Ridership on fare-free MBTA buses more than doubled in program's first year

About a year ago, Boston decided to do something different: Make three bus routes, the 23, 28 and 29, fare-free for riders.

The city launched a fare-free pilot program for three lines that serve many low-income people and people of color, expanding a program already in place on one line, Route 28.

The city of Boston is preparing to release a report on the fare-free programs in the coming weeks. But a GBH analysis of data from the T shows that ridership more than doubled between the week of Feb. 15, 2021, before the program started, and the same week this year. Ridership on these lines is also up about 16 percent from before the pandemic, unlike other MBTA bus lines, where ridership is about 21 percent lower systemwide compared to mid-February 2020.

Stacy Thompson, executive director of the transit advocacy group Livable Streets, said it isn't just the number of riders that shows the fare-free pilot has been a success so far.

"I think what's so exciting about this is that it doesn't look all that different. But for the people who are using free buses, it feels very different," Thompson said. "And what that means is that when it is pouring rain outside, when it's snowing, you can get on the bus faster; the bus moves faster; there's more money in your pocket if you're not making a transfer and that's your only ride."

The MBTA is not the first transit system in Massachusetts to test out fare-free buses. All buses though the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority and the Worcester Regional Transit Authority remain fare-free as well.

"There's a lot of focus on Boston, but we actually have regional transit authorities that are doing this work and seeing similar very positive results," Thompson said.

Thompson said she often hears people question why buses should be free for all. Why not try free fares for low-income riders only? Free bus rides do more than save people $1.70 on their fare, she said. They save them time.

"Time is money," she said. "On the MBTA system in particular, they help the buses move more efficiently. They take that friction away for the bus operators. We spend so much time, energy and attention and just trying to collect money that we have to look at those tradeoffs."

Thompson said she hopes the fare-free pilot program helps people readjust their thinking about how the MBTA at large could operate.

"We hear people say 'folks have to pay for transit to care about it, we need fares to pay for transit,'" she said. "And then when the data shows that those fares aren't very reliable in terms of paying for our systems, that we actually get more people on the service, and they enjoy the service more when the service is free — it freaks them out a little bit, because the data is not affirming what their assumptions are about transit."

She compared transit to other services Americans think of as public goods, like libraries and schools: Mostly taxpayer-funded and free to use.

"The data saying going to a fare-free system makes good economic sense," Thompson said. "These are political choices. Because at the end of the day, to have a world-class transit system from every corner of the state, we need greater investment."

The fare-free experiments, she said, "have demonstrated the proof of concept."

As of now, the fare free pilot is set to go through February of next year in Boston.