MBTA bus driving down the street. The words “Please pay fare on entry” are displayed in the marquee on the front of the bus.
Image Credit: Yassine Khalfalli on unsplash.com

This is the sixth article from A Green New Deal on the Ground, a series produced with Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus. The series examines how Green New Deal initiatives aim to create climate policy that positively impacts everyday life, explores the political coalitions and campaigns centering environmental justice and equity in decarbonization across the US, and champions both broad-based movement building and institutional power to harness resources and push for change.

The US is famously a car-centric place. Automobiles dominate our cities, and our country is traversed by highways dotted with semitrucks and personal vehicles. Transportation accounts for 27 percent  of US greenhouse gas emissions, the most of any sector. Personal car ownership produces a great deal of other pollution and deaths, and is a serious financial drain on people already struggling to afford basic necessities—particularly given the recent spike in gasoline prices.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, elected in November 2021, ran on fare-free public transit (“Free the T”) to improve these transportation issues and the direct burden of daily bus fares. It was a way to get more people out of cars and onto Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system. Her campaign centered this policy as part of a comprehensive, municipal Green New Deal plan to bring sustainable jobs and much-needed climate and environmental justice to the City of Boston.

The Birth of “Free the T”

The groundwork for fare-free public transit in Boston was laid by years of community organizing, particularly from Alternatives for Community and Environment and their Transit-Oriented Development Director, Mela Bush-Miles. Mayor Wu, a city councilor at the time, tried in 2018 to combat a proposed MBTA fare hike. During her mayoral campaign, Wu made a bold proposition: Instead of raising fares, why not make transit free?

As soon as she entered office, Mayor Wu followed through on her campaign’s promise and was granted $8 million in federal stimulus funds through Boston City Council to make MBTA Bus Routes 23, 28, and 29 fare-free for two years from 2022 through 2024. These three routes were chosen because they have some of the highest ridership in the MBTA and serve transit-dependent, lower-income communities of color. Rides on Boston’s paratransit program—a service for people with disabilities who cannot use the bus—are also free near the three pilot routes.

Mayor Wu’s “Free the T” program is an expansion of a pilot that Acting Mayor Kim Janey had initiated with Route 28 beginning in August 2021. The initial results from the Route 28 pilot were promising, especially in arguably the most important metric: ridership increased by 38 percent (compared to 15 percent for the entire bus system).

A Fare-Free Recovery

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive drop in public transit ridership around the country, and in most places, it has struggled to recover. But thanks to the fare-free program, Route 28’s ridership has returned to 99 percent of its pre-pandemic levels—the largest recovery of any of MBTA’s bus routes. Decreased ridership and disinvestment in public transit is troubling in and of itself. It has the potential to cause a feedback loop of reduced ridership and revenue, leading to reduced routes and service, which further reduces ridership and revenue, and so on—it’s a death spiral. Consequently, recovering and expanding ridership is an important priority for transit agencies.

Fares typically account for a minority of transit agencies’ budgets. Boston is projected to make up around 20 percent  of the MBTA’s revenue for the 2023 fiscal year, with most of the rest coming from taxes. Any permanent fare-free transit program will need to make up for this loss of funding. Mayor Wu’s eventual goal is to make the entire MBTA bus system free at the point of service, which will require partnering on alternative revenue sources with surrounding cities, like Cambridge and Somerville, because of overlapping bus routes.

Free transit can increase ridership not only by lowering costs for riders but also by making service a safer and more efficient experience. Riding public transportation without having to worry about remembering a transit card or bus fare is just easier. Imagine traveling to a new city and being able to hop on the transit system without needing to figure out how its payment system works. Fare collection can also create more dangerous conditions for bus drivers because of conflicts when riders cannot pay. It also slows buses down as drivers idle while they wait for all the boarding riders to pay, otherwise known as dwell time. In the Route 28 fare-free pilot, dwell time per passenger went down by 20 percent.

Fares also create costs for building, maintaining, and enforcing collection systems. For example, New York City spends hundreds of millions of dollars on police officers to combat fare evasion with its subway system. Given how US policing disproportionately harms Black, Brown, and poor communities, eliminating fare enforcement is not just an economic issue but a racial justice demand.

Highway to Hell

The existing US transportation system causes and perpetuates several social, economic, and environmental harms. Owning a car is costly—purchasing a vehicle and insurance requires large sums of money up front, and paying for gas, maintenance, and parking add up over time. Transportation is the second-largest household expense in the US, coming in only behind housing. These costs end up being a regressive burden on working-class people. In 2021, the poorest 20 percent of US households spent around 27 percent of their after-tax income on transportation, while the wealthiest 20 percent spent around 10 percent of theirs—essentially privatizing transportation costs.

