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Evaluation of the Fare-Free Bus for Boston Pilot Proposal

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“Public transit is a public good. Eliminating fare collection on bus routes would speed up service, close racial disparities in transit access, serve our climate goals, and advance economic justice. In this critical moment of economic, social and emotional recovery, we must take every step to strengthen racial equity, eliminate barriers to opportunity and invest in accessible, equitable, reliable service in every community.”

Michelle Wu, Boston City Councilor, Mayoral Candidate for the City of Boston

PhD candidate Alaina Boyle, in conjunction with her Civic Action Project service placement for the summer, has coordinated with Boston City Counselor Michelle Wu’s office to release the Evaluation of the Fare-Free Bus for Boston Pilot Proposal.

“Fare-free public transit is an investment in Boston’s economy and environment that will benefit all Bostonians – especially the city’s most vulnerable residents. When you look at the benefits relative to the costs, it just makes sense. Councilor Wu’s proposal gives Boston the opportunity to be a national and international leader in the next generation of more accessible, healthy, and cost-effective public transportation,” said lead author Alaina Boyle.

As Boston faces the compounding crises of racial injustice, climate change, unaffordable housing and other economic inequities, access to public transportation is more essential than ever before. Reduced ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic has only raised the stakes, pushing commuters into cars and leading to disastrous––if short-lived––service cuts. But long before the pandemic, recurring fare hikes and ongoing service and safety issues have resulted in an MBTA that has failed a generation of Bostonians.

Fare-free public transportation is one innovative, increasingly common approach to address concerns with transportation systems’ access, service, and environmental impacts that has been implemented in at least 98 localities worldwide. A fare-free bus pilot project is a logical first step toward a comprehensive, holistic vision for fare-free transit system-wide. This transition will take time but a two-year pilot on select bus routes in Boston will lead to significant economic, environmental, and social benefits, particularly for low-income residents and communities of color. This research paper was developed in partnership with Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, building on her legislative record and advocacy around free T service by examining the potential impact of making the 28, 66 and 116 bus routes fare-free and suggesting next steps for implementation.

The white paper was authored by Alaina Boyle (Doctoral student, Northeastern School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs), Tali Robbins (Office of City Councilor Michelle Wu), and Megan Montgomery (Michelle Wu for Boston campaign).

Highlights from the white paper include:

  • Passenger savings on fares estimated at $1.01 million annually, concentrated among Boston’s lowest income households, with funds freed up to be invested back into the community;
  • Increased collection speeds and reduced “dwell time,” leading to time savings of about 1-2 seconds per passenger, that translates into increased productivity and lower costs for the MBTA;
  • The elimination of nearly 2,800 daily car rides and reduction of traffic congestion, preventing the emission of 1,730 annual metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; The reduction of local pollutants and smog from hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides, lowering the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, which disproportionately impact Boston’s residents of color;
  • Increased social engagement, reduced loneliness and depression, and other social and mental health benefits from increased connection and activity, particularly for Boston’s seniors, people living with disabilities, and lower-income families.

“Making bus trips free is an important way to underscore that public transit is a public good and should be treated as such. This report is an important contribution to the larger effort to think and act more sustainably, equitably and strategically about how we deliver vital public services. I’m grateful to Councilor Wu for keeping this at the forefront of our pathway to building a stronger, more equitable society,” said former state Transportation Secretary James Aloisi.

Read the white paper here.

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