In announcing three free bus routes serving Boston’s poorest neighborhoods on Wednesday, Mayor Michelle Wu, who campaigned on a promise to boost fare-free transit options, said the move will help the city achieve its “climate justice goals.”
Climate justice is the idea that those who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions are often the hardest hit by climate impacts, so climate solutions should not only cut emissions, but also create a fairer world.
Experts say free transit can be an important strategy in the pursuit of climate justice — but it’s just one piece of a complex puzzle.
Even in a city as dense as Boston, transit accounts for about 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Boosting the use of public transportation is a key way to cut carbon, since data show that mass transit produces significantly lower greenhouse gas pollution per passenger mile than private vehicles. In 2019, Boston officials determined that getting people out of cars and into buses and trains is key to achieving carbon neutrality.
Since then, things have moved in the wrong direction. MBTA ridership fell precipitously as the spread of COVID-19 began in 2020 and remains at just half of pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, vehicular traffic has already surged back to normal.
Unsurprisingly, lowering or eliminating fares can boost ridership. One MIT experiment on the MBTA found that cutting fares for some low-income commuters led them to take almost 30 percent more transit trips than a control group. A pilot program to make the 28 bus free, which has been in place since August, also has shown promising results: Ridership has soared to 91 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, according to the state’s Department of Transportation, while the MBTA bus system overall has bounced back to just 60 percent.
Fare-free transit also is a relatively easy way to cut emissions, said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the Livable Streets Alliance. Unlike some crucial climate strategies like electrification, eliminating bus fare requires no new equipment or construction.
“We need to focus on methods that are fast to implement and high impact,” she said. “Fare-free transit [is] just that.”
Boosting transit also could benefit public health by lowering smog-forming compounds like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds, which all can contribute to cardiac and respiratory issues.
Though she praised Wednesday’s announcement, Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, noted that much more needs to be done to improve transit’s accessibility and affordability. After all, most of the MBTA’s routes — over 170 bus routes and the subway — will still cost money to ride.
“The majority of riders on the free bus routes are going to have to transfer to a subway or to another line, and will need to pay fare,” she said. To help, she said the city should institute a lower fare for those unable to afford transit.
Rubin said that in addition to boosting affordability, the city also must electrify its bus fleet, which would reduce toxic and planet-heating emissions even further.
“That’s the next step,” she said.