If you want a glimpse of how well the MBTA is serving the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, here’s an idea: Head to Mattapan Square one weekday morning, and hop on the 28 bus heading into town.
The idea to do just that one day last week wasn’t mine. Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu and Kim Janey were making the trip last Wednesday, and Wu invited me to come along. We took the 28 bus from Mattapan Square, through Grove Hall and Dudley Square, to the Ruggles MBTA Station. There, we switched to the Orange Line to the State Street stop near City Hall (and, coincidentally, the Globe’s office.)
The councilors have been arguing that the MBTA should be doing more to address issues of transit equity. Wu recently called for making MBTA service free completely. That proposal fell flat — there’s no obvious way to pay for it — but in lieu of that, she is calling for the agency to adopt a pilot program making the 28 route fare-free.
“This is one of the most important economic corridors in the city,” Wu said. “It also has one of the highest riderships. We should be using this to plug people directly into jobs and industries.”
Indeed, the 28 traces an artery that connects neighborhoods to some of the city’s most vital economic centers. Often, those worlds feel geographically close but otherwise far removed.
We left the station shortly after 8 a.m. Even though it was rush hour, we made steady progress down Blue Hill Avenue, headed toward Grove Hall. Surprisingly, there was almost a backlog of buses: We made a substantial amount of the run right behind another 28 bus. In a sign of how busy the route is, our bus was full and the other one looked nearly full.
In this area — much of it a considerable distance from a train station — buses are how people get around.
Janey, a Roxbury native, had a neat explanation for why the buses are so crowded.
“They stole the Orange Line,” she said ruefully. Plenty of her constituents would have nodded in agreement. Indeed, the re-routing of the Orange Line in the 1980s remains a sore point for residents who remember when traveling from Dudley to downtown was far more efficient.
I’m undecided on the question of whether the 28 should be free, but I’ll say this much: There has to be a way to make it faster. Our bus trip slowed to a crawl as we approached Grove Hall and went into Dudley and didn’t get much better after that, though the Orange Line Ruggles-to-State Street leg was a breeze. By then, Wu and Janey were posing for pictures with passengers who recognized them and posting pictures of their trip on Twitter.
The MBTA has a process for establishing pilot programs on particular bus lines. But agency officials haven’t indicated any plans to do so in this case and are likely wary that they would open themselves up to calls for the same treatment from riders of other routes, like the 111 bus that runs from Chelsea to downtown Boston.
But there’s a newfound awareness that if a decent quality of life is going to be preserved for working-class people in and around Boston, public transit is going to have to be a central part of that conversation.
“This is a perfect time to be talking about transit affordability, as well as housing affordability, along this corridor,” Wu said. “This is one of the steps we could take tomorrow to increase opportunity along this corridor.”
Whether the discussion is around fare increases, or moving away from cash fares, or even where to put bus lanes, low-income riders are clamoring for a louder voice in decision-making.
After taking 68 minutes to get from Mattapan to State Street, I understand why.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist.