Returning to Boston this week from Christmas travels, we discovered the MBTA, Massachusetts’ public transportation authority, had made two surprise changes. Breaking “a tradition that has been around so long that current T officials do not know exactly how [it] started,” the MBTA has stopped offering free outbound service on its Green T trolleys. Simultaneously–and without warning–it no longer allows riders to use bus passes on those above-ground trolleys.
What’s the big deal about ending free rides? You can’t expect something for nothing, right? In fact, there were good reasons to offer free service for above-ground trolleys. Underground, turnstiles control fare collection, so the trolleys can open all their doors, speeding passenger access; above-ground, paying passengers must enter at the front of the trolley, which has become even slower under the new system. Underground, there are no intersections; above-ground the trolley waits for multiple traffic lights. The above-ground trolleys have fewer cars than other subway lines, making them more crowded and slower. It seemed appropriate that one didn’t have to pay full fare for sub-standard service.
Likewise, it made sense that the above-ground trolley accepted bus passes. Like the buses, above-ground trolleys are infrequent, crowded, and slow. They also run along routes that don’t have bus service.
Ending free rides and bus passes are only the surprise changes. For months, we’ve known that the MBTA was raising its fares. Cash fares for the bus went from 90¢ to $1.50 (a 67% increase); for the subway from $1.25 to $2.00 (a 60% increase). Monthly subway passes went from $44 to $59 (34% increase). If those don’t sound like significant cost increases, imagine if gas companies raised their prices by 60%–drivers would be paying over $4.00 a gallon. There would be riots.
There won’t be any riots here, because Bostonians are used to shelling out exorbitant amounts of money for everything. Besides, elected officials either don’t even know what T fares are or they’re powerless to do anything about them.
The now-unfolding social experiment concerns how all these changes will affect the city at large. The benefits of public transportation are not always easily measurable by the bottom line. By reducing automobile traffic, public transportation can lower air pollution and reduce traffic congestion. It can improve employment opportunities for lower-income people. That’s why I’m concerned that no one knows the true long-term effects these changes will have on Boston. However, it’s possible the effects could be good for my personal health: I’m now likely to get more exercise walking.