Boston’s current mayor, her predecessor, and one of the city’s US representatives gathered Tuesday to tout the benefits of fare-free service on three MBTA buses launched by the city on March 1.
Mayor Michelle Wu, former acting mayor Kim Janey, and Representative Ayanna Pressley took a free ride on the 23 bus, which runs from Ashmont station in Dorchester to Ruggles station in Roxbury, with two Roxbury Community College students before speaking with students and media at the college.
“I’m very excited that now making those multiple trips to school, to home, to pick up the kids without having to worry about how that will add up or take away from your ability to pay for food, or medicine or rent, that is the ultimate goal here,” Wu said.
The city of Boston is reimbursing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for fare revenue using $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on its 23, 28, and 29 bus routes for two years. The city previously eliminated fares for riders on the 28 bus starting in August of last year, also using federal funding.
Alberto Castro, a 36-year-old father of two who is studying engineering at Roxbury Community College, had heard that more bus routes may become free but was still shocked when he hopped on the 23 earlier this month and didn’t have to cough up a fare.
“It was a nice surprise,” he said. “It translates into more money in my pocket. It’s a little, but it adds up.”
A recent city evaluation of eliminating fares on the 28 bus found that ridership increased 23 percent compared with other bus lines; eight percent of those surveyed said they would have walked or biked if the bus were not free and five percent said they would have used a car.
Around one-third of riders saved money, with around 23 percent saving $20 or more per month, the evaluation found. Two-thirds of riders did not save any money, either because they had already purchased a monthly pass or because they transferred to another bus or subway that charged them a fare.
Eliminating fares on the 28 allowed riders to board through all of the bus doors, speeding up the boarding time per person by 20 percent, the city found. But because so many more riders boarded, service slowed. Average trip time increased from 37 minutes to 41 minutes.
Wu said that her bus ride on the 23 bus on Tuesday around 11 a.m. was packed, showing there is a high demand for bus service once the cost barrier is removed. To improve travel times, Wu said more frequent bus service is needed along with more dedicated bus lanes that enable buses to bypass traffic.
The city chose the 23, 28, and 29 bus routes for the pilot because they either travel along the new center-running bus lanes on Columbus Avenue or along Blue Hill Avenue, where the city plans to install center-running bus lanes, Wu said.
“We can make the roadway changes to speed up service and then continue to talk with the MBTA about the need for increased service on these routes too,” she said.
Wu wants to see bus service become free for riders city-wide, and to do that she’ll need the help of the state and federal government.
Pressley said she is working to pass a bill she introduced with Senator Edward Markey that would create a $5 billion competitive grant program to offset fare revenues for transit agencies.
In the State House, legislation that would require the MBTA and regional transit authorities to create year-long fare-free bus pilots, but wouldn’t provide any funding for the pilots, is pending in the transportation committee.
Representative Christine Barber, a Somerville Democrat and coauthor of the bill, said its purpose is to study the benefits and costs of fare-free bus service.
“We did not look at specific funding mechanisms,” she said. “The pilot program is the best way to figure out what will work best.”
But the cochair of the Legislature’s transportation committee, Representative William Straus of Mattapoisett, called fare-free transit a “potential distraction” from the “substantial financial needs” of the MBTA.
“I’m not sold,” he said. “The focus needs to be on how are we going to have the best operating system.”
Some regional transit authorities are forging ahead without support from the state. The Worcester RTA, Merrimack Valley RTA, and Franklin RTA have already eliminated fares on all of their buses through pilot programs.
Wu said she hasn’t discussed fare-free bus service with Democratic gubernatorial candidates Sonia Chang-Díaz, a cosponsor of Barber’s bill, or Maura Healey, the state attorney general.
Other municipalities bordering Boston are looking at making more MBTA bus routes fare-free. Brookline is considering a proposal to use $1.2 million of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to reimburse the MBTA for fares paid by people who board the 66 bus in Brookline for two years. The 66 bus runs through Brookline from Harvard Square in Cambridge to Nubian Square in Boston.
Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui recently formed a working group to determine the details of a fare-free bus pilot and appointed City Councilor Burhan Azeem as chair. Azeem expects the working group will have a proposal by the beginning of June.
Wu said the more pilots that are happening, the easier it will be to secure long-term funding.
“Being able to shift what’s possible, and then show what it feels like . . . proves the case for investment, “ she said.