As of last week, the 28, Boston’s most used bus line, is free to ride. It’s a three-month pilot program designed to provide some financial relief to people during the coronavirus pandemic and to evaluate the benefits of free public transit. And though the Boston Transportation Department and the MBTA plan to see how eliminating the fare will impact the bus line’s timeliness and ridership, city officials should also pay close attention to how this experiment will change the experience of one group of workers that is often left out of the conversations about free transit: bus drivers.
The reality is that wherever transit fares exist, fare evasion does too. And so one of the biggest questions for cities and transit agencies is how to enforce those fares. On buses, that responsibility falls primarily on the drivers, who can be put in impossible situations. If drivers were to confront every fare evader, the buses would never be on time. And if they don’t try to stop people from hopping on without paying, then other riders might begin to feel like there’s no point in paying.
Leaving fare enforcement to bus drivers can also be dangerous. When bus drivers try to enforce fares, it can lead to verbal and sometimes physical altercations that put them at risk. Bus drivers have been yelled at and spit on. In Washington, D.C., a driver was beaten in 2017 for asking a rider to pay his fare. A New York city driver was fatally stabbed in 2008 over an unpaid fare.
Most of the time, the problems with enforcing fares are not as nightmarish. But fare enforcement, especially on buses, is a broken system. Bus drivers cannot ensure that every fare gets paid, and the result is a relatively arbitrary approach that could easily be influenced by traffic conditions, a driver’s mood, or implicit biases. In short, some riders get on for free while others do not, despite committing the same exact offense.
Take, for example, my recent bus ride, when I rode the 28 from Ruggles Station to Mattapan before the fare-free pilot program took effect. On my way back, the bus was running late and there were quite a few people waiting for it. When it finally showed up, I was a little slow in getting on because I was talking to another passenger, and so the bus driver motioned for us to quickly get in and not worry about the fare — presumably to board everyone swiftly and avoid making the bus run any later.
After a few stops, however, another rider hopped on and refused to pay, arguing that the bus was going to be free soon anyway. Despite having allowed me to get on just a few stops earlier without paying, the bus driver insisted that this passenger pay. They ended up arguing for several minutes, holding up the bus in the process. Watching it all unfold, I thought about how absurd fare enforcement is. Why was I riding for free while another passenger couldn’t?
Though the way fares are enforced on buses is somewhat arbitrary, it’s not completely random. In transit systems across the country, people of color make up a disproportionate share of people arrested for fare evasion. In Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, 90 percent of people arrested for fare evasion were Black or Hispanic. In Washington, D.C., 91 percent of citations or summons for fare evasion were issued to Black riders. And in Boston, 62 percent of people handed citations by the MBTA Transit Police were either Black or Hispanic. (As it so happens, the passenger on the bus I was on who was confronted for not paying a fare was Black; I and the other passenger whom the bus driver waved to get on without paying were not.)
Oftentimes, people evade fares simply because they can’t afford to pay them. That’s why free public transit would create more equitable cities and increase people’s mobility. And beyond the benefits to residents and commuters, a fare-free transit system would undoubtedly improve working conditions for bus drivers — and that’s something cities should be willing to pay for.