A Freakanomics debate about free fares

FREAKANOMICS RADIO is out with an interesting podcast on whether public transit should be free – and, not surprisingly, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is the headliner for those who say yes.

Wu has called for eliminating all fare across the MBTA system, but on the podcast – a spinoff of the popular 2005 book of the same name by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner – she sets her sights a bit lower.

“I think we can get to a free bus system,” she says. “That would be transformational for our city’s economy, climate, and opportunity. It’s about who has to bear the burden and how we see the long-term cost-benefit of what we need to do to make sure that we are cleaning our air, connecting people to jobs, healing the impacts from the pandemic, and fulfilling our potential as a green, resilient community.”

Wu makes it sound as if eliminating bus fares could be cost neutral. She cites an transit advocate’s estimate that the revenue loss from eliminating fares would be $30 million and notes the MBTA has separately estimated doing away with fares would yield $29 million in cost savings on fuel and other efficiencies.

The T, however, has different estimates. A spokesman said the transit authority estimates the cost of eliminating bus fares (and fares for corresponding paratransit service) would range from $88 million to $122 million. It would be significantly higher — $118 million to $188 million – if service is expanded to meet the higher likely demand, the T says.

Dubner questions Wu’s priorities, pressing her on why issues like early education, childcare, health care, or affordable housing shouldn’t be at the top of the agenda. “Why start with free public transit?” he asks.

“We know that the foundation for equitable access to opportunities is connectedness, the ability to get around,” Wu responds. She cites a 2015 Harvard study showing that the factor most closely linked to a family’s ability to rise out of poverty is the average commute time to work.

Others appearing on the podcast are not so sure. Brian Taylor, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, said free transit would not make his top list of priorities if he were named the nation’s secretary of transportation.

“To me, right now, the problem with public transit is the problem we have with cars,” Taylor said. “In fact, in the United States we’re investing more in public transit. And that’s all for the good, except that it’s undermined by policies that keep trying to make it easier and cheaper to drive. And now we say, ‘Okay, well, we’re not going to make drivers responsible for the cost they impose on society, let’s see if we can make it even cheaper to go on public transit.’” 

The podcast looks at alternative approaches, including lowering transit prices for those who earn less money and instituting congestion fees — charging people who drive into cities like London and Stockholm.

“If you’ve ever been in Stockholm, it’s shocking,” Taylor says. “Public transit gets around very quickly and easily. People do drive there, but the streets aren’t packed with traffic. You can choose to drive in and out of central Stockholm, but you have to pay for it. And because of that, when you can take public transit or bike or walk or travel by some other means, people do it. So it’s not that it’s an unpleasant place to drive, it’s that it’s an expensive place to drive. It’s the same thing as flying over Thanksgiving or Christmas or staying at a hotel during peak holiday periods – the price goes up and down to bring supply and demand in line. Otherwise, we’d just have people queuing up, and that’s what we do now.”

Taylor also says there are different markets for public transit – the first is people who because of age, income, or disability cannot drive and then there is transit for people traveling to places where parking is difficult or expensive.

“The latter group is more affluent; the former group is poorer,” Taylor says. “That first group is transit’s dirty little secret — the idea that it was providing an absolutely critical social service, a redistributive social service, is not something that you advertised to voters because that kind of a role didn’t get as much support as saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to provide an alternative to driving that’s going to help to deal with congestion. It’s going to deal with environmental pollution. It’s going to help slow climate change.’ That has broader appeal. So those are two different goals. They’re sometimes congruent, but sometimes they’re at odds. I think that’s an important thing that your listeners think about is this opportunity cost of spending money to eliminate fares. Could we do things with that money that riders might value even more than a free ride? I would think that anyone before embarking on a fare-free program ought to ask that question. And the answer could be no, but it could be yes.”

Wu says the answer is yes, and she doesn’t shy away from the argument that transit is a redistributive social service. She also doesn’t shy away from being bold.

It’s very easy to be just reactive in these roles, and we have to exercise every bit of planning and capacity and organizational muscle to be proactive,” she says. “I keep a countdown clock, a little widget on my phone, that shows me exactly how many days are left in the term, because every single day should count, and we have to move at a pace that is closer to the urgency in the communities as opposed to the usual pace of government.”




