LAWRENCE — It’s a bright, crisp afternoon as the Downtown Shuttle pulls up at a bus shelter in front of a senior center on Haverhill Street, opposite sprawling Campagnone Common.
A prominent green sign in the window — “FREE BUS” — leaves no doubt about what it takes to ride out to La Fruteria on Manchester Street to buy groceries, or around to Lawrence General Hospital for an appointment.
But some people miss the sign. Even now, a few months after the city announced that three city bus routes would be free to ride for at least two years, bus driver Tracy Bagley has to block the fare box with her hand before riders can swipe a card or insert a dollar bill.
In Lawrence, a long-struggling city heavily populated by immigrants and the working poor, the decision to spend a small portion of surplus cash on access to transportation is so blindingly simple that it turns out it can actually be a little bit difficult to get your head around: FREE BUS?
“In some of the poorest communities, this is the only mode of transportation,” Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said. He’d heard Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu advocate for making the T free, and he got to thinking: Maybe the bus could do more than move people from place to place. “Maybe," he said, "it should be a way to uplift communities.”
Under Rivera, Lawrence emerged from nearly a decade of state fiscal oversight that began with a $27 million operating deficit flush with about $15 million in free cash.
”When you have some reserves, you’re able to do some things that you wouldn’t otherwise,” Rivera said in a recent interview that included a ride on the bus.
The free bus program required only a tiny fraction of that available money — $225,000, which covers three routes for two years. But it would be hard to find a more efficient use of that relatively small amount of cash. It returns money that would have been spent on fares to those who need it most; it gets people out of cars and taxis that clog streets and contribute to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It opens up sections of the city that might otherwise be hard to reach.
“It’s the best thing they ever did,” said Kayla Bernardini, who takes the bus shopping or out to eat daily and sees how many seniors and low-income riders rely on the bus here. Bernardini still pays for a monthly bus pass from the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, which operates the buses in and around Lawrence, because most of the MVRTA’s roughly two dozen routes are not free.
But even though an MVRTA monthly pass is much less expensive than an MBTA pass — $30, compared with about $80 for a full fare — many here struggle to come up with enough money to pay for the pass at the beginning of the month and end up paying cash for each ride.
Thirty dollars a month may not sound like much, but surveys in the first months of the free bus program show nearly 90 percent of riders on the three free routes make less than $20,000 a year.
And paying daily fares at $1.25 per ride can surpass the cost of a monthly pass in less than three weeks. “The cost of being poor is ridiculous,” Wu said, “even the literal cost of riding the bus when you only have cash.”
More than half of riders surveyed said they would have taken a taxi or other rideshare had they not taken the bus. Most said they were on their way to work.
“If this route didn’t exist I would not be able to work, a taxi here would cost me my salary for a week,” one woman told surveyors.
“I take this every day, sometimes two to three times,” said Maria Diaz, another passenger. “I go to school,” Diaz said, “but sometimes I be struggling to get some money.”
Ridership is up about 20 percent, MVRTA administrator Joseph Costanzo said, and riders “have responded more than I thought, quite honestly. There’s a lot of buzz about the free routes. It’s something to think about — it’s working and ridership is responding.”
So people like Janiry Pagan, 17, take it to high school. Fausto Tejada, 33, takes it grocery shopping. Antonio Martinez, 55, takes it to visit his mother.
“I’m getting a lot of people I’ve never had before,” said Bagley, who has driven a bus in Lawrence for 10 years. “I think it’s awesome, to be honest.”
Whether such a program is repeatable in a much bigger city is a bit less clear.
Making all MBTA bus and subway rides free, as Wu has proposed, would probably require a significant new revenue source. But because bus fares account for a relatively small percentage of the T’s annual revenues, Wu said, starting there — even with a single route — could make sense.
“When you set fare-free T as the long-term goal, truly treating transportation as a public good, it changes short-term steps as well,” Wu said.
In Lawrence, the two-year experiment is just beginning. Whether the buses will continue to be free after that isn’t clear yet. Costanzo acknowledged that it’s an experiment of sorts, and calculating the value of the lost fare revenue was a bit of a guessing game. So far, the cost estimate has been about right, he said, even as ridership has increased.
Rivera, who is also the chairman of the MVRTA advisory board, said he considers himself a numbers guy. When he was first mulling the idea of a fare-free bus, he thought the city would pay for just one route. Then he heard how much it would cost to do more.
“It’s so inexpensive,” Rivera said — and yet that tiny amount of money was keeping people off the bus.
And so that simple solution — the one some people still can’t quite get their heads around — was staring him right in the face: “Just make it free.”