‘Free’ getting another test during Orange Line shutdown

Absence of fares enticing subway riders to try commuter rail, bikes

THE ONE-MONTH Orange Line shutdown is a big test of thinking big when it comes to subway maintenance work, but it is also providing the opportunity to experiment with another innovative transportation strategy – free fares.

Hoping to cram five years of weekend and night work into a single month, the MBTA shut down the entire Orange Line on Friday and sought to minimize the inconvenience for riders by deploying a fleet of free shuttle buses. So far, the replacement system appears to be holding together.

Riders are also being enticed by the absence of fares to use alternative modes of transportation. For example, the MBTA is requiring passengers to only show a Charlie Card to ride the commuter rail system inside zones 2, 1 and 1A, which means a service that normally costs as much as $7 for a one-way trip is now basically free.

And Bluebikes, thanks to subsidies provided by HYM Investment Group, which is building the Government Center Garage project, is offering free passes for the entire month. 

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who is having the city pay the cost of a two-year experiment with fare-free buses on three major MBTA routes, indicated the commuter rail and bike initiatives are all part of the same philosophy.

“When you remove financial barriers, the appetite is there, the demand is there for bikes, for commuter rail, for all the other modes,” she said on WBUR’s Radio Boston show on Monday.

City officials said Bluebike ridership hit an all-time high over the weekend, with a total of more than 36,000 riders over the two days. Each day topped the previous high of 18,303 set on September 11, 2021. Nearly 12,000 people had acquired free monthly passes as of 9 a.m. Monday, according to city officials.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is also offering valet service at select stations, providing more bikes and more dropoff space than is normally available.

Ridership numbers for the commuter rail system were not immediately available. Wu said she and her sons rode the system over the weekend and conductors didn’t even bother to check for Charlie Cards.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Wu said the commuter rail trains would be ideal substitutes for the Orange Line if the frequency of trains were increased. Over the weekend, Wu said, trains running between Roslindale and Back Bay came every two hours. On weekdays, the service normally runs every hour on the hour – a frequency Wu called “unacceptable” — but has been increased to every half hour during the Orange Line shutdown.

“Because it is free during the shutdown, it is a very, very convenient option,” she said.