Wooing back riders: A tale of 2 transit agencies

Metro in DC adding service -- and cutting fares

THE MBTA and the Washington, DC, transit systems are trying to woo back riders as the summer comes to an end, but they are taking slightly different approaches.

Both systems have suffered a COVID-induced falloff in ridership that is likely to continue as many employees continue to work (at least some of the time) from home. The goal of the welcome back efforts is to attract more riders who are using transit as part of their everyday life, not just those who are commuting to work.  

The MBTA has restored service levels with the help of federal aid and spread trains and buses out over the course of the day. The most dramatic change has been on commuter rail, where schedules have been revamped to offer hourly service in and out of the city throughout the day rather than bunching trains during the morning and evening peaks. T officials on Thursday morning made a special pitch, unveiling transit toolkits designed in conjunction with the business group A Better City targeting new riders and riders who have been away for some time.

Washington has adopted a similar approach, extending service on Fridays and Saturdays to 1 a.m.; increasing bus frequency, particularly on popular routes; and cutting wait times on the busiest rail lines to six minutes on weekdays. 

Where the two systems differ is their approach to fares. The Metro, as the Washington system is called, has attracted national attention for a Labor Day reduction in fares. It’s eliminating the $1.50 transfer fee between bus and rail (a huge benefit for the low-income riders who tend not to live near rail stops), cutting the price of a seven-day regional bus pass by 20 percent, offering a 50 percent discount on some unlimited service passes, and making all weekend rail trips $2 as opposed to the usual model based on distance traveled. 

The T has experimented with some select fare cuts on commuter rail, and it has also offered greater flexibility. Instead of requiring commuter rail riders to buy a monthly pass, the T sells a a flex pass — five one-day passes good on any day over a 30-day period. At the Thursday morning T event, the flex pass was extended until March 15. 

Overall, however, the T is standing pat on its basic fare structure. That could change, however, later this year. 

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.

At one of the last meetings before it disbanded in June, the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board directed T staff to develop by October two options for testing income-based fares, one using a state agency for determining income eligibility and one using a community-based organization. The T’s new oversight board, which is still being assembled, will then have to decide whether to proceed with income-based fares and how to pay for them.  

There’s no guarantee the program will ever get launched because the previous board was split on the issue and Gov. Charlie Baker, who appoints most members of the new board, has been lukewarm to the idea. Still, if the new board gives its approval and funding is acquired, T officials say an income-based pilot program could start in the middle of next year and run for nine months.