Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Transportation Is a Major Issue in Boston Mayoral Race

The two candidates have pushed different approaches to reforming Boston’s transportation system. But many changes need the support of the state Legislature. Will Bostonians ride for free, more frequently or somehow both?

A Red Line train crosses the Charles River in Boston, Mass. While the city's transit riders, and those without cars, had historically been lower income and relatively voiceless, transportation has become an increasingly salient issue as Boston becomes younger and more diverse.
Stephanie Jackson lives as far south in Boston as you can get and still be in the city limits, which can make commuting to her job downtown a challenge — especially because she has to be at Dunkin' by 5:30 in the morning.

“It's pretty much like selling drugs,” says Jackson, with a grin, about her job slinging coffee. “It's constant, it's nonstop. I'm so busy I don't even realize that the time has passed.”

Jackson owns a car but would never dream of using it to commute downtown. There’s no parking, traffic is a perpetually snarled nightmare and she wants to avoid getting a ticket. The point of going up there is to make money, not lose it.

But her neighborhood, Hyde Park, and most of the other southern Boston neighborhoods where much of the city’s Black population has long been concentrated, are not well served by rail connections. Flanked by subway lines, the heart of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Hyde Park have historically only had access to the Fairmount commuter rail line — which had few stops in those communities.

In recent years, an activist campaign pressured Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to add stations to the Fairmount Line, drop the fares to subway levels and increase the frequency. Jackson just learned of the option last month, and she preaches about it with the zeal of the converted. It’s shaved over 30 minutes from her commute.

“I had no clue it was here until my sister told me about it, but it's honestly a lifesaver,” says Jackson, who is riding back home after her morning shift. “I catch a 4:49 train to South Station, it gets me there at 5:15 and I've got time to spare. I love it.”

The upgrade of the Fairmount Line is part of a handful of wins over the last decade by transportation reform advocates in Boston, which has coincided with the city’s shift in a more politically progressive direction. Now both candidates for mayor, Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, have platforms on transit and streets policy that would have been hard to imagine even five years ago.

Wu is the one who has a deeper reputation in this area. For years, she made her name as both a detail-oriented wonk and a promoter of huge, sweeping policy changes that capture the imagination of voters. She’s a longtime advocate of non-car transportation and promotes the idea that the MBTA should eliminate fares. George argues that this is grandiose posturing, which Wu would not have the power to deliver alone (which is true), and instead wants to institute more discounted fares for those who qualify.
Michelle Wu, candidate for mayor of Boston. (Team Wu/Flickr)
For transportation advocates, Wu’s longtime backing for free transit has set the pace for this mayoral race and made MBTA funding a live issue.

“For decades, we had a bunch of austerity-oriented mayors and governors who didn't want to pay for transit,” says Fred Salvucci, who served as Massachusetts’ transportation secretary for 12 years. “This is a huge opportunity with this mayor’s election, because Wu has been very big on transit. If she wins, she's got to deliver.”

In addition to Essaibi George’s critique that free transit is not deliverable by city politicians alone, there is a wider argument against the idea in the transportation policy profession. Essentially, with scarce resources, every dollar spent on free fares is one not spent on, say, more frequent service.

But the appeal of Wu’s idea is clear. Back on the Fairmount Line, Jackson lights up when she hears about the proposal.

“I would ride a hell of a lot more if it was free,” says Jackson, who still hasn’t decided who to vote for. “I have a car that sits at home because there's no parking downtown, but if the T is free, why would I keep paying $3.98 a gallon? I could get rid of it, and ride all the time!”

Boston’s Politics Are Changing; So Is Its Public Policy 

Boston has a long-established reputation for its insular political world where Irish and Italian American power brokers exerted influence through ward politics, labor unions and fraternal organizations. But as the city began to grow beyond its post-industrial doldrums, attracting both new immigrants and higher-income professionals, this cozy dynamic began to shift. The white population shrank from 49.5 percent in 2000 to 44.6 percent in 2020, even as the city itself grew by over 86,500 residents.

With new constituencies and new power centers, different policy issues emerged too. Never a fun city to drive in, Boston’s notoriously confusing streetscape only grew more congested and unpleasant as the population grew. Many younger residents, both native Bostonians and transplants, broke with car culture and demanded better MBTA service and safer streets.

“Before the pandemic, there was a news story every other week about how bad traffic had become — it was a really, really big deal,” says Jarred Johnson, executive director of the Boston-based advocacy group TransitMatters. “Then at the same time, as young people got political, their desire to have a more walkable, green city really moved to the top.”

Signs of change began to emerge under five-term Mayor Thomas Menino. During his last years in office, the administration rolled out Boston’s first bike network, and installed a bike-share system, and in 2009 declared “the car is no longer king in Boston.” His successor, Marty Walsh, committed to a Vision Zero pedestrian safety initiative in 2015. He later produced a mixed mobility plan of his own and in 2020 laid out six and a half miles of protected bike lanes (the most ever achieved in a single year). It was in these same years that the upgrades came to the Fairmount Line and new bus-only lanes began to appear.

The changing demographics and constituencies within the city eventually resulted in a different political class that helped to press for changes. When Wu was first seated in 2013, she was one of only four nonwhite councilmembers. In every race since, the ranks of more diverse councilors have grown. (Essaibi George, whose father is Tunisian, was elected in 2015.) Boston is one of the few large American cities that has only elected white male mayors, but this election cycle all of the major candidates were people of color.

While transit riders, and those without cars, had historically been lower income and relatively voiceless, transportation has become an increasingly salient issue with this changing of the guard. That’s been especially true because of Wu’s visibility on the issue, and the open secret that she hoped to run for mayor.

“Councilor Wu has been essentially running for the last three or four years,” says Johnson, “and transportation was one of her personal bread-and-butter issues that she raised as her way to cut through and get media coverage. That's why it became a big issue.”

Boston transportation advocates say that former Mayor Marty Walsh began embracing more streetscape and traffic safety changes because he knew Wu was angling to challenge him. (Walsh was tapped to become secretary of labor by President Joe Biden, and stepped down earlier this year.)

Similarly, the Boston Globe reported that Essaibi George’s positions on transportation have been growing more in line with the policy positions of organized transportation advocacy groups. Her responses to a series of Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition questionnaires show her growing more bullish on automated traffic enforcement and fees for residential parking permits. She is a supporter of additional bus-only lanes (which, as mayor, she would have direct power over) and of increased frequencies on the Fairmount Line (which she would not).

Is Fare Free Actually Fair? 

In most American cities, Essaibi George’s platform would put her on the cutting edge of transportation policy. But in the closing weeks of the campaign, seeking to emphasize their contrasts, she has focused her attacks on the idea of making the MBTA fare free.

Essaibi George’s critiques are partly meant to highlight her positioning as a practical moderate: the Joe Biden to Wu’s Bernie Sanders. She correctly argues that the transit agency is run by the state, so the eye-catching campaign promise is not one that Wu alone can deliver unilaterally.

But Wu supporters, and fans of the fare-free concept, argue that the bully pulpit of