Where Boston’s mayoral candidates stand on the MBTA’s future

The green line heads down Commonwealth Avenue on Oct. 29, 2020. Photo courtesy of Claudia Chiappa/BU News Service)

By Isabel Tehan
Boston University News Service

For many Boston residents, commuting to school or work on one of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s services was not always necessary over the past 18 months.

But as schools and universities returned to in-person learning and offices started calling back their workers, the riders have had to return to the MBTA. 

Ridership is at 58% of pre-pandemic use levels across all lines, according to MBTA data from TransitMatters. And with commutes across the city resuming, an approach to improving the MBTA is a priority for Boston voters. 

This renewed reliance on and interest in MBTA policies and functionality is coinciding with the mayoral election in the city, where the remaining candidates, Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, have spoken extensively about their transit plans for the city.

Both have acknowledged the discrepancies in issues faced by T riders with various backgrounds, but both also seem to have different plans to respond to them. Regardless of differences, Essaibi George and Wu agree on the need to focus on equity when addressing the issues with the MBTA.

“Our existing public transit does not work the same for everyone,” Essaibi George said on her campaign site. “Boston’s low-income communities and communities of color are deeply impacted by the underfunded system that inhibits universal mobility, access and economic opportunity.” 

One of the cornerstones of Essaibi George’s plan is to urge the MBTA to expand its hours of service to benefit overnight workers. Currently, most T lines cease service at or before 1 a.m. and resume around 5 a.m., which, has the greatest effect on shift workers.

Essaibi also wants to improve the Fairmount Line, according to her campaign; a commuter rail line that services Boston neighborhoods that do not have easy access to subway lines. Plans include increasing the number of BlueBikes ridesharing stations at Fairmount stations, improved bike lanes along the route and more frequent service in general.

Wu is well known for her outspoken stance on the need to reduce the fare to ride the T, and is a well-known proponent of the movement to “Free the T.” 

“If we are serious as a city and a Commonwealth about closing the racial wealth divide, advancing climate justice, and empowering communities, we need to remove barriers to public transportation as a public good,” Wu said on her campaign site.

Wu’s plan acknowledges that it is the city’s job, and not on the shoulders of the MBTA, to improve municipal roads, which will in turn make buses travel faster. Her plan does not shy away from stating hard truths about how transit issues disproportionately affect non-white residents of the city.

According to Wu’s campaign, the average Black bus rider spends 64 more hours per year on a traffic-stalled bus than white riders.

Both candidates and their campaigns acknowledge that bus ridership serves lower-income residents more than the subway does. Though many Bostonians avoided public transit entirely during the pandemic, this was not a possibility for others. Generally, lower-income residents of the city have been most reliant on public transportation throughout the pandemic. 

Riders of the city’s bus routes have seen the smallest change in ridership over the pandemic, according to TransitMatters MBTA data. Some bus lines in the city were operating at 90% of typical ridership throughout the pandemic, though ridership across the system greatly decreased. 

The Essaibi George campaign lists increasing CharlieCard access across the city of Boston as a goal, as they are only available at a limited number of MBTA stations, making it difficult for many bus riders to use a CharlieCard rather than cash, which slows boarding.

Paul Draper, an hourly worker who uses the Green Line to commute to his home in Brighton, agreed with Essaibi George on this issue. 

“It is a pain to have to travel to a station that isn’t on my way home to buy a card or reload my card,” he said. “Not being able to buy at the outdoor platforms encourages fare skipping.”

Wu’s plan to speed up boarding on the bus is more radical: her proposal of free fare on T. Currently, the MBTA is running a trial period for a free bus route; the 28 bus from Mattapan to Roxbury, which was implemented in August by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, and will run until the end of November. 

MBTA officials hope the free fare on this route will encourage ridership as well as speed up the boarding process and overall trip since passengers will be able to enter the bus via any door and will not need to pause to pay their fare.

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