In announcing three free bus routes serving Boston’s poorer neighborhoods on Wednesday, Mayor Michelle Wu, who campaigned on a promise to increase free transit options, said the move would help the city reach its “climate justice goals”.
Climate justice is the idea that those who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions are often the hardest hit by climate impacts, so climate solutions must not only reduce emissions, but also create a fairer world.
Experts say free public transit can be an important strategy in the pursuit of climate justice, but it’s only one piece of a complex puzzle.
Even in a city as dense as Boston, public transit accounts for about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the use of public transport is a key way to reduce carbon emissions, as data shows that public transport produces far less greenhouse gas pollution per passenger-mile than vehicles. private. In 2019, Boston officials determined that getting people out of cars and onto buses and trains was key to achieving carbon neutrality.
Since then, things have moved in the wrong direction. MBTA ridership dropped precipitously when the spread of COVID-19 began in 2020 and remains at only half of pre-pandemic levels. During this time, the vehicle traffic has already returned to normal.
Unsurprisingly, lowering or eliminating fares can increase ridership. An MIT experiment on the MBTA found that reducing fares for some low-income commuters caused them to take nearly 30% more transit trips than a control group. A pilot program to make the 28 bus free, which has been in place since August, has also shown promising results: Ridership has climbed to 91% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the state’s transportation department, while that the MBTA bus system as a whole rebounded only 60 percent.
Free public transit is also a relatively easy way to reduce emissions, said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the Livable Streets Alliance. Unlike some crucial climate strategies like electrification, eliminating bus fares requires no new equipment or construction.
“We need to focus on quick-to-implement, high-impact methods,” she said. “Free Transit [is] only that.”
Increased public transit could also benefit public health by reducing smog-forming compounds like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, all of which can contribute to heart and respiratory problems.
While she welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, noted that more needs to be done to improve the accessibility and affordability of transportation by commmon. After all, most MBTA routes – over 170 bus routes and the subway – will still cost money.
“The majority of users of free bus lines will need to be transferred to a metro or another line and will have to pay the fare,” she said. To help, she said the city should institute a lower fare for those who cannot afford public transit.
Another option would be to eliminate all tariffs, as hundreds of other cities around the world have done, and as Wu promised to do. The idea is catching on across the state.
Rubin said that in addition to increasing affordability, the city must also electrify its bus fleet, which would reduce toxic emissions and global warming broadcasts even further.
“That’s the next step,” she said.