guidelines for physical activity. 

• Public transportation also eases congestion and reduces demand for parking, particularly near college campuses. Transit service can eliminate the need to build costly new campus parking structures, reduce traffic congestion in and around campuses, and alleviate tensions that often arise between colleges and surrounding communities around issues such as “overflow” parking in residential areas. 

• These benefits are in addition to the many other benefits transit delivers to the entire Commonwealth, including:

o Saving oil and reducing global warming pollution. In 2006, Massachusetts transit services saved 153 million gallons of oil and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 1.2 million metric tons.

o Curbing traffic congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, public transportation in the Boston, Worcester and Springfield areas saved more than 33 million hours of time wasted in traffic—worth $751 million—in 2009.

o Improved quality of life. Public transportation is woven into the fabric of life in Massachusetts, providing Bay State residents with transportation choices and supporting healthy and economically vibrant communities.

Massachusetts’ regional transit authorities (RTAs) provide an important service for students and seniors, who make up a sizeable share of their customer base. Funding constraints, however, are preventing the RTAs from achieving their full potential.

• At least 550,000 college students and seniors live in Census block groups within one-quarter mile of bus routes served by 11 of the Commonwealth’s RTAs – a rough measure of the accessibility of transit stops. These figures do not count students and seniors served by greater Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

• The service areas of several Massachusetts RTAs are more densely populated with students and seniors than the Commonwealth at large. Students account for 12 percent of those living in block groups within a quarter-mile of a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus route (compared to their 8 percent share of the Massachusetts population), while seniors account for 26 percent of those living a similar distance away from Cape Cod Transit Authority routes (compared with 13 percent of the overall population).

• Students and seniors represent a large share of some RTAs’ ridership. A rider survey in the northern part of the Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority’s service area found that students made up 76 percent of all riders when school is in session, while a survey by the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority in the Fall River-New Bedford area found that 25 percent of riders were seniors or disabled.

• Lack of sufficient operating funding has kept RTAs from fully serving the needs of students and seniors. Many RTAs cut service and/or raised fares in the late 2000s in the face of stagnant state financial support. 

• College students have identified many shortcomings with transit service in their areas. The MASSPIRG Student Chapters survey found that, of students who drive or get a ride to school, 31 percent do not take transit because there is no service available near their home, while 21 percent said that the transit trips take too long.

The demand for quality public transportation service in the Commonwealth is growing and will continue to grow among both the old and the young.

• The number of passenger trips taken via RTA transit services increased by 16 percent between 2005 and 2009. Transit ridership has continued to increase in 2010 and early 2011 – despite sluggish economic growth. 

• The number of seniors in the Commonwealth is poised to increase dramatically in the next two decades as the Baby Boom generation retires. Massachusetts is projected to see a net gain of 600,000 seniors (age 65 or older) between 2000 and 2030, including an increase of 260,000 residents older than 75 years of age. These older residents will increasingly demand transportation alternatives, including public transportation.

• Evidence is mounting of a long-term change in consumer preferences in housing and transportation nationwide. Demand for multi-family housing, particularly in areas with shorter commutes, walkable neighborhoods and proximity to urban centers, is on the rise. Today’s young people are more likely to see transit and other transportation alternatives as necessary parts of a livable community than previous generations.

Public transportation is a lifeline for Massachusetts’ students and seniors, providing access to jobs and economic opportunity, saving money, and making the Commonwealth a safer and more attractive place to live. To maximize the benefits of public transportation, Massachusetts should:

• Increase revenue for public transportation operations over the long-term—The Commonwealth should identify additional sources of revenue that can enable the state’s transit agencies to function appropriately today and expand to meet the needs of tomorrow, while also ensuring that transportation spending is distributed equitably across the Commonwealth.

• Enlist public and private institutions in supporting transit—The Commonwealth should explore ways to have public and private institutions contribute to the financial support of transit – including through universities’ purchase of transit passes for their students and staff and the use of value capture or other mechanisms to generate revenue from private businesses that benefit from transit investments. 

• Explore new ways to provide transit service to college students and seniors—Transit agencies around the country have experimented with new ways to provide transit service to targeted populations, including students and seniors. As the number of seniors “aging in place” increases in coming years – with many of those seniors aging in suburban areas that are difficult for conventional transit services to reach – transit agencies must identify ways to serve those individuals in an efficient and cost-effective manner.