MBTA’s unfair rail fares need to change

Current prices based on 1900s-era approach

EVERY DAY, more than 100,000 people ride the commuter rail in and around Boston, headed not just to work, but also to shop, spend time with family and friends, make medical appointments, and attend cultural or sporting events. Today more than ever, mobility across our growing region is fundamental for equitable access to jobs, healthcare, education, and recreation. Yet the commuter rail fare structure is still a relic of the past century, based on a 1900s-era steam railroad which charged fares based on distance from South Station.

This fare structure stands as a barrier to mobility, exacerbating income inequality and racial disparities across Boston and beyond. Commuter rail fares can be quite expensive compared to bus or subway, with an especially large price jump between Zones 1 and 1A—for example, $2.25 from Forest Hills to South Station, but $6.25 from Roslindale Village to Forest Hills, just a mile apart. As housing prices near rapid transit stations rise, people priced out of living near jobs or transit now face significantly higher commuting costs. Whether commuters are deterred from taking transit altogether or incentivized to drive and then park on a side street near a subway stop, expensive commuter rail fares mean more cars, more traffic, and more emissions.

As the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control board considers changes to fares, we urge a focus on equity and encouraging ridership, especially at times and locations where there is extra capacity.

First, the MBTA should rezone all stations within the city of Boston to Zone 1A. Cities and towns served by the MBTA pay an annual assessment to help the T provide service, and the formula assesses Boston (from funds paid by taxpayers across all Boston neighborhoods) at a higher rate per capita than any other municipality. As an equity measure, the MBTA designated most stations on the Fairmount Line as Zone 1A, which has led to increased ridership on the line in recent years. Implementing equitable fares in Roslindale, West Roxbury, and the rest of Hyde Park would increase commuter rail ridership from passengers who would otherwise crowd onto buses and the Orange Line or drive to work on our already-congested roadways.

Second, the MBTA should incentivize less-expensive “interzone” travel to and from commuter rail stations that are not also subway hubs. Take the case of Boston Landing, which opened a year ago as a Zone 1A station and already exceeds 500 riders per day. Originally proposed as Zone 1, Boston Landing was changed to Zone 1A after protests on Twitter and from advocacy groups and elected officials. The commuter rail trip from Allston to Back Bay is $2.25 (compared to a $6.25 Zone 1 fare); this lower cost encourages commuter rail ridership and frees up capacity on parallel bus and subway routes which are overcrowded during rush hour. The downside is that commuter rail trips between Boston Landing and suburban communities cost more than if the station were designated as Zone 1, meaning trips from the suburbs to Boston Landing—where parking is relatively cheap—are priced the same as trips to Downtown Boston. Designating a cheaper interzone fare to and from 1A stations that are not major subway hubs would encourage more ridership and enable the commuter rail to act more as a “regional rail” system: suburban commuters to Boston Landing get off and go to their workplaces, freeing up capacity for Allston residents who want a convenient trip downtown.

Finally, the MBTA should be applauded for taking immediate steps to test out ways to encourage ridership. This week the T announced a summer pilot of a $10 commuter rail weekend pass: one ticket, $10, all weekend long. With less traffic and cheaper parking on the weekends, families might typically drive downtown, but this discount will encourage public transit usage, making it more affordable to come downtown to go to a museum, visit a park, or catch a Sox game at Fenway. It will also be a boon for Boston residents to access fun outside the city by taking a train to visit the beach, to hike the Bay Circuit Trail, to tour art museums in Salem and Worcester, to ride a bike from West Concord to Lowell on the newly-extended rail trail, to sample breweries across the region, and to travel to events like the Lowell Folk Festival. This type of incentive may encourage more visitors to Boston to use commuter rail to get outside of Boston rather than renting a car. Popular tourist destinations such as Plymouth, Salem, and Concord may find that they can accommodate more visitors with less automotive congestion.

Creating ways for people to get around the Boston area without sitting in traffic or breaking the bank expands opportunities not just in the city of Boston, but also for the regional economies in many of the surrounding cities and towns. We hope that this is the start of a trend to provide off-peak travel pricing to encourage more people to take the train. With the deployment of the more flexible fare collection system dubbed “AFC 2.0” in a few years, we encourage the MBTA to provide for free transfers between subways, buses, and commuter rail trains, and offer a discounted regional weekend access pass when trains and buses have extra capacity. The MBTA can even experiment with off-peak discounts to charge less for those who take commuter rail midday when trains (and roads) are less crowded, a tool already used in other systems.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Meet the Author

Michelle Wu

City Councilor, City of Boston
These are small steps, but they are building blocks. Seeing growth in off-peak ridership can help make the case for providing more frequent off-peak and weekend service—what the advocacy group TransitMatters calls “regional rail”—with trains running at least every hour rather than every two or three hours. We look forward to working with the MBTA on the first steps toward that larger vision: fair, equitable fare policies that would immediately enhance mobility throughout the region.

Ari Ofsevit is a graduate student at MIT and a board member of TransitMatters and Michelle Wu is a Boston city councilor.