Wu, MBTA each put own spin on fare-free bus results

In the policy battle over fare-free transit service, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the MBTA are portraying the same data in very different ways.

The T kicked off the discussion at a February board meeting, releasing an analysis of the Route 28 fare-free bus experiment as part of a larger presentation on alternative fare approaches. The conclusion was that eliminating fares had boosted ridership 22 percent but two-thirds of those riders — those who had monthly passes or needed to transfer to the subway, commuter rail, or another bus — saved no money. “All riders of the 28 experienced operational benefits, but few saw direct economic benefit,” the T said. 

Wu’s administration released its own analysis of the data this week, claiming ridership on the Route 28 bus went up 38 percent after fares were eliminated and emphasizing that a third of the riders had saved money. Even though the remaining two-thirds of riders did not save money, the city said a survey of riders indicated little disappointment. “People perceive they are saving money, even if their transfer behavior means they likely are not,” according to the city’s presentation.

The different ridership estimates are really not different at all. The city used the increase in average weekly riders, which jumped from 7,500 pre-pandemic to 10,200 over the September-October time period, an increase of 38 percent. By the end of the pilot on December 17, the Route 28 bus had returned to 99 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership.

The T used the same numbers, but then adjusted the percentage increase downward to reflect the increase all bus routes were experiencing. By removing the bump in ridership all bus routes were experiencing, the T concluded the absence of fares on the Route 28 bus boosted ridership 22 percent. 

The T and the city generally agreed on everything else. Ridership was up, boarding was quicker, and variability in travel time was only minimally worse — 7.4 minutes pre-pandemic and 8.1 minutes during the pilot. Surveys indicated 15 percent of the riders were new to the route. Had the bus not been free, 5 percent of those surveyed said they would have driven a car and 8 percent would have walked or biked to their destination

As required by law, once fares were eliminated on the Route 28 bus, they also had to be eliminated for paratransit service within three-quarters of a mile of the bus route. According to the city, average weekly paratransit ridership increased 29 percent to about 420, nearly five times higher than the systemwide average. The city said the average paratransit rider  saved $13 a month during the pilot period and all paratransit riders saved a total of $23,000. 

The city is now embarked on a two-year pilot on the Route 28, 23, and 29 buses.

Jim Aloisi, the former secretary of transportation and TransitMatters board member who is a fan of Wu’s fare-free bus pilot, said the various parties need to agree on what is important. “What are the metrics we’re using to measure success?” he asked. 

Aloisi said he believes ridership is the key metric because if more people are riding the bus,  more people are gaining access to transportation. “It’s improving access,” he said. “If the data is clear about anything, the data is clear about that.”




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