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Now we’re getting somewhere with free public transit

Fare-free buses looked pretty pie-in-the-sky a few years ago. Now it’s happening, faster than even its fans expected.

An MBTA bus loaded up passengers at the Forest Hills Station.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Regular readers will be familiar with a frequent lament in this space: The pandemic that should have changed everything about life as we know it altered very little, indeed.

Once COVID’s initial shock wore off, we went right back to treating previously heroic low-wage workers poorly, disrespecting hitherto saintly health care providers, pumping the air full of pollution, and buying up supply-chain-clogging mountains of junk.

But today, I offer a blessed respite from this dispiriting cavalcade of regressions: Free buses.

For those of us who believe in the transformative potential of at least some fare-free transit, Wednesday was a red-letter day. As my colleague Taylor Dolven reported, the Boston City Council gave near-unanimous approval to use COVID relief funds to nix fares for two years on three bus lines that serve Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. The pilot was pushed by new mayor Michelle Wu, the state’s most prominent advocate for free public transit. The same day, officials in the Merrimack Valley approved a two-year free bus pilot that will serve Lawrence and nearby communities. A Cambridge official told Dolven the city is talking with Wu about lifting fares on two crucial routes between the two cities.

A couple of weeks earlier, Worcester, which eliminated fares on all city bus routes last year, re-upped its fare-free pilot for another year. And legislators on Beacon Hill have written bills that would usher in similar programs across the state.

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These happy developments has taken even some advocates by surprise.

“Two years ago, we put out a paper saying it’s cheap and makes good economic sense to make buses free, and everybody thought we were crazy,” said Stacy Thompson, head of the safe-transit group Livable Streets Alliance. “Now we’re seeing it happen.”

The people who ride these buses are more likely to be struggling financially and to be relying on buses to get to work. In Worcester, for example, where residents took about 3 million bus trips in 2019, 70 percent of riders didn’t own a car and almost as many had household incomes under $25,000 as of 2016, according to the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which has analyzed the services.

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But making buses fare free has benefits beyond keeping more money in riders’ pockets. It also improves buses’ efficiency and reliability, with fewer delays as passengers and drivers are relieved of time-consuming transactions. Collecting fares is expensive and cumbersome. Not collecting them makes buses more appealing. Ridership has soared on Boston’s 28 bus since the city made it free in late summer. In Worcester, it’s back to 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, outstripping rebounds in other regions where riders are still buying fares. More people on buses means less traffic on roads, and lower emissions for everyone.

Still, just because something is good policy doesn’t mean it comes to pass, especially around here, given our maddening propensity for endless deliberation when it comes to transportation.

So, how did we get here?

Wu has been a big part of it: Her calls for fare-free transit altered the terms of the debate. But COVID has also been a crucial factor here. The pandemic heightened awareness of the inequalities baked into American life. It rendered visible the residents of cities like Chelsea — hard hit by the virus, still doing the low-wage jobs essential to our survival, and utterly dependent on bus lines like the crammed 111 to carry them across the Tobin Bridge into Boston and beyond. Imagine how much more efficient those vital trips would be if the 111 were fare free, too.

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“The silver lining of COVID is, it really uncovered things we have been sounding the alarm on for a long time,” said Maria Belen Power, associate executive director of GreenRoots, an environmental justice advocacy group in Chelsea. “We can either go back to normal, or recover in a more equitable way.”

And in this pivotal moment, the growing political will for the latter is backed up by real money: The fare-free pilots currently underway are paid for with federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, passed in March. Democrats’ Build Back Better plan, awaiting approval in the US Senate, would provide billions more for fare-free transit nationally.

We’ve gone from pie-in-the-sky to actually-happening — and fast. It’s a strange and inspiring feeling. Let’s have more of it.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.