Free bump on the Fairmount

Ridership rises during free period, falls back afterward

Even two weeks of free rides on the Fairmount Line didn’t boost traffic that much, but they did expose more people to the least-used line on the MBTA’s commuter rail system.

The Fairmount Line, which connects South Station and Readville via Dorchester, Hyde Park, and Mattapan, has by far the worst ridership of any of the MBTA’s commuter rail lines. Many suspect the low ridership is a reflection of poor marketing, so US Rep. Michael Capuano used $53,000 of his campaign funds to help the MBTA offer free service for two weeks in May in a bid to get more people to try the line.

On a percentage basis, the increase in ridership was fairly strong during the two-week period. But the large percentage increases belied the fact that ridership started from a very small base. Either way, traffic returned to its old level once the two-week free period ended.

Ridership was measured on four consecutive Wednesdays – before, during, and after the two week, free period. According to the T, the total number of trips on the Wednesday before the free rides began was 2,349. During the first week of the free period, traffic rose to 2,936 trips, a 25 percent increase over the previous week. The following week traffic rose to 3,377 trips before dropping back down to 2,496 trips the week after.

The before and after numbers matched fairly closely ridership numbers from  June 2016, when the Boston Foundation financed a one-day ridership survey that indicated the line carried 2,250 riders.

Capuano issued a hopeful statement. “I am pleased, but not surprised, that there was a substantial increase in ridership during the Fairmount Sponsored Service Initiative,” he said. “My hope is that, between increased ridership during this two-week period and the change in rider count methodology prior to this program, the MBTA is closer to realizing the Fairmount Line’s full potential.”

The initiative was a collaboration between the congressman’s office and several community advocates promoting the Fairmount Line, which is sometimes referred to as the Fairmount Indigo Line. During the initiative’s outreach phase, the Indigo coalition worked together with the Boston Foundation (which backed the efforts financially) to get the word out about the free rides to residents along the train’s route.

A lot of outreach was done through grassroots efforts: handing out flyers and putting up banners, posting information online, and reaching out to locals during neighborhood meetings. Pamela Bush Miles, of the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, said there is still much more work to do on the line and in its surrounding communities.

“People said we need more frequency. The buses aren’t synced to get people at stations before the train leaves. So if you ride a bus to the commuter station and get there after it leaves, you have at least another 40 minutes to wait for the next one,” Miles said. “Nobody wants to do that in real life, especially not in the dead of winter.”

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Natasha Ishak

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Natasha Ishak is the editorial intern at CommonWealth magazine. Her duties include reporting and writing on the latest policy issues happening on Beacon Hill.

Before arriving at CommonWealth Magazine, she worked as a digital intern under NOVA/PBS at WGBH. She was a reporter in her hometown of Jakarta for four years, writing up stories at The Jakarta Post - Indonesia's oldest leading English-language daily, and as a production assistant on the popular news program, the Indonesia Morning Show.

Now in her second year pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Emerson College, she hopes to shed light on marginalized communities through stories related to politics, immigration, social justice and the environment.

About Natasha Ishak

Natasha Ishak is the editorial intern at CommonWealth magazine. Her duties include reporting and writing on the latest policy issues happening on Beacon Hill.

Before arriving at CommonWealth Magazine, she worked as a digital intern under NOVA/PBS at WGBH. She was a reporter in her hometown of Jakarta for four years, writing up stories at The Jakarta Post - Indonesia's oldest leading English-language daily, and as a production assistant on the popular news program, the Indonesia Morning Show.

Now in her second year pursuing a master's degree in journalism at Emerson College, she hopes to shed light on marginalized communities through stories related to politics, immigration, social justice and the environment.

Another issue the coalition heard about from passengers during the free ride period was that most people didn’t even know they could take the Fairmount Line through the city into downtown. Miles said there is still a huge misconception on where the commuter line takes people and how much a ride costs. At seven of the eight stations on the Fairmount Line, the cost is $2.25 for a one-way trip – the same as a subway ride.

“The issue is A) the MBTA didn’t really market the line in a way that’s communicated that it [the commuter line] is unique,” Miles said. “People still perceive the [Fairmount] commuter line as the purple train that goes somewhere far away and costs a lot of money. We’ve been working with the T to better market the service and put up information at the stations to make it clear to people this commuter line costs the same as the subway.”