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Cambridge could jump on free-bus bandwagon

The Cambridge City Council will consider asking the MBTA to make at least one bus route through the city free as a pilot program to gauge the possibility of eventually freeing all buses from fares.

In a motion, councilors Sumbul Siddiqui, Alanna Mallon, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler say public transportation is vital to Cambridge - 28% of residents use it to get to work - that poor residents were hit hard by fare increases in 2019 and that making bus rides free would help with both environmental and social-equity issues in the city.

In Boston, city councilors Michelle Wu (at large) and Kim Janey (Roxbury) last year proposed making the 28 bus free.

Via Cambridge Civic Journal.

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Comments

Not sure making all buses free makes financial sense. Is the state legislature (and voters outside metro areas) willing to spend the tax dollars on it?

But there are certainly a few lines that could be. Either because they are underused or because more use would ease congestion.

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generates plenty of money to cover the costs of free buses without needing to appeal to bitter rural residents who hate cities and suffer from a crushing inferiority complex.

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bitter rural residents who hate cities and suffer from a crushing inferiority complex.

Do you think they'd be happier if they had some public transit? Like, any?

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I can confirm that they would not be happier. In fact, it would just give them more to complain about. Because in the rural parts of MA, only the poorest of the poor are desperate enough to take public transport.

Source: see Worcester, where the WRTA keeps eliminating service, and the vocal majority in the surrounding rural towns are arguing for eliminating more, not for the restoration of their eliminated service.

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I can confirm that they would not be happier.

...how would you know?

You get satisfied public transit customers by offering more public transit, not eliminating it.

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funding for the RTAs increase. All for it.

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Do we owe rural residents more subsidy? The digital divide is a real issue, but being offset near term by stuff like the Space-X internet satellite. There are already tremendous subsidies in terms of roads, utilities, etc... across the state so that someone in Warren or Wendell or wherever isn't paying more to maintain all the miles of wiring which provides them with power and keeps their roads passable. With solar advances and the wireless internet coming, it's far more tenable to be truly off the grid and still connected but physical things like bus service are tougher to figure out.

Most people I know who live in the rural parts of the state quite like the independence of their cars, the freedom to just get in and drive somewhere without crushing traffic. I think money spend on providing them with more, unwanted buses is very far down the list of ideas which are the right combo of practical, effective and popular.

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Transit is a public good, and money is fake. The whole system should be free.

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I implore every free bus backer from Boston to Cambridge to visit Alewife Station at 5am. Its a collection of rich private buses filled with techies heading out to Rt 128 and free "poor buses" filled with "support staff" The T has tried to tailor MBTA Bus 351 as a high end express bus open to techies with certain passes. Depending on your job or pass, you're either shunned from boarding a 351 bus at Alewife or from getting off in Burlington. The 351 buses run out with 5-10 people on board. Everyone else is directed to Bus 350 with the incentive that it's cheaper and sometimes "free" aka the staff look the other way. Bus 350 runs out packed to the seams with "support staff". Whether you make a transit system 100% free or 100% un-affordable, a second system will arise. leading to a two-tier segregated system. The best choice is to find the appropriate fare structure for one inclusive system that serves upper. middle, and lower class riders.

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Your argument is, somehow, that a two-tiered non-free pricing system that currently exists is evidence that a one-tiered no-cost system can't work?

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That's science!

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Not every private shuttle bus company fails in fantastic fashion like Bridj. Most are very successful and very profitable. There's always been a push to flat out privatize 62-76, which would suck. Right now the buses are a great mix of every class and every walk of life. I learn alot from the people on the bus that come from different backgrounds, and many of them have free passes based on their jobs and service. Privatization would break it up into classes. If you make the T bus system completely free, the same thing eventually happens. From KC to SF to potentially Boston. The free bus eventually becomes a homeless shelter. The private sector moves in to provide a cheap fee bus. Whoever can afford it moves over to the private bus. The free public bus gets worse and worse and worse.

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The homeless are congregating on the free buses. Local workers are now walking the streets instead of taking the bus.

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Does it matter that 350 is a local with stops in Arlington, Winchester, Woburn and Burlington, while 351 (only four a day) is an express that doesn't serve any of these places?
Says the 350 should run more frequently than every half hour.

