Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston took a free bus ride Tuesday morning, launching a two-year pilot program of fare-free buses on three MBTA routes.
Wu boarded the 29 bus on Blue Hill Avenue near Dorchester’s Harambee Park with a group of city officials and Boston residents going about their day. As she waited for the ceremonial ride, she greeted riders on an Instagram Live stream.
“Here we go, I think we see it,” Wu said as the bus approached to a smattering of applause from the waiting riders. “We need to do a little bit better on our [snow] clearance around bus stops, that’s something that’s on my to-do list for working with the MBTA on.”
The three routes that are now fare free are: Route 23, from Ashmont to Ruggles stations; Route 28, from Mattapan Square to Ruggles; and Route 29, from Mattapan Square to Jackson Square. The city will reimburse the MBTA $8 million for lost fare revenue using federal COVID-19 relief funds, allowing riders to avoid the regular $1.70 fare.
“This is the ideal way to really kick-start our recovery,” Wu said, speaking outside the Jackson Square MBTA station, where her ride ended.
“Free bus service is not only about affordability and removing the financial barrier,” Wu said. ”It very much affects the reliability and frequency of service, too. Even shaving off a few seconds per stop because people no longer have to wait in line only at the front door . . . that not only changes the lives of our residents, it speeds up service for our bus drivers and for the T.”
Most riders waiting for the 29 bus at Jackson Square Tuesday did not know the three bus routes were fare free. The buses are supposed to have a digital sign reading “Ride for Free,” but many were still without them Tuesday morning. MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston said the signs are being rolled out gradually and should be activated within a week.
When Tonyah Smith boarded the 29 bus in Mattapan, she whipped out her Charlie Card prepared to pay the fare, and was surprised when the driver said she could put the card away. Smith, 20, takes the 29 bus about twice a month to visit her grandmother.
“This will save me quite a lot,” she said.
Liam O’Shields, 43, sometimes takes the 29 to get from his home near Franklin Park to work as a personal trainer by connecting to the Orange Line. In November, he got rid of his car because he could no longer afford the insurance and has been relying on public transportation to get around.
He’ll still buy his monthly pass, even though one of the buses he takes is now free to ride.
“It’s nice to have, but I wish it was more,” he said. “The idea is good, but it doesn’t impact me.”
The 28 bus had already been running fare free as part of a six-month experiment. Over that period, wait times were down about 20 percent and ridership increased by 22 percent over similar bus routes, according to an MBTA study. Twenty-one percent of riders saved $20 or more each month, while around two-thirds did not save because they had to buy monthly passes or connect to other buses or trains that charge fares.
On Tuesday, 29 passengers, including Wu, faced hourlong waits between buses. Wu said she hopes eliminating fares can boost ridership and speed up routes by reducing boarding times, making bus schedules more reliable. The 29 bus travels down Columbus Avenue, which has new center-running bus-only lanes designed to speed up service.
The fare-free idea has been gaining traction. On Monday, the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority removed its last bus fare box, eliminating fares from all routes systemwide for a similar two-year pilot.
Wu has long advocated for making the entire MBTA system fare free. Though she cannot do so with the stroke of a pen — the regional system involves other cities and towns surrounding Boston — elected officials from 15 municipalities asked Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak in January to make it easier to eliminate fares through grants and other programs.
“People not only in the Boston region but around the country are paying attention to this program,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets. “We think this is the start of the conversation, both locally and nationally.”
Wu also spoke Tuesday about her proposal to limit protests outside private homes between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. Wu’s home has drawn protesters opposing her vaccine mandate for city employees, starting at 7 most mornings.
“This is a city built on free speech and activism, and sharing your views and standing up for what you believe,” Wu said. “At the moment where that becomes harassment, and where that becomes going after someone and their neighbors’ sleep day after day after day, that’s a moment when we need to make sure that we’re protecting our residents’ health and well-being as well.”