Senator Edward J. Markey on Friday cheered Boston’s progress toward making public transit free for riders, and pledged to push to secure federal funding for eliminating fares on more bus routes in the city.
During an audio broadcast on Twitter Friday, Markey and Mayor Michelle Wu celebrated Boston’s upcoming pilot program that will make three bus routes — 23, 28, and 29 — fare-free for riders for two years starting on March 1. The pair touted anticipated improvements to residents’ lives and bus reliability by eliminating fares.
“What you’re doing is absolutely pioneering, it’s going to be the model for the rest of the country,” Markey said. “This conversation, once again reinforces how important it is for us to get more resources into your hands.”
Wu said more federal funding for eliminating transit fares would be “absolutely huge” for Boston and surrounding communities like Brookline and Cambridge interested in making routes that cross municipal boundaries fare-free.
“We really want to prove that bus service doesn’t have to be how sometimes we imagine it today, which is it can be really slow, it’s crowded, you never know when it’s going to come,” said Wu. “When we choose . . . policy decisions differently to prioritize people over traffic, then it can change the entire experience.”
More than 200 Twitter users listened into the the conversation about fare-free public transit.
Both elected officials support making all public transit free and agree that eliminating fares on buses is the first step.
Wu’s office chose the three bus lines for the pilot, which run through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, because they had high pre-pandemic ridership, they serve people who have low-incomes and are primarily people of color, and they run along stretches of Columbus Avenue or Blue Hill Avenue that already have or are slated to get center-running bus lanes aimed at speeding up bus service, Wu said.
“What we’re trying to do now in Boston . . . is to really address many of these inequities through sustainable transit decisions,” Wu said.
Eliminating bus fares has proven to increase ridership. An MIT study in 2019 found that MBTA riders who received fare discounts took about 30 percent more trips, and took more trips to health care and social services. On the 28 bus, which has been fare-free for riders since last August, ridership has soared to nearly pre-pandemic levels, while ridership on the entire MBTA bus system still lags at about 60 percent of what it was before COVID-19.
What’s less clear is whether eliminating fares gets people who normally drive to ditch their cars and take the bus instead — a key shift needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, the largest contributor to climate change in Massachusetts.
Boston plans to use $8 million of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to reimburse the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for fare revenue on the three lines for two years. Markey, a Malden Democrat, and Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat, are working to pass a bill that would create a $5 billion competitive grant program to offset fare revenues for transit agencies.
Eliminating fares on more buses would allow more people to travel freely without worrying about their budget, Markey said.
“You don’t want people making the decision . . . based on whether or not you got that cash in your pocket, or that you’re apportioning the cash that you have and ultimately, you don’t have enough for it,” he said.
Boston is following in the footsteps of other areas of Massachusetts. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority and Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority have eliminated fares on all buses through the end of this year and for two years starting March 1, respectively.
Markey and Wu hope Boston can be a leader in expanding fare-free transit, and Wu underscored Boston is a city of progressive firsts.
“We’re proud of our legacy of always stepping up and innovating; we’re home to the first public school anywhere in the country, first public library, first public park, first subway tunnel, even, anywhere in the country,” said Wu “The moment is now to take that mantle back up.”