Free T bus sped service, even got some to ditch cars — but saved few money, MBTA says

Since the MBTA’s 28 bus became free to ride last year, service has improved and some commuters have ditched their cars in favor of the bus. But most people on the free bus still ended up paying for their fare through a monthly pass or when they transferred to another part of the system, the T said Thursday.

The preliminary results of the first six months of fare-free service on the 28 come as Boston plans to expand fare-free service to include the 23 and 29 routes for two years starting March 1 using $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to reimburse the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for lost revenue.

The new information came in a presentation about alternative fare proposals to MBTA oversight board members Thursday. The agency’s assistant general manager for policy and transit planning said eliminating fares on the 28 bus has reduced wait times at bus stops by about 20 percent and increased ridership by about 22 percent compared with similar lines, including about 5 percent of trips that would have otherwise been car trips.

Two-thirds of riders who have taken the fare-free 28 bus ended up paying a fare, though, by purchasing a monthly T pass or transferring to another transit line that charges a fare, Lynsey Heffernan said. Twenty-one percent of riders saved more than $20 per month, and 12 percent of riders saved less than $20 per month.

The city of Boston and the MBTA plan to publish a full report of the results of the six-month pilot by the end of the month. In a statement, Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge said the fare-free 28 pilot, which began in August of last year, saved residents money, increased ridership, and improved bus service.

“Expanded fare-free transit has the power to be a transformative force in Boston and cities around the world,” the statement said. “We are hopeful that the expansion of the pilot to include the 23 and 29 lines will help make riding public transportation easy and accessible while also reducing the city’s carbon footprint.”

Heffernan said the T is cautious about working with other municipalities interested in making bus routes free to ride, including Brookline, Cambridge, Salem, and others because it could create a “patchwork solution.” The board did not make any decisions about fare equity strategies the agency should take going forward at this month’s meeting.

“We [are] wary as a staff if certain municipalities have resources and others don’t, what does that look like and what is the MBTA’s responsibility in that space?” she said. “Given some of the data from the evaluation in terms of the rider benefits, the staff is curious if this is the best approach here.”

Transit advocates who have long been pushing for more reliable bus service and reduced fares for people with low incomes say the fare-free 28 pilot is functioning as designed.

“This is why we are advocating for statewide free buses,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets Alliance, a public transportation advocacy group. “The T is going to collect most of this money anyway, but there are so many other benefits we can implement.”

Fares have traditionally made up about 31 percent of the MBTA’s operating revenue, totaling around $700 million, Heffernan said. But only a fraction of the fare revenue comes from buses, estimated by advocates to total around $30 million each year.

By eliminating fares on all buses, transit advocates argue, more people will use the bus, reducing climate change-causing carbon emissions and improving quality of life for people with low incomes for whom multiple bus trips may be out of reach. Nearly half of the riders who use MBTA buses are people of color, Heffernan said, and 42 percent have household annual incomes lower than $43,500.

Municipalities are trying to move forward with eliminating fares on MBTA buses within their borders because they have not seen the T get behind a system-wide approach, Thompson said.

“The only reason cities are doing this is because of the absence of leadership from the MBTA to do this systemwide, which has always been the goal,” she said. “Cities are piloting free fares to demonstrate that it’s not that expensive, it will increase ridership and improve service.”

Advocates have long pushed for other strategies to increase ridership and make the MBTA more accessible, including providing a lower fare for adults with low incomes. Currently, the T offers reduced fares for seniors, people with disabilities, some middle and high school students, and people with low incomes between the ages of 18 and 25.

Despite a commitment to its former oversight board to pilot a low-income fare starting as soon as this summer, the MBTA has not indicated whether it will still move forward with that plan. At Thursday’s board meeting, the board did not push for a similar commitment or opine on the topic.

The chair of the MBTA board of directors Betsy Taylor said she hopes the agency will consider many different kinds of pilots. She suggested the agency come up with criteria for how it will measure the success of fare pilot projects.

“I hope that you and your group will consider as many types of different pilots as possible, different cities will have different desires and it’s good to experiment,” she said. “It’s important to know what the pros and cons of a pilot are.”