Arroyo on hot seat: Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who is running for Suffolk County district attorney, pushes back against sexual assault allegations against him that date to when he was a teenager. Most of his prominent Democratic supporters take a wait-and-see stance on the allegations, but some are already jumping ship.

– The allegations involve two women and first surfaced in a Boston Globe article. Neither resulted in any charges being filed and Arroyo insists he was not aware of them until the Globe asked him about them. Documents obtained by the Globe cast doubt on his claims. When Arroyo filed an application for his law license in 2014, he said he had not been investigated or convicted of any misdemeanor or felony crime.

– Arroyo accused his political rival, the incumbent Suffolk DA Kevin Hayden, of selectively leaking information to the Globe. Hayden’s spokesman at the DA’s office denied the accusation while his campaign spokesperson accused Arroyo of lying multiple times to reporters to “cover up the disturbing accusations against him.”

– An attorney for one of the women Arroyo was suspected of assaulting denied Arroyo assaulted her client and said her client is endorsing him for DA. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu called the allegations troubling but stood by Arroyo, for now. Former congressman Joe Kennedy withdrew his endorsement, as did a handful of other supporters. Read more.

Less frequent subway service to continue: MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said less frequent service on the Red, Blue, and Orange Lines will continue through the fall as staffing levels in the subway operations control center remain below levels needed to add more trains. Read more.

Diehl’s campaign gains issue: Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl creates an issue to run on as he leads the effort to secure enough signatures to put a question on the November ballot repealing the new law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses. Read more.


Warning signs: Eileen McAnneny, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, says the state is losing its competitive edge. Read more.



The Pine Street Inn is teaming up with a developer to convert the Comfort Inn on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester into housing for formerly homeless people. (Dorchester Reporter)

Coyotes kill three dogs in Wayland, Sudbury, and Concord. (MetroWest Daily News)

A “bridgetender” who works the historic Padanaram Bridge in Dartmouth is recognized for his actions to prevent a possible suicide there. (Standard-Times


New research indicates the number of deaths from COVID this spring were similar to what the state saw pre-COVID, even though the Omicron variant was spreading quickly. (WBUR)


President Biden announces his plan to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt and up to $10,000 more for those with the greatest financial need. (Associated Press)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed nearly $54 million to Massachusetts residents to help them bury relatives who died of COVID. (Eagle-Tribune)


The two Democratic candidates for secretary of state – incumbent Bill Galvin and first-time candidate Tanisha Sullivan – differ in almost every way. (GBH) The Boston Globe endorses Galvin for what it calls a “final term,” saying his steady hand is needed at a time when election integrity is under assault.  

Globe columnist Joan Vennochi suggests Ricardo Arroyo’s denial of knowing before this month that he had been the focus of sexual assault allegations isn’t believable, and says he’s the latest pol who will test the theory of whether the truth actually matters anymore. The next few days will determine whether his campaign survives or craters, says the Herald’s Joe Battenfeld.

Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Sen. Eric Lesser launches a campaign ad questioning why a super PAC with ties to Republicans is supporting rival Kim Driscoll, the mayor of Salem. (State House News Service)


The Boston Public Schools plan to deploy vans in certain areas to bring students to school during the Orange Line shutdown. (WBUR)

A transgender Peruvian man who was a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School died while in police custody in Indonesia, and his family, which says he was mistreated and subjected to discrimination by police, wants answers to what happened. (The Harvard Crimson


Civil rights groups are asking the Federal Transit Administration to review whether the MBTA’s Orange Line shutdown violes federal law by having an “unjustified impact based on race, color, or national origin.” (Boston Globe


A man who faced charges after heckling then-Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins at a crime scene is now suing her and others involved in the case for “malicious prosecution” after a judge ruled that his actions were protected speech under the First Amendment. (Boston Globe

A 63-year-old man already serving a prison sentence for attempted murder is indicted for the murder of Salem State college student Claire Gravel in 1986. (Eagle-Tribune)

A 31-year-old woman accused of killing her father, her brother-in-law, and her brother-in-law’s father before killing herself left a message on Facebook saying her brother-in-law had been abusing her sister and family members had turned a blind eye to the situation. (Daily Item)

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington says she will appeal a judge’s dismissal of involuntary manslaughter charges against an Adams couple in connection with the death of a foster child. (Berkshire Eagle)

Mario Batali has agreed to settle two Massachusetts lawsuits brought by women alleging the celebrity chef sexually assaulted them. (Associated Press)