Boston’s fare-free bus pilot program sets the stage for transit equity, advocates say

Following Boston City Council’s approval of Mayor Michelle Wu’s $8 million free bus expansion proposal last month, transit advocates Jim Aloisi and Stacy Thompson joined Boston Public Radio on Monday to share how the two-year pilot program could spur change across the transit sector.

“There's a lot that needs to happen in the state of Massachusetts in 2022. But I think we're gonna see a year of rapid progress,” said Thompson, who leads the nonprofit Livable Streets that advocates for equitable transit solutions in the Boston area. “I think we're gonna see a real sea shift, not just in Boston, but across the region and state around the issue of ‘should transit be free?’”

Boston’s City Council voted 12–1 on the proposal to allocate $8 million of federal relief funds for a fare-free, two-year bus pilot program along the MBTA’s 23, 28 and 29 bus routes, an initial step toward Wu’s mission to “Free the T.” The MBTA Route 28 bus fare-free pilot program, which was launched by former acting Mayor Kim Janey and set to expire at the end of 2021, was also extended into February 2022.

For those questioning whether Boston has the funding for making transit free, Thompson argued that the state of public transit in Massachusetts necessitates change.

“If we maintain the status quo, which doesn't get us East-West Rail, which doesn't get us great bus service, which doesn’t even pay the bus operators we have in a few years’ time — we don’t have the money to do the basics right now,” Thompson said. “So every single time someone says to me, ‘we don’t have money for free transit,’ I’m like, we don’t have enough money period. And we’ve known this for a few years now.

“I think we’re planting the seeds for a more robust conversation, and it is so much bigger than ‘should transit be free or not?’” she continued.

Former state transportation secretary Aloisi agreed, noting that the fare-free bus pilot program opens up more opportunities for equitable transportation.

“We’ve got to figure out how to move into a future that’s different than the one we’ve all been used to. And that’s the one we want to build, not the one that the pandemic will force on us,” Aloisi said. “When I challenged people in metro Boston [with] ‘what is that future you want to build?’ that’s where the free bus conversation — and where the decarbonization conversation — needs to flourish.”

Aloisi is the former Massachusetts transportation secretary, a member of the Transit Matters board and contributor to Commonwealth Magazine. Thompson is executive director of Livable Streets.