Urban sprawl leads to car dominance and reduces other transit options, making owning a car in the US a dangerous obligation. This takes a serious toll on human life, as the US is an outlier among other developed nations in traffic safety. An estimated 42,915 people died from motor vehicle crashes in the US in 2021, an increase of 11 percent from 2020. Of these fatalities, an estimated 7,342 were pedestrians—the most in 40 years. And these numbers do not include the costly damage and often devastating nonfatal injuries caused by the millions of annual motor vehicle crashes in this country.

Car manufacturing to support the scale of motor vehicle use is also incredibly materially intensive. Steel, rubber, aluminum, and plastic has to be extracted from the earth, processed, and assembled. There is also the oil needed to make gasoline, and significant air pollution from internal combustion engines in the form of planet-warming greenhouse gases and deadly particulate matter that has been shown to cause a variety of severe health problems in people’s bodies. Moreover, prolonged exposure to traffic noise can cause heart disease, hearing loss, and other health issues.

Motor vehicle pollution is often concentrated in Black, Brown, and poor communities due to historic spatial injustices of city planning resulting in disproportionate proximity to traffic. Most notoriously, this has occurred in the form of urban highways built in the 20th century that enforced and reinforced segregation. For example, an impoverished and predominantly Black community in Florida called Griffin Park is totally surrounded by busy highways, resulting in predictably devastating negative health effects for its residents.

Automobiles require an enormous amount of infrastructure to support their function. Roads, parking lots, garages, and gas stations all have their own energy, material, and spatial requirements. This means they also have ecological, monetary, and opportunity costs—anything used for car infrastructure could be used for something else. The extraction and allocation of these resources (or lack thereof) is always a political choice.

Rather than being the inevitable aggregate result of discrete consumer choices, the present US transportation system is maintained and reproduced by policy and planning decisions to incentivize and accommodate automobiles. Federal transportation spending has long been allocated on a split of 80 percent for highways and 20 percent for public transit. And, generally speaking, US climate policy has maintained this transit status quo with an approach that focuses heavily on replacing internal combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles rather than reducing car dependency. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 allotted billions of dollars in tax credits for consumers to purchase EVs, but no funding for public transit. This mitigates the urgent problem of tailpipe pollution but leaves most, if not all, of the other injustices of car supremacy intact.

Failing to invest in transit will also have negative climate consequences beyond the US. The push to purchase EVs will increase material extraction requirements for resources like lithium, cobalt, and nickel that are needed for EV battery packs—in addition to all the aforementioned materials required for any car. This demand will broaden, and in some cases intensify, the harms that comes from Global North corporations mining in the Global South.

A Truly Just Transition

Transportation is at the heart of what makes a city a city—people moving to and from home, work, school, errands, socializing, and recreation is its circulatory system.The transition away from internal combustion engine vehicles is an opportunity to reshape the US transit system around the health and mobility of people instead of cars. Such a project would mean developing and improving public transit. In this regard, Boston’s fare-free program is only a first step towards systemic and expansive infrastructure like more buses or dedicated bus lanes. Without these, even important measures can fall short. The Route 28 pilot resulted in an 11 percent increase in average travel time, likely due to the significant increase in ridership, which was only partially improved by the decrease in dwell time. And in the current program, riders who take one of the free routes must pay if they transfer to another route.

Other cities around the world have made their entire public transit systems fare-free, and the results are encouraging. Most of them are in Europe, but it is catching on in the US. Washington, DC recently eliminated fares on the Metrobus system while expanding its service, and North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Transit went fare-free 20 years ago and has never looked back. Their ridership more than doubled from 2002 to the onset of COVID-19, reducing pollution and increasing equity simultaneously. An important reason for Chapel Hill’s success is the partnership with the University of North Carolina, which provides substantial funding for the program. For any fare-free program to be truly successful, the loss in revenue needs to be not only made up but substantially increased to improve services at the same time. This requires finding significant and stable alternative funding sources, like progressive taxes, a deep-pocketed university partner, and/or federal allocations. The success of fare-free transit can be a proof of concept that builds political support for attaining the funds necessary to make it widespread and permanent.

Transportation is at the heart of what makes a city a city—people moving to and from home, work, school, errands, socializing, and recreation is its circulatory system. But right now, the US transportation system reinforces existing racial and economic hierarchies and perpetuates its own forms of social and ecological injustice.

Fare-free public transit is a way to decommodify one of life’s basic necessities, start to repair inequities, and take important climate action at the same time. In doing so, it is a policy that can help construct mobilized political constituencies by providing experiential evidence that a better world is indeed possible: a means and an end. This is the premise of the Green New Deal as a concept, and local initiatives like Mayor Wu’s “Free the T” use policy as a foundation to win the imaginative and transformative changes needed to create a habitable planet where everyone can thrive.