The only thing what’s not expensive is the bus: When No. 28 arrives at the stop, Hurd hoists his little metal shopping cart through the back door and enters without paying for a fare. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he said of the free bus service. “We need more.”
Hurd’s bus route is part of a bold experiment unfolding in Boston with echoes across the country. Michelle Wu, the city’s newly elected mayor, has made free public transit a rallying cry and a personal mission, calling it a tool for social justice and the fight against climate change.
“It’s part of our heritage as a city, to really invest in how our futures are interconnected,” Wu said in an interview. “If we’re serious about climate justice and racial equity and mobility, then removing barriers to public transportation…would be a big step forward.”
Boston isn’t the only place to experiment with free public transit. More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the concept is having a moment across the United States, thanks in part to federal stimulus funds and a desire to attract passengers. Nationally, ridership is only 63% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
After Kansas City, Missouri stopped collecting fares on its transit system in 2020, it experienced a smaller drop in ridership than other cities during the pandemic and safety incidents declined, according to an analysis. Albuquerque, Richmond and Olympia, Washington also offer free public transportation. Los Angeles recently implemented two years of free fares for students through 12th grade.
Proponents of free transportation say it increases ridership, discourages car use, and provides better access to jobs and education, especially for low-income residents and communities of color. The main challenge is how to pay for it, especially in large cities where fares make up a good portion of transit revenue.
Art Guzzetti, APTA vice president, said current pilots should be watched closely and what works for one city might not work for another. Public transit is the “great social equalizer,” he said. “The question is, should the runner not pay anything, regardless of their means?”
Boston’s Wu became the concept’s most prominent evangelist. When she ran for mayor last fall, Wu memorably promised to “free the T,” the household name of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
Rivera crunched the numbers and found that the cost of replacing fare revenue from the city’s three most popular bus routes for two years was $225,000, small enough that it could be funded from the city’s reserves. existing cash. Buses became free in 2019 and ridership jumped.
“It takes so little money to raise so many people,” said Rivera, who is now chief executive of MassDevelopment, the state’s development finance agency. In late February, the zero fare project expanded to all bus routes in Lawrence and a dozen nearby communities.
Wu, who oscillates between idealism and uncompromising pragmatism, is used to hearing that his goal of free public transport is unrealistic because of its cost. She remembers being told that even launching a pilot of such a project in Boston would be impossible, especially one that lasted more than six months.
Getting there wasn’t easy: It took months of discussions with the MBTA about the true cost of the experiment and its statutory implications, as well as several conversations between Wu and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to clear a regulatory hurdle. . Boston is paying for the project with $8 million in federal stimulus funds.
In early March, Wu boarded a No. 29 bus on Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue to mark the first day of free service, accompanied by residents of a public housing estate and a group of reporters. One of the passengers was Yaire Cabrera, a 17-year-old high school student who was surprised to see the mayor on his bus.
At first, Cabrera didn’t realize the bus was free: when the driver waved her on, she assumed the card reader was broken. Once she heard about the pilot program, her reaction was disbelief, followed by joy. She immediately texted a friend. “It was unexpected,” she said. “I’m pretty happy.”
Marie Claudette Pierre Noël, 53, lost her job in a hotel during the pandemic and is counting on her son to support her. She is a regular rider on two of the free routes and has been delighted with the new service. “It’s good, good, good!” she said laughing and giving a thumbs up.
The buses pass through Boston neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of immigrants and low-income residents. One of them is Roxbury, a center of Boston’s black community and a neighborhood that doesn’t have easy access to a subway line. The Boston Area Regional Planning Agency found that black passengers spent 64 hours more per year on buses than white passengers.
“It’s hard to overlook the fact that we have historically underinvested in public transit in these communities of color,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief streets, transportation and sanitation officer. “So it’s partly about saying, ‘How can we right this wrong?'”
Early results are encouraging, he said. One of the buses became free last August as part of a first pilot project. Ridership on the road jumped 22%, Franklin-Hodge said. Meanwhile, the time buses spent stopping was reduced, as passengers boarded faster from all gates, without needing to swipe cards or fumble for change. Absorbing many more passengers without any negative impact on service is a “really great discovery,” Franklin-Hodge said.
There was a significant downside: about two-thirds of passengers said the free bus service did not save them money, either because they use a monthly pass or spend bus to the train and still have to pay a fare. for their trip. Meanwhile, some experts are skeptical that free public transit will deter people from using cars to get around.
The Boston MBTA is open to experimenting with free rides, as long as someone else sponsors the cost. Toll-free drivers can be more complex than they appear, said MBTA chief executive Steven Poftak. When fares disappear for a bus, they must also be eliminated for public transport services for people with disabilities in the same area, generating more demand for such trips. Boston is also covering the cost of these increased services under the pilot.
“Fully releasing the T” would be an expensive proposition. Before the pandemic, the MBTA had a budget of $2.3 billion and collected about $700 million in fare revenue, Poftak said. “If people want to make all modes of transport free … not only does that revenue need to be replaced, but we probably need additional revenue because of the effect” on journeys for people with disabilities, he said .
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (right) is not a promoter. “Somebody is going to have to find a lot of money from somebody,” he said in a television interview in November. “There is no free lunch.”
Some cities in the state are moving forward. In Lawrence, the zero fare experiment that began in 2019 has just been extended to the Merrimack Valley Regional Transportation Authority. Noah Berger, the authority’s administrator, said that for every dollar the system collects in fares, 76 cents goes towards the costs of collecting those fares – from setting and maintaining fare boxes to physically metering fare boxes. species. “It’s a very inefficient and clunky way to generate revenue,” he said.
Eliminating fares also removes the main source of friction between drivers and passengers and allows drivers to spend less time at each stop, he said. “The key will be how to sustain it,” Berger said.
Wu also thinks about the future. It is looking to expand free service to major bus routes that connect Boston to its closest neighbors such as Cambridge. She also wants to see reduced fares for low-income residents across the system. In the long term, she said, public transit is “a public good and should be funded that way.”
The bus driver will return to his investment several times, Wu predicted. She recalls a conversation she had with a young man who relied on his mother to gather enough change whenever he needed a bus ticket to get to class. Having the freedom to no longer ration your trips based on what you can afford is “life changing,” Wu said. “It opens up a whole world.”