Forget fare hikes — make the T free
We can’t afford another round of MBTA fare increases.
Raising the cost of public transit would burden residents who can least afford transportation alternatives and punish commuters who are doing the most to ease traffic and improve air quality. But the heaviest cost is that focusing on whether to raise or maintain fares distracts from what should be our larger goal: free public transportation. We need bold proposals to make public transit the most reliable, convenient, and affordable transportation option.
In Massachusetts, fares from bus and subway riders contributed just over 20 percent in revenues for the MBTA budget in 2018. The agency and elected leaders should be proposing big ideas to reduce and eliminate that burden.
City, state, national, and international reports have documented a dire climate future, where our ability to mitigate intensifying storms, flooding, and high-temperature days depends on aggressively expanding public transit as a baseline, along with larger initiatives such as widespread electrification and transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. The city’s recent Carbon Free Boston report requires dramatically increasing the share of commuters taking the T as a necessary condition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation highlights building public transit ridership to move more people in fewer vehicles for the sake of our environment and economy by 2040. The United Nations set a deadline to implement transformational reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, or face temperatures that will spiral into climate disaster.
By the MBTA’s own projections, the proposed fare increases would result in additional transit ridership declines, making it harder to meet these aggressive deadlines as well as worsening traffic around the region. Forget fare hikes; let’s seek the sustainable revenue sources to take action on improving service levels, electrifying trains, and speeding up buses.
Eliminating financial barriers must be one of the big ideas we explore, because geographic mobility underlies economic mobility. Access to public transit is more than just a calculus about the number of cars taken off the road. Cities that have adopted free public transportation have benefited from a surge in transit equity, with more low-income residents, seniors, and youth using transit to access opportunities. In a city and region where income inequality and racial disparities reflect our geographic segregation, cost and unreliability of public transportation adds an additional barrier for youth, people of color, and everyone who has been left out of the prosperity of our city. Removing this barrier would unleash the full potential of our workforce and talent from every neighborhood.
Making the investment in fare-free transit would not only nourish our future, but also align with our history. Over the course of nearly four centuries, Massachusetts boldly invested in shared prosperity, including the nation’s first public school, park, and library. By removing financial barriers to access, each of these innovative investments led to widespread recognition of a fundamental right — the right to quality education, the right to open space, the right to our shared knowledge, free and available to all.
Investing in free public transportation would establish a right to mobility — the right of every person to access every part of our city, regardless of income level, race, background, or home zip code.
As we advocate for large-scale sustainable reform, there are many feasible steps toward fare-free transit that could open up opportunity immediately. Massachusetts students (including college students at our public universities) should be the first group to ride fare-free. We should also pilot free resident fares on bus routes where the majority of riders are low-income residents. New fare collection technology should be implemented with a fare-capping policy, allowing riders to ride for free after reaching a monthly threshold, rather than having to purchase a monthly pass up front or accumulate costs ride-by-ride that surpass that threshold.
Free public transportation is the single biggest step we could take toward economic mobility, racial equity, and climate justice. Let’s once again make a historic investment for our shared future in the Commonwealth.
Michelle Wu is an at-large Boston city councilor.