Proposed Fare Free Bus Pilot is a Step in the Right Direction

For so many Cambridge residents, public transportation is a lifeline. Over a quarter of Cantabridgians rely on public transportation to get to work each day, and for many others, the MBTA is what connects them to their kids’ schools, their doctor’s office, and even their favorite Sunday brunch spot. With the #1 bus stop right in front of the City Hall steps, and the Central Square T Stop just a few minutes’ walk away, I am always reminded of my responsibility to promote transit justice and help ensure every resident can get where they need to go. That is why I was proud to introduce a Policy Order, along with my colleagues Councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, last Monday night to ask the City to develop a fare-free bus pilot program, and even prouder to see it be passed. 

Time and time again, residents have come to the City Council with the same message: our current transit system fails to equitably serve the people who need it most, our low-income neighbors. For a single mother struggling to get by, a senior living on a fixed income, or a college student without a strong support system, the $3.40 fare for a round-trip bus ride can make a significant difference; for low-income individuals who take public transportation regularly for school, work, or other commitments, the cost burden can be especially high. Although bus routes were thankfully spared from the unjust MBTA fare hikes last summer, the fact that there is even talk of increasing rates while so many riders struggle to pay at the fare box illustrates just how crucial it is that the City takes action. It is our hope that working closely with the City Manager’s office and the Community Development Department, a pilot could ensure that riders on a popular bus route with high connectivity, like the #1, #68, or #69, will have the chance to participate in riding the bus fare-free.

Cambridge is not alone in this movement to make public transportation free. Cities across the country, including Kansas City, Missouri, Olympia, Washington, and Lawrence right here in Massachusetts, have recently made their own buses fare-free. Worcester, along with our neighbor Boston are also actively considering fare-free routes as well. With the success municipalities have seen since implementing fare-free public transportation, we can only expect countless more cities to join us in this transit equity movement. 

While supporting our low-income neighbors and expanding transit justice is a major benefit of fare-free public transportation, it is not the only one. Other cities and towns that have made their own bus routes fare-free have enjoyed faster boarding times, greater ability to stay on schedule, and decreased noise pollution. Notably, going fare-free also presents a unique opportunity to address our climate crisis. The Boston Metropolitan Area has the worst traffic congestion in the United States, so it is critical that we get as many people out of their cars and onto buses as possible. Just one full capacity MBTA bus has the potential to take 36 cars off the road. Bus travel is growing increasingly greener too, as a modern bus releases 98% less pollutants into the atmosphere than its 1980 equivalent. Moving towards a public transportation-centric model is not only the environmentally-conscious option, but also the future of sustainable and equitable urban life. 

As a City, we need to be intentional about the intersection of climate justice and racial and economic justice when it comes to transit equity. Addressing the climate crisis as well as the needs of our low-income neighbors is in everyone’s best interest, and will help us make sure our children will get to enjoy living in Cambridge for years to come. While this, or any, fare-free bus pilot program will not solve climate change in its entirety, nor all of the multifaceted barriers low-income individuals face, it is a start. This is just the start; just one piece of the puzzle to making the City we know and love the best it can be. Thank you to my co-sponsors on this order, Mayor Siddiqui and Councillor Sobrinho-Wheeler, and to the entire Council for joining me in support of a fare-free pilot program. I am so grateful for this opportunity to take a step in the right direction, and to ensure every Cambridge resident can get where they need to go.