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New MassBudget Transit Briefs Reveal Financial, Equity, and Environmental Benefits of Free Buses

For Immediate Release
Contact: Reginauld Williams, Communications Director
617-426-1228, x 102, rwilliams@massbudget.org

BOSTON — March 24 — Making Massachusetts buses free would improve operations, advance equity, and benefit the environment – all at a relatively low cost to the MBTA and other regional transit systems, according to the latest briefs by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget). The Does It Make Sense to Collect Fares? series, written by MassBudget senior analyst Phineas Baxandall, brings together key data that reveals the positive equity implications free buses would have in the Commonwealth. Most notably, the series finds the potential to make transit more efficient, faster, and convenient for riders.

“Bus fares make little sense. If we started from scratch, we wouldn’t have them,” said Baxandall. “As we look to create a more equitable, cleaner transportation system post-COVID, free buses are a quick win we could put in place immediately with broad public support.”

A vision of free buses enjoys widespread backing across the state. A recent MassINC poll found that Massachusetts voters support making buses free by almost a two-to-one margin, with majority support from every group regardless of income, education level, race, or region.
 
The briefs supporting fare-free buses cover three core areas:
 
The Dollars & Sense of Free Buses shows that the benefits of eliminating bus fares are worth the potential financial tradeoffs, and eliminating fares improves service, increases ridership, and stimulates the local economy. The direct and indirect costs of collecting bus fares can be quite high, amounting to three-quarters of fare collection at some transit authorities even before the pandemic.
 
Free Buses Advance Equity shows that people who rely on Massachusetts public transit tend to have lower incomes than the general population and are more likely to be Black or Latinx. The report cites data showing:
  • 42 percent of MBTA bus riders report incomes of less than 60 percent of the area median; among many Regional Transit Authorities, strong majorities of riders report incomes below $25,000.
  • Fares significantly impact travel choices for very low-income riders. When Lawrence, Massachusetts decided in 2019 to use $225,000 in city funds to make three bus routes fare-free for two years, ridership shot up about 20 percent.
  • Free buses can help close the racial gaps in economic opportunity and make the collection of public funds more equitable.
Freeing the Climate: Environmental Benefits of Eliminating Transit Fares outlines multiple ways that eliminating fares enables the reduction of climate emissions. The report shows that free buses:
  • Reduce bus idling and cut the time that a bus engine runs to complete a trip (also creating faster trips for riders).
  • Encourage people not to purchase a vehicle, or for a household to own one car instead of two.
  • Incentivize transit-oriented development and compact land use patterns which reduce emissions.

MassBudget’s latest series comes at a time where proposals to eliminate bus and other public transit fares have multiplied across the policy landscape. Massachusetts has seen multiple, successful fare-free examples in recent years, and transit authorities have eliminated bus fares during the first months of the pandemic. In Congress, Massachusetts members of the House and Senate have sponsored bills to encourage ending fares. In the State House, the Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation recently proposed a bill to eliminate fares on public buses.

Read the Does It Make Sense to Collect Fares? series here.
 
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