The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced late Friday that it will ask passengers to board buses through the back door, a policy change that will effectively make trips free and is meant to separate riders from drivers to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The T typically requires all riders to enter through the front door, where they tap plastic fare cards or insert cash to pay for their trips, putting riders face-to-face with drivers. Now, nearly all riders will be directed to the back, where they won’t have to pay.
The new rules will also apply on the above-ground stops on the Green Line and the Mattapan trolley line, which have operators at the front of vehicles. Riders who enter stations with fare gates will still pay fares.
“The MBTA is undertaking these measures to protect our frontline employees while maintaining regional mobility for essential trips by healthcare workers and emergency responders,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said in a statement.
Passengers with disabilities and the elderly will still be allowed to use front entrances, which have ramps to help riders board more easily.
Asked whether the MBTA has ever implemented this policy before, spokesman Joe Pesaturo said: “Not in my 22 years.”
Jim Evers, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents bus and train operators, said he was “proud that our union and the T were able to work together to ensure the right steps are being taken to protect employees and riders during this time."
“We take our responsibility as essential employees tasked with moving Massachusetts seriously," Evers said. "The men and women taking the MBTA every day are trusting us to get them where they need to go, and to do so safely.”
The MBTA’s move comes after similar measures were announced by other transit agencies, including in Maryland earlier this week and, as of Friday, in Seattle and New York City.
The measure means the MBTA is essentially sacrificing what’s left of its dwindling fare revenue on these trips. In that way, it mirrors so much of the broader economy right now, prioritizing public health over financial considerations.
The shift comes amid an extraordinary ridership collapse as commuters and other travelers stay home to slow the virus. On the MBTA, officials have said subway station entries are down about 80 percent in recent days compared to a more normal week in February. Bus ridership was down by about two-thirds mid-week, though with variation from line to line.
Public transit advocates are pushing Congress to consider major financial assistance for agencies. The problem is that they must run enough service to both keep crowding low and serve essential workers, while encouraging most riders to stay away. The MBTA has struggled at times this week to reach the proper balance, cutting service to lower frequencies, and then adding trains and buses back once that resulted in crowding.