Massport taking on Uber, Lyft

Will free service, special perks be enough to pull riders away?

MASSPORT IS TRYING to make public transit to the airport more competitive with the ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft, but will free be good enough?

The proposal Massport unveiled last week is a combination of carrot and stick, stick in the form of higher fees and less convenient pickups and drop-offs for the ride-hailing apps and carrot in the form of lower fares, or in some cases no fare at all, for expanded transit services and airport perks.

It’s an ambitious proposal, designed to eliminate 3 million annual trips to the airport. Whether the lower price of transit will trump the door-to-door convenience of the ride-hailing apps, particularly for people with luggage in tow, is far from clear. Many travelers use Logan for business travel and can expense their transportation costs.

“Free sometimes doesn’t cut it, if the money isn’t coming out of your own pocket,” said James Aloisi, a board member at TransitMatters and a former state secretary of transportation.

Massport officials say they are targeting Uber and Lyft because their drivers are overrunning the airport, while taxi and limousine use is declining. The two ride-hailing companies generated 12 million trips to and from the airport in 2018, of which 5 million were so-called dead-head trips where no passengers were being carried. Nearly half of the 2018 trips originated in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston – specifically the financial district, Back Bay, North End, East Boston, and South Boston. Another third originated in other communities inside Route 128.

The rise of the ride-hailing apps has caused a decline in passengers using high occupancy vehicles to get to the airport. Inside the urban core, where most ride-hailing trips originate, the percent of passengers getting to the airport using high occupancy vehicles has declined from 29 percent to 21 percent since spring 2016, according to Massport.

The strategy for reversing that dynamic hinges on reducing Uber and Lyft dead-head trips by having vehicles doing drop-offs also handle pick-ups. Massport is also forecasting that the higher fees on the ride-hailing apps will eliminate 100,000 to 400,000 Uber and Lyft trips, and the fee revenue will be used to finance more bus service to Logan, including free bus service.

Free Silver Line bus service is promoted on MBTA fare terminals inside airport terminals. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

The airport fee for ride-hailing apps, currently $3.75 for pickups only, will rise to $5 for both pickups and drop-offs. The drop-off-pickup area for the ride-hailing apps will be moved to the first level of the central parking garage, a five to seven minute walk from the terminals.

To encourage more people in Boston’s urban core to use transit to get to the airport, Massport is proposing to lower the price of Logan Express bus service between Back Bay station and the airport. The current charge is $7.50, but Massport is proposing to reduce it to $3 for rides to the airport and make rides from the airport to Back Bay free. Officials want to introduce similar service at North Station with an identical fee arrangement. The officials said service could also be introduced from Kendall Square, Allston-Brighton, and Newton Corner.

There are also plans to expand existing suburban Logan Express bus locations in Braintree and Framingham and add new locations as well. Locations being evaluated include the intersection of the Turnpike and I-495, along Route 2 in Waltham, along Route 128 in Newton, and along Route 1 in Saugus.

Massport wants to entice more air travelers to use Logan Express buses by offering them the chance to jump to the front of security lines at the airport, with a pilot scheduled to launch May 1. If this perk can be worked out – and spread to other transit services – it could be a game-changer.

With Massport pushing free transit options for Logan Express customers, it’s helpful to look at the free service it already offers – Silver Line bus service from the airport terminals to South Station, where passengers can jump on the Red Line and gain access to the rest of the T subway system at no additional charge.

Massport officials say they don’t have good stats on how many use the Silver Line bus to get to and from the airport, but a walk around the terminals makes clear the service is not heavily promoted to arriving passengers. The Massport transportation website does a good job of plugging the service, but for passengers who arrive at Logan with no set plan for how to get to their destination there is little effort to grab their attention.

There is a “free” sign on T fare machines in each terminal and ground transportation signs disclose (in fairly small print) that the Silver Line is “free from the airport,” but T maps showing the Silver Line schedule don’t disclose what’s available for free and curb-side signage is silent. The bus itself carries a message on the outside that says it’s free.

The message that Silver Line service to Boston is free is most visible in Terminal A, but seems to go downhill from there. Visibility is the worst in Terminal E, where the fare machines (with the free sign) are located out of the way at the very end of the building.

A Massport spokeswoman said agency officials are aware of the challenges ahead and are evaluating the information currently available to passengers and how it can be improved with more signage, advertisements, and information shared with

Meet the Author

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.

airlines and airport tenants.

Ground transportation signs at Logan to note, in fairly small type, that Silver Line service to South Station is free. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Silver Line schedule maps at the airport don’t mention service to South Station is free. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)