A few months ago, the city of Lawrence launched an experiment as simple as it is inspired: It made the bus free. Using a small fraction of the city’s reserves — just $225,000 — officials covered the cost of rider fares for three bus routes for two years.
Now, anyone who needs to buy groceries at La Fruteria on Manchester Street or get to a job at the Courtyard Marriott in nearby Andover can ride the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority bus without swiping a pass or digging into their pockets for cash.
The initiative is a small but substantive boon for economic justice. As the Globe’s Nestor Ramos noted in a recent column on the Lawrence program, surveys show almost 90 percent of riders on the subsidized routes earn less than $20,000 per year.
Boston should find a way to replicate the trial — if not with public dollars, then with a gift from a forward-looking employer or philanthropist.
“Wherever we can find the funding for a pilot — great, let’s do it,” said Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu.
Wu is a leading advocate for free public transportation — pointing not just to the economic justice payoff, but also to the environmental benefits. By encouraging more people to ride the bus or hop on the train — ridership is up 20 percent on the subsidized Lawrence lines — free transit can ease congestion and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Wu wants to go big: converting the entire MBTA system to a fare-free model. But making a full transition would take years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue to replace lost fares at an already cash-strapped agency. And strictly from an environmental standpoint, growing ridership shouldn’t necessarily be the top priority: The city’s green-ribbon commission found that electrifying buses and private vehicles would be a much more cost-effective way for the city to reduce its emissions.
But a smaller effort focused on buses could still yield tangible results.
One route Wu said she’s long eyed for a pilot: the 28, which currently inches along Blue Hill Avenue through some of the poorest stretches of Mattapan and Roxbury and lands at Ruggles station, near the city’s bustling medical center.
Subsidizing fares on the 28 would mean cutting traffic on a congested thoroughfare, reducing household expenses in disadvantaged communities, and underwriting a connection to decent jobs.
Officials should weigh all the routes, settle on a couple, and consider pairing free service with other innovations — like dedicated bus lanes that speed the commute. The last time dedicated lanes were proposed for the 28, the neighborhood revolted, but hopefully pairing bus lanes with fare reduction would lead to a more favorable reception. In a city and region down on its public transit agency, let’s see what an optimized system — free and efficient — could look like.
Subsidizing a handful of bus routes should be relatively inexpensive. But there could be some hidden costs. If free transit encourages more riders, for instance — and hopefully it will — that could require the T to put more buses on the road.
It’s also important that free bus service run for an extended period of time — at least a couple of years — so commuters can plan their lives around it and make real shifts in behavior.
If all that makes the MBTA nervous about funding a pilot, then a private entity should. This is a perfect opportunity for philanthropies concerned about climate change and economic inequality. A major employer could also pay fares for a bus line that runs past its offices.
Two members of the Brookline board of selectmen, Heather Hamilton and Raul Fernandez, told the Globe editorial board they are looking into launching a pilot in their town. And Worcester transit officials are weighing a fare-free system.
The T is much bigger than the state’s other regional transit authorities and derives much more of its budget from fares. It also serves a diverse ridership. It can’t — and shouldn’t — go entirely free. But in communities where the burden of bus fares imposes a real obstacle to economic opportunity, subsidizing commutes could be just the ticket.