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Are free buses a tool for social justice? Boston wants to find out.

A bus heads down Blue Hill Avenue in Boston on March 1. A new two-year pilot program has removed fares on three heavily used bus lines in the city. (Lane Turner/Boston Globe/Getty Images)
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BOSTON — On a recent raw winter morning, Barry Hurd was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus after a trip to the supermarket.

Hurd, 64, gets by on his monthly disability payment, but it’s not easy. “The food is high, rent high, everything high,” he said. “Unless you win the lottery, you’re not saving.”

The only thing that isn’t expensive is the bus: When the No. 28 pulls up to the stop, Hurd hoists his small metal shopping cart through the back door and steps in without paying a fare. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he said of the free bus service. “We need more of it.”

Hurd’s bus route is part of a bold experiment unfolding in Boston with echoes around the country. Michelle Wu, the city’s newly elected mayor, has made free public transportation a rallying cry and a personal mission, calling it a tool for social justice and tackling climate change.

Earlier this month, Boston took a small step toward what Wu hopes will be a far larger goal. Three heavily used bus lines that run through the heart of predominantly Black neighborhoods will be fare free for the next two years in a pilot program the city is closely studying.

“This is part of our legacy as a city, to truly invest in the ways that our futures are interconnected,” Wu said in an interview. “If we are serious about climate justice and racial equity and mobility, then removing barriers to public transportation … would be a major step forward.”

Boston isn’t the only place experimenting with free public transportation. More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the concept is having a moment across the United States, thanks partly to federal recovery funds and a desire to lure back passengers. Nationwide, ridership remains just 63 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

After showing its worth during the pandemic, momentum builds for free or reduced-fare transit

After Kansas City, Mo., stopped collecting fares on its transit system in 2020, it experienced a smaller drop in ridership than other cities during the pandemic and security incidents declined, an analysis found. Albuquerque, Richmond and Olympia, Wash., are also running public transportation without fares. Los Angeles recently implemented two years of free fares for students through 12th grade.

Advocates for free transportation say it increases ridership, discourages car use and provides greater access to jobs and education, particularly for lower-income residents and communities of color. The major challenge is how to pay for it, especially in large cities where fares make up a good chunk of transit revenue.

Art Guzzetti, a vice president at the APTA, said the current pilots should be closely watched and what works for one city might not be right for another. Transit is the “great social equalizer,” he said. “The question is, should the rider pay nothing, regardless of their means?”

Boston’s Wu has emerged as the concept’s highest-profile evangelist. When she ran for mayor last fall, Wu memorably promised to “free the T,” the colloquial name for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).

Wu has spent many years as a commuter, often managing two small children and a stroller, and continues to take the T’s Orange Line subway from her home to City Hall.

She started talking about making public transportation free when she was a member of the Boston City Council. In 2019, when the MBTA sought to raise fares, Wu wrote an op-ed saying fares should be abolished instead. Her advocacy caught the attention of Daniel Rivera, a friend who was then mayor of Lawrence, a city of 90,000 north of Boston whose population is predominantly Hispanic or Latino.

Rivera ran the numbers and found that the cost of replacing fare revenue from the city’s three most popular bus routes for two years was $225,000, small enough that it could be funded through existing cash reserves. The buses became free in 2019, and ridership jumped.

“It takes such little money to lift up so many people,” said Rivera, who is now chief executive of MassDevelopment, the state’s development finance agency. At the end of February, the zero-fare project expanded to include all of the bus routes in Lawrence and a dozen neighboring communities.

Wu, who toggles between idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism, is accustomed to hearing that her goal of free public transportation is unrealistic because of its cost. She recalled being told that even launching a pilot of such a project in Boston would be impossible, particularly one that lasted longer than six months.

Getting there wasn’t easy: It took months of discussions with the MBTA about the actual cost of the experiment and its statutory implications, plus several conversations between Wu and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to overcome a regulatory hurdle. Boston is paying for the project with $8 million of federal recovery funds.

In early March, Wu stepped on to a No. 29 bus on Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue to mark the first day of free service, accompanied by residents of a public housing development and a gaggle of reporters. One of the passengers was Yaire Cabrera, a 17-year-old high school student who was startled to see the mayor on her bus.

At first, Cabrera didn’t realize the bus was free: When the driver waved her through as she boarded, she assumed the card reader was broken. Once she learned about the pilot program, her reaction was disbelief, followed by delight. She immediately texted a friend. “This was unexpected,” she said. “I’m pretty happy.”

Marie Claudette Pierre Noël, 53, lost her job at a hotel during the pandemic and has relied on her son to support her. She is a regular rider on two of the free routes and was elated by the new service. “It’s good, good, good!” she said, laughing and giving a thumbs-up salute.

The buses run through areas of Boston that are home to large numbers of immigrants and lower-income residents. One of them is Roxbury, a center of Boston’s Black community and a neighborhood that doesn’t have easy access to a subway line. The regional planning agency for the Boston area found that Black riders spent 64 more hours a year on buses than White riders.

“It’s hard to miss the fact that we have historically underinvested in transit in these communities of color,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets, transportation and sanitation. “So partly this is about saying, ‘How do we right that wrong?’”

The early results are encouraging, he said. One of the buses became free last August in an initial pilot. Ridership on the route jumped 22 percent, said Franklin-Hodge. Meanwhile, the amount of time that buses spent stopped decreased, because passengers boarded more quickly from all doors, without the need to swipe cards or fumble for change. To absorb significantly more passengers without any negative impact on service is a “really tremendous finding,” said Franklin-Hodge.

There was one important drawback: About two-thirds of the passengers said the free bus service didn’t save them any money, either because they use a monthly transit pass or because they transfer from the bus to a train and must still pay a fare for their journey. Meanwhile, some experts are skeptical that free transit will dissuade people from using cars to commute.

Boston’s MBTA is open to experimenting with fare-free rides — provided someone else is sponsoring the cost. Fare-free pilots can be more complex than they appear, said Steven Poftak, general manager of the MBTA. When fares disappear for a bus, they must also be eliminated for transit services for people with disabilities in the same area, generating more demand for such rides. Boston is also covering the cost of those increased services as part of the pilot.

To fully “free the T” would be an expensive proposition. Before the pandemic, the MBTA had a $2.3 billion budget and collected about $700 million in fare revenue, said Poftak. “If folks want to make all modes of transportation free … not only does that revenue need to be replaced, we probably need additional revenue because of the effect” on rides for people with disabilities, he said.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) is not a proponent. “Somebody’s going to have to come up with a lot of money from somebody,” he said in a television interview in November. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Some cities in the state are pushing ahead. In Lawrence, the zero-fare experiment that began in 2019 just expanded to the regional Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority. Noah Berger, the authority’s administrator, said that for every dollar the system collected in fares, 76 cents went to the costs of collecting those fares — from fixing and maintaining fare boxes to physically counting cash. “It’s a very inefficient, clunky way to generate revenue,” he said.

Eliminating fares also removes the primary source of friction between drivers and riders and allows drivers to spend less time at each stop, he said. “The key will be how do we sustain it,” Berger said.

Wu is also thinking about the future. She is looking to expand the fare-free service to key bus routes that connect Boston to its nearest neighbors such as Cambridge. She also wants to see discounted fares for low-income residents across the system. In the long run, she said, public transportation is “a public good and should be funded that way.”

The bus pilot will return its investment many times over, Wu predicted. She recalled a conversation she had with a young man who had relied on his mother to pull together enough change every time he needed bus fare to get to class. Having the freedom to no longer ration your trips based on what you can afford is “life-changing,” said Wu. “It opens up a whole world.”

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