The first year of a fare-free bus pilot program in Boston has led to significant savings for many low-income MBTA riders, according to a mid-program report conducted by the city.

City officials launched the expanded two-year pilot for the 23, 28 and 29 routes in March of 2022 after initially launching free fares on the 28 in 2021. Over the course of the pilot, 42 percent of riders have saved money, with 26 percent saving $20 or more, according to the city.

“Fare-free buses are better buses”, Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge said. “It really does add up, especially for lower income households."

The 23, 28 and 29 routes primarily serve residents of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. According to the report, most riders are considered “transit critical,” meaning they are residents who are low-income, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities or who live in households with few or no vehicles. The report found that much of the money saved by riders has been used to purchase food, save towards long-term goals and build emergency funds.

“These routes serve a part of the Boston population that really depends on transit to meet their daily needs,” Franklin-Hodge said. “If there’s any group of folks that you want to make sure a program like this serves, it’s the people who need it most."

"Fare-free buses are better buses. It really does add up, especially for lower income households."
-Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge

While 26 percent of riders have seen what city officials have deemed significant savings, that leaves nearly three-quarters who have not. Franklin-Hodge attributes that to the fact that the majority of the MBTA still costs money, and the majority of riders on the 23, 28 and 29 routes need to take other buses and trains. If more lines were free, savings would be even more significant, he said, adding that shows the necessity of making transit more accessible.

The progress report also highlights the way fare-free transit has led to positive lifestyle changes for riders.

“I go to visit my sister more and my daughter more because it’s on a straight route,” one rider who participated in a focus group said. “The 28 picks me up and drops me off down the street at my sister’s house.”

A recent GBH news report analyzing ridership data before and after the launch of the pilot programs found that ridership has increased significantly since the launch of free fares, and that the fare-free lines have seen bumps in speed and ridership that buck the trend of the MBTA as a whole. The new city assessment confirms a significant bump in ridership since the pilots launched and highlights the speed benefits of going fare free.

“It reduces the stress of the bus riding experience,” Franklin-Hodge said. “We have video. You can see, at some of the big stations … the speed at which you can get a full busload of passengers and get everybody on their way is night and day.”

The fare free pilot is a two-year program set to remain in place through February 2024. The city of Boston is funding the program with $8 million in federal funds distributed through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to reimburse the MBTA.

It’s unclear what the future of fare-free transit holds in Boston, but Franklin-Hodge said he and other city officials remain hopeful that they will be able to expand programs in the future — and he said the data from the pilot program will be helpful in proving the efficacy of free public transportation.

“Where can we make further investments to give the best bang for the buck for people who rely on the MBTA?” Franklin-Hodge said. “We’re excited to push that conversation forward with leaders at the state level and here locally in the city of Boston.”