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Go read up on the financial aspects of the MBTA. The Busses, Trains, and Boats all loose money. A bulk of the operating expenses come from the State and Feds (as they should).

The MBTA spends millions (!) of dollars to maintain the fareboxes, collect and process the cash and coins, and otherwise charge money. It cost money to collect money.

Making the busses free reduces costs for the MBTA, it speeds up boarding, help people who are low income, and encourages transit use.

There is a small overall net loss to the MBTA but that loss is offset by the public benefits of having the busses be free.

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So losing that revenue would most certainly not be a "small overall net loss." It's a third of the total budget, and they don't spend anywhere near $700 million annually on collecting fares.

The government spends a ton of money on collecting taxes. Ergo we should stop collecting taxes because it costs a lot of money to collect taxes.

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The new fare system is now expected to cost more than $1+ Billion plus annual operating costs. These are big numbers.

Even through the MBTA collects $700 million, busses only represent a small portion of this yet bus fare collection is the most expensive since every bus needs to have a fare collection system and daily money retrieval. (Green line too.)

So making the busses free would be a good start and not "cost" $700 million. Yes, the MBTA would "loose" money but not so much as to make the plan inconceivable. And there are benefits that outweigh the losses.

As for your comment about taxes, the operating expenses of the IRS are tiny compared to the money it takes in. The same is not true for the T.

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Will be for modes other than buses, too. And if memory serves, the new system will be cashless -- you'll have to use a CharlieCard (or smartphone or contactless credit card) to use the T. So the buses will all need fare readers but there won't be a need to collect cash. They plan to allow passengers to board buses at all doors so that ought to speed things up as well.

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They should do something about people "piggybacking" at t stops. Instead of having the public take matters in there own hands. Literally.

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is to hire more staff (at what wage/benefits?) to police piggybacking, and your belief is that this will be net positive for the T's budget? I'm also sensing that when you say "literally take matters into there [sic] own hands" that you're suggesting the only alternative is fistfights?

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We don't charge cars to drive on roads, barring a few specific cases. We shouldn't charge to ride the bus either. If taxpayers can subsidize cars, they can subsidize public transit too. And no, excise tax and gas taxes do *not* generate enough revenue to pay for all our roads, so drivers do not pay their own way like I hear so often when transit costs are mentioned.

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I hate cars as much as the next guy, but I got to push back on this. Car drivers still have to fund the cost of the vehicle, fuel, insurance, repairs, storage, and registration, which is why owning a car is such an mind-blowingly expensive thing to do. Buses have the same costs, but the benefit is that a single bus can carry thousands of people in a day.

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Driving your car on the road isn't free.

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All subsidize your driving way beyond what you pay.

You sound like the local fool who was saying that "cyclists should pay taxes on bike stuff", presumably to make up for the gas tax he paid. Ignoring, of course, the 6.25% sales tax (and the fact that bikes don't wreck roads or spew pollution).

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Did the councilors' motion also include an offer by the City of Cambridge to pick up the cost of operating the bus?

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Cambridge has been known to put its money where its mouth is in terms of transit.

From the motion:

The City already supports transit access for low-income residents by, for example, providing free MBTA passes to eligible Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students ...

In an even bigger gesture, Cambridge and Somerville pledged $75 million towards the cost of the Green Line extension when it seemed the state was going to cancel that project.

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They're buying passes which are already heavily subsidized for students ($30 for a monthly pass vs. $90 for the full-fare Link Pass) and those passes allow the City of Cambridge to forgo the cost of busing those students to school, which would almost certainly be more expensive.

If they really wanted to put their money where their mouth is, they'd fund a program which would buy T passes for low income Cambridge residents, and pay for it from the city's general fund.

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The resolution is quite sensible-

ORDERED: That the City Manager be and is hereby requested to confer with relevant City Departments, and, where relevant, the MBTA and counterparts in other municipalities for routes not wholly in Cambridge, on the feasibility of instituting and funding a fare-free pilot bus program

The City Manager will be reporting back (that's the following section of the resolution) on the results, meaning that he will be coming back with a possible price tag for the project. Or the cash strapped T will just up and cover the cost themselves, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that.

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If Cambridge and their neighbors want to pay for this then so be it. I hope the voters of Cambridge do not expect residents of other communities to pay for their free routes, especially those lower income communities in Greater Boston that also get bus service.

Instead of trying to give away mass transit to people in wealthy parts of the region we should be focusing on expanding mass transit to the areas where poor people are being pushed to. The subway to Lynn. Lower commuter rail fares to lower income communities well outside of Boston.

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If you think it's mostly wealthy people taking the bus, you don't know anything about Cambridge or public transportation.

We can "expand mass transit to areas where poor people are being pushed to" AND encourage public transportation in the city at the same time. It's not an either/or proposition.

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how many low-income residents of Cambridge take the bus? Just look at the number 1 or CT1 going down Mass Ave. Those buses are packed, and they're not full of millionaires.

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yes, the cost of living is high, but there are still plenty of working people there who might be able to hang on a little longer if they didn't have to worry about transportation on top of everything else.

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How much does the MBTA spend on collecting, transporting and protecting fare money? I don't have the time to go digging for the answer but it's worthwhile to have this number in mind when we talk about removing fares from transit.

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A thing to remember about fare collection is that it isn't free. All the fare machines cost money to buy and maintain. Tickets cost money to print. You have to employ people to count the money, keep it secure, deposit it, etc. Plus it costs money to idle the buses while people are boarding and paying. The driver still makes their hourly, fuel is still being burned, and the bus spends less time serving passengers.

On a well-used large system like the MBTA, that usually won't make up all the difference in lost revenue but it would mitigate the losses of going fare-free.

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Agreed on your points.

To push it even further, the cost savings of converting more people to mass transit instead of driving should be factored in as well. Less cars on the road means less investment required to maintain and/or expand roads, bridges, highways, etc.

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But is AFC 2.0 suppose to eliminate cash on board? Therefore, the T wouldn't need to employee people to collect and and handle money.

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Fare vending machines would still take cash, and there will be many more of them. AFC 2.0 will reduce the money handling costs for sure, but not eliminate.

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Major corporations pay for free bus rides in exchange for wrap around bus advertising their corporations.

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Those damn wraparounds often make it impossible to see out. You don't even know where you are.

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If your lucky though there are one or two seats in the back where you can see out clearly.

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My biggest question is whether the T has the ability to support any increased ridership free service may produce.

Allowing the T to lose more money is just a political decision. Providing improved service for more people, that's actual hard work.

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In Cambridge? Do they have dodo birds as well?

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https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4794516

Check out the MCZ sometime. Cool place.

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For a pilot? I mean, the folks at MIT and Harvard actually study... transportation...

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Isn't of trying to advocate for free buses, people should instead be advocating for improved service. One such example would be more frequent service, especially during off peak hours. The T needs to realize that not all of its riders have 9-5 white collar office jobs. Other improvements that are needed would include more bus lanes, more spacing between stops, signal prioritization, etc.

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there's no reason you can't advocate for both.

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The T, being a large public agency staffed by professionals who work on these issues every day, does realize everything you listed and more: https://www.mbta.com/projects/better-bus-project

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have you ever been on a bus? have you ever gotten stuck behind one person, along with ten other people, who are trying to get on, while the single jackass feeds quarters into the farebox and argues with the bus driver about how much fare he needs? What about sitting there idling in a bus stop while somebody taps their card over and over again because the readers are reaching end of life and don't work real well anymore?

You don't think eliminating these delays isn't going to = more frequent service? Busses literally bounce between two end points. You eliminate delays, by definition, they can make more runs in the same amount of time.

That said more bus lanes and signal prioritization are HUGE and the cities need to go all in on these

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Making buses free, combined with adding bus lanes, would do more to lessen congestion, more quickly and for less money, than any other of the major transit initiatives that are being discussed e.g. commuter rail electrification, N/S rail connector, various subway line connections. A major cost of the new fare system in the machines (the readers on buses are relatively cheap) that give out the cards and allow you to add value, and most of them would be near bus stops, not subway stations. Not having them saves an huge amount of money.

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