Fare-free Worcester buses called bright spot in transit recovery
Business group backs discount fares for intermittent commuter rail riders
THE BUS SYSTEM in Worcester, which went fare free in March 2020, has built back its ridership during COVID faster than any other transit system in Massachusetts, according to a new report.
The Worcester Regional Transit Authority, which operates the bus system, is one of the few bright spots in terms of ridership among transit systems across the state, where passenger levels have failed to recover even as traffic on the roadways appears to be nearly back to pre-COVID levels.
Two reports issued on Tuesday came at the state’s transportation dilemma from different angles. One report by the Boston Foundation’s Boston Indicators project documented the current state of transportation in Massachusetts and raised concerns that unless transit systems pick up their games the state may soon be mired in traffic congestion.
The second report, by the business group A Better City, recommended fare discounts and free parking as a way to rebuild the MBTA’s commuter rail ridership, which has been hit hard by COVID. Unless commuter rail passenger levels pick up, the business group said, highways could be overwhelmed once employees return to their commutes in greater numbers.
“There remains the possibility that traffic growth is due to former transit commuters switching to car commuting—and when offices truly open traffic may very well exceed pre-pandemic,” the report said.
The rising levels of traffic provide some urgency for enticing riders back to transit, but there have been relatively few success stories.
According to the Boston Indicators data, the Worcester bus system is one of the relative bright spots. Ridership went from 32 percent of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020 to topping 90 percent in July and August of this year, roughly 30 percentage points above the statewide average for ridership retention at regional transit authorities. The Southeast Regional Transit Authority’s bus system was second, serving 78 percent of its pre-COVID riders during the summer.
Dennis Lipka, the administrator of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, said the numbers in the Boston Indicators study are too high. He said Worcester is serving about 80 to 85 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership, and using 2019 as the comparison point puts the bar pretty low because ridership was off 8 to 10 percent that year compared to previous years.
Lipka said Worcester eliminated fares initially because the system adopted rear-door-boarding on its buses when COVID hit and fares were impossible to collect. Rear-door boarding was later deemed counterproductive and eliminated, Lipka said, but fare-free service continued using federal COVID-relief funding. The fare-free experiment is currently scheduled to end at the end of this year.
Lipka said he will make his recommendation on whether to reintroduce fares next year in November, but he indicated much will depend on the availability of funding. He said fares typically account for 10 to 12 percent of revenue. Without federal aid, he said, some other source of funding will be needed.
At the MBTA, the bus system, which has rebounded to 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and the Blue Line on the subway system, which has returned to more than 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, are the two leading success stories, according to the Boston Indicators report. The Green Line is up to 53 percent, while the Red and Orange Lines are below 50 percent. The commuter rail system as a whole is at 29 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
The Boston Indicators report urged more transit systems to experiment with fare-free policies on bus lines (the issue is a hot one in Boston, where mayoral candidate Michaelle Wu has called for a fare free MBTA) and encouraged employers to provide free or reduced-cost MBTA passes. The report also recommended congestion pricing to make driving more expensive.
In its report, A Better City urged the T to start focusing more attention on riders who are using the system occasionally. The T has a number of passes catering to regular monthly commuters, but for those who ride intermittently the options are slim. The T currently offers a five-day Flex Pass that can be purchased on the mTicket app and saves money for people coming in to work only a handful of days a week. A Better City said the break-even point for the Flex Pass is using it three days a week; using the pass less than that or more than that and it’s not cost effective, the business group said.
The business group recommended the T seek Federal Transportation Administration approval for a new 7-day Ready Pass that would offer unlimited travel each day it is used and allow unused one-day passes to roll over into the next month if not used. Priced at 30 percent off the mTicket pay-as-you-go price, A Better City said the new pass would save those who commute two to four days a week considerable money.
A Better City also urged the T to consider a welcome back 50 percent discount for a month on all MBTA fares or all commuter rail fares and free parking at T lots where space is available for up to three days a week.The report also recommended promoting transit deals that already exist, including fares between Boston and nearby communities that cost the same as a subway fare. It also promoted a calculator that allows commuters to determine whether a monthly pass is cost effective for them.
A Better City said the T has little choice to offer its customers more flexibility. “If the MBTA does not provide flexible, cost-effective fare products to lapsed commuters, there is a real chance that lapsed commuters will shift to driving alone,” the business group said in its report. “If this happens, the MBTA is at risk of long-term revenue loss.