One year after Boston launched its fare-free bus program on three MBTA lines running through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, more people are taking the bus and saving money on transit, a new city analysis found.
The study released by the city Tuesday shows ridership on the 23, 28, and 29 bus routes has inched closer to prepandemic levels faster than the T bus system as a whole. It also showed 42 percent of riders are saving money because of the program, leaving them with more to spend on food and put in emergency funds, said Boston’s chief of streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge.
“We had high hopes for the different ways in which fare-free buses could positively impact people’s lives,” he said. “This has been hugely successful in helping us learn and understand the role of fare-free.”
Using $8 million of federal pandemic relief funds, Boston eliminated fares last March for two years on the those buses and paratransit service near the routes. At the time, Mayor Michelle Wu said the program aimed to save riders time and money, encourage more people to take public transit, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve travel times and reliability.
While the program has put more people on the bus — 19 percent of riders surveyed in October said they were new to the MBTA — not all riders are saving money. Many still have to purchase monthly passes or transfer to other bus lines or trains that are not free, the analysis found. And riders remain frustrated with transit service, the report said. The MBTA has reduced bus and train frequency over the past year and canceled as many as one out of every 20 scheduled bus trips amid a driver shortage.
Still, ridership growth on the free buses has outpaced ridership growth on the MBTA bus system as a whole, according to the study.
Route 23 ridership went from 68 percent of its prepandemic level in fall 2021 to 88 percent last fall, and route 29 ridership went from 53 percent to 76 percent. At the same time, systemwide ridership went from 71 percent to 78 percent.
Meanwhile, the Route 28 bus, which has been free to ride since August 2021 because of a previous city program, went from 91 percent in fall 2021 to 94 percent last fall, the study found.
Ridership on the T’s paratransit service, The Ride, as part of the fare-free program also outpaced systemwide paratransit service, the study found. Those trips had to start and stop within three-fourths of a mile from the fare-free bus routes.
Riders said they are hopeful the program will continue past next March and expand to other lines.
Armani Lapie, a 19-year-old university student who frequently takes the bus to Mattapan Station, said he uses the free bus routes more often because of how convenient it is.
“I save a couple hundred dollars a month,” Lapie said, while waiting at Ruggles Station. “Now I get to travel more, and I don’t have to worry about whether I have money or not.”
Aileen Rodriguez, 19, said she frequently uses the Route 28 bus to get to Nubian Station for work.
“If I see another bus that goes to Nubian, I will not take it so I can go on the free one,” Rodriguez said, while waiting at Ruggles. “It’s better like that, it should stay like that.”
Prasanth Kanneganti, 26, said he frequently uses the Route 23 bus to go to work and school. He said he saves around $150 every month because of the free buses and likes that he can ride even if he were to lose his CharlieCard.
“It’s only about $3 back and forth for a ride,” Kanneganti said. “But when you look at the bigger picture, that’s a lot of money.”
Riders of the 23, 28, and 29 routes no longer have to pay at the fare box and can board through the rear door, speeding up boarding times. The city’s study found that boarding time per passenger decreased from fall 2021 to last fall. Travel times remained about the same, though, because of the increase in ridership, the study found.
But concerns about the bus’ reliability, frequency, and crowding sometimes overshadowed the fare-free benefits, the study found. Some riders ranked those issues as more important than the fare policy.
Franklin-Hodge said “fare-free service does not replace good transit service.”
“It’s essential that the MBTA continue to work to restore transit service, to restore frequencies, to fix the things that we know are broken, whether that’s on the bus system or the rail system,” he said. “But even within the challenges that we’ve faced with transit service, we’re still showing value.”
Franklin-Hodge said the city is still talking to neighboring municipalities, including Cambridge, Chelsea, and Everett, about combining funds to make more routes fare-free in the “near term.”
In a statement, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui of Cambridge said the city is working on a fare-free bus program based on recommendations from a working group she formed last year.
“We are focused on the number 1 bus route, a key connection between Cambridge and Boston serving a diverse population, and look forward to continued collaboration with the MBTA and the City of Boston,” she said.
Already, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority and the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority offer systemwide free bus service. Those programs expire next summer and winter, respectively.
On the campaign trail, Governor Maura Healey said she supported making buses free to ride statewide. So far, the MBTA has not partnered with any other municipalities to eliminate fares.
Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said the transit agency has “received the report and is reviewing it.”
“The MBTA looks forward to continuing its partnership with the City on the existing program,” Pesaturo said in a statement. “Also, the MBTA welcomes ideas and proposals from other municipalities.”
Franklin-Hodge said he’s hopeful the governor and the Legislature will take the program’s results into account when creating statewide policy.
“If we could look at how we expand this and how we tailor this in ways that really match people’s needs, we can drive up transit usage, we can give people time back, can give people money back in their pocket,” he said. “Those are very worthy goals for us to be exploring right now.”