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Free-bus experiment could lead to something bigger

The road to Mayor Wu’s campaign promise to make Boston’s public transit entirely fare-free starts with this small pilot.

Commuters ride on the 28 bus, which routes from Ruggles Station to Mattapan. Mayor Michelle Wu has proposed extending a pilot program that made the 28 free.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

It’s a pretty good bet that on any given weekday afternoon, one of the busiest places to be in Boston is somewhere along Blue Hill Avenue — not in any particular store or restaurant, but on a bus that runs from Ruggles Station to Mattapan. An afternoon in late August was no exception: As the 28 bus sluggishly made its way down one of the city’s main arteries, school kids on their way home congregated toward the back of the bus and played loud music; workers either clocking in or out of work hopped aboard; and other riders jumped on to run errands like grocery shopping. At some point, almost everyone was sweating from the heat, and the bus was packed shoulder to shoulder.

It took the bus over an hour to make the five-mile stretch. At each stop, passengers had to funnel in through the front door, one by one, in order to pay their fares. Some riders slowed down the process even more when they had to pay with cash and search their pockets for loose coins. At busy stations like Nubian Square, it took several minutes in order to get everyone on board. (At one point, a passenger got into an argument with the driver after trying to avoid the fare, further adding to the bus’s delays.)


Until recently, this kind of friction made the 28 bus routinely late, according to passengers who spoke with the Globe editorial board, and less reliable. And though the bus line offers a connection from some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to the rest of the metro area, its $1.70 fare has posed a real financial burden to some low-wage workers in addition to making it harder to get to work on time.

Months later, however, the 28 is starting to show signs of improved service, after the city embarked on an experiment to make the bus line fare-free. There’s no question that the buses are faster: Passengers can now simply hop on through any of the stretch bus’s three doors without stopping to pay, allowing the driver to onboard riders at Nubian Square in under a minute. A ride from Ruggles to Mattapan earlier this month took less than an hour. And people have noticed the difference. The 28 bus saw a sharp increase in ridership that was unparalleled on any other train or bus line — reaching 92 percent of pre-pandemic ridership levels. By comparison, ridership on the transit system as a whole has only bounced back to 53 percent of what it was before the pandemic.


In one of her first acts as mayor, Michelle Wu asked the city to extend the fare-free pilot program for two years and add two other bus routes: the 23 and 29. Coupled with infrastructure improvements like dedicated bus lanes, abolishing fares would reduce the financial burden on low-income people and make the buses a more reliable mode of transportation. That’s why the City Council should swiftly approve the mayor’s request.

The free-bus program lays the groundwork for one of Wu’s biggest campaign promises — to “free the T” by displaying the promise of fare-free transit. And while the mayor’s broader vision of an entirely fare-free MBTA is still far from becoming a reality, her early move to expand the free bus service is crucial for two reasons: First, it could help draw more commuters back to using public transportation after the pandemic’s devastating impact on ridership. And second, it would make the fare-free pilot program just long enough for the city to meaningfully measure its benefits and potential pitfalls. (It would also only require $8 million to fund the entire pilot out of the $558 million Boston received from the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year — $360 million of which has yet to be allocated.)


If the city extends the program for two years, then it can collect enough data to see just how much abolishing fares can improve service and help ease financial burdens on low-income riders, and whether it’s worth expanding fare-free transit even further. And there are other potential benefits that the city should study as well, such as how ending fares might create better working conditions for bus drivers because they no longer have to enforce fares — a responsibility that can sometimes lead to unnecessary and dangerous altercations.

This is an opportunity for Boston to improve services to its residents, reduce pollution and congestion, and set an example for other major cities across the country. And if this pilot’s data show tangible benefits for riders, workers, and the environment by increasing residents’ dependency on buses and trains as opposed to cars, then a stronger case can be made to the federal government to further subsidize public transit here and elsewhere — a critical step toward eventually freeing the T.


But before then, Boston should focus its efforts on making every corner of the city more accessible to its low-income residents and on making public transit a more attractive option. And that starts with making one of the busiest places to be on Blue Hill Avenue fare-free.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.