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During appearance on Freakonomics Radio, Mayor Wu argues for free transit

"I think we can get to a free bus system."

Mayor Michelle Wu exits the Green Line at Government Center after coming into the city via the Forest Hills Orange Line shuttle on the first Monday after the MBTA shut down the Orange Line for service repairs. Carlin Stiehl/Boston Globe

For years, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has been a vocal proponent of free transit. 

In early 2019, while still serving as a city councilor, Wu wrote a Boston Globe op-ed arguing that “free public transportation is the single biggest step we could take toward economic mobility, racial equity, and climate justice.” Later that year, she demonstrated against the latest MBTA fare hikes. 

While running for mayor, Wu made the transformation of public transportation a key part of her platform. She told voters that removing barriers to transportation is an essential public good worth supporting. 

On her first day in office, Wu filed for appropriations to make three bus lines completely free. By March, that idea became a reality as the city announced that the route 23, 28, and 29 buses would be free for two years. Officials said that the program would not only help residents save money, but would make using the buses much quicker, speeding up trips notably. 

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Now, as the MBTA undergoes a wide-ranging process designed to improve safety and reliability — at the behest of the federal government — Wu’s argument is drawing national attention. She appeared as a guest this week on Freakonomics Radio, one of the most-listened to podcasts in the country. 

During the episode, Wu spoke with host Stephen Dubner about the push to make buses free, how quickly government should work, and why free transit is so important as a concept.

“I think we can get to a free bus system. That would be transformational for our city’s economy, climate, and opportunity,” Wu said on the show. “It’s about who has to bear the burden and how we see the long-term cost-benefit of what we need to do to make sure that we are cleaning our air, connecting people to jobs, healing the impacts from the pandemic, and fulfilling our potential as a green, resilient community.”

Dubner brought up Wu’s op-ed in the Globe, asking the mayor why free transportation would be the biggest step the city could take to address climate, economic, and racial problems. Wouldn’t it make more sense to start in areas like healthcare or education?

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Wu cited a 2015 Harvard study that found that commuting time to work was the factor most closely linked to a family’s ability to escape poverty, more so than other factors like public safety and test scores.

On top of that, the biggest single source of carbon emissions in Massachusetts comes from the transportation sector, Wu said. Taken together, these show how impactful a fare-free transit system could be, she argued. 

Making public transit free can be seen as a tricky proposition, but Wu said that it’s important to be proactive when tackling projects like this. The mayor keeps a countdown clock on her phone, she said, that shows exactly how many days she has left in her term. 

“It’s very easy to be just reactive in these roles, and we have to exercise every bit of planning and capacity and organizational muscle to be proactive,” she said. “Every single day should count, and we have to move at a pace that is closer to the urgency in the communities as opposed to the usual pace of government.”

That pace of government frustrates Wu, she said, as does the tendency to avoid risk.

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“If you maximize the chance that nothing will go wrong, then we won’t get close to the scale of change and transformation that’s needed,” she told Dubner. 

Wu also gave some insight into the early results of the free bus pilot program that the city began this spring. Ridership appears to be up significantly on the free buses compared with others. The ridership of the 28 bus is at 92 percent of pre-pandemic ridership, Wu said. Most of Boston’s other bus lines have somewhere between 30 and 50 percent ridership compared to the years before the pandemic. 

“Fare-free transportation is funding public transportation as a public good and recognizing the right to mobility for every person to belong in every space and to be able to benefit from all that our city has to offer,” Wu said.

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