Why we need fare-free public transportation

Gateway Cities are showing us that free buses work

Earlier last month, I spent two full weeks on public transit across Massachusetts. My mornings started the way they always do; racing to the Blue Line to get my son Mac to daycare on time. Then I kept going. I caught the commuter rail to Worcester, hopped the completely fare-free 41 bus from Lawrence to Lowell, jumped on the ferry from Boston to Hingham, and tried out the electric bikeshare across Springfield. I rode the NB9X bus connecting Fall River and New Bedford and the 28 bus from Roxbury to Mattapan. 

Different cities, the same story: Public transit is the lifeline on which every other asset of daily life in Massachusetts depends, from jobs and education to community, culture, and care. But all across the state, it’s a mess. Stations flooding, vehicles missing, fares rising, schedules shrinking, “fiscal calamity,”  and working families, particularly Black and Brown ones, left high and dry. 

There’s a reason the first debate out of the gate between the two Boston Mayoral finalists has been about whether we can afford to go big and bold on transportation reform.  

I’m with Michele Wu here: We can’t afford not to. 

That’s why I’ve introduced a statewide transportation plan that invests in solutions we know already work and delivers immediately on equity. My transportation policy prioritizes fare-free public transportation, with a commitment to make every bus fare-free by the end of my first year in office. We do this with new state investments, learning from Lawrence’s success and leadership on fare-free routes. My policy electrifies and modernizes our regional rail network, fights the scourge of fatal crashes with a vision to end traffic deaths, and pays for it all with new equitable revenue. As governor, I will put our communities at the center of transportation, giving voters the authority to make additional transportation investments through regional transportation ballot initiatives. I will connect long-neglected regions of the state with East-West Rail. 

When I’m governor, I will transform our commuter rail system into true regional rail. It is not enough for trains to bring 9-5 office workers back and forth to Boston. Gateway Cities are the economic engines and community hubs that can power Massachusetts, and frequent and reliable service between them is vital. This means electrifying our service, making physical infrastructure investments in level platforms and other accessibility improvements, and guaranteeing and funding frequent service everywhere, not just around Boston.  

Gateway Cities bear many of the costs of our transportation problems, but they also show us the solutions. While policymakers statewide have endlessly debated and let fares climb higher and higher, Lawrence showed us that fare-free buses work: on Lawrence’s three fare-free lines, ridership jumped 24 percent, bringing more residents out of their cars and more people to community and opportunity in the Merrimack Valley. Lawrence also showed us that fare policy is a matter of economic justice — 87 percent of riders earned under $20,000 a year. In Worcester, the Zero Fare WRTA coalition has successfully pushed the WRTA to extend free buses through the end of this year. As governor, I will build on this organizing effort by making fare-free buses permanent and extending them to every bus line in the Commonwealth, from the MBTA to the BRTA. 

As the former chair of the Gateway Cities caucus, I know that this will be a fight. Too many on Beacon Hill are far too content with a status quo where trains only run between Haverhill and Lawrence every hour and a half on weekdays, and where this short trip costs more than any on the MBTA. We’ve seen what happens when rail service is this unreliable. Those who have cars must use them for every trip, causing traffic congestion, polluting our communities and our planet, and increasing fatal collisions. Those who don’t resort to a car are stuck with opportunities on paper and no way to get to them in practice. 

There is a story from my time representing Western Massachusetts in the state Senate that has always stuck with me. I met a young student who took the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s #1 bus from his home in North Adams to school at Berkshire Community College, on the outskirts of Pittsfield, nearly every day. The trip took him about an hour and thirty minutes. He was hoping to get a job in manufacturing, and his hard work had earned him multiple internship offers from plants in his field. 

He turned them all down because he couldn’t make it into work on public transportation. He could have balanced classes at Berkshire Community College with shifts at the factory, but Beacon Hill failed to provide an adequate system of public transportation to get him between home, school, and work. With hours he could have spent working hard and learning in his field at one of Massachusetts’  innovative manufacturers, he was waiting for the bus. 

Meet the Author

Ben Downing

Vice president of new market develpment, Nexamp
We are leaving working families waiting for the bus, the train, the ferry, all across Massachusetts. It’s time for this state to build the strong, reliable, affordable and equitable transportation system its residents need – and past time for Beacon Hill to get on board. 

Ben Downing is a former state senator and a Democratic candidate for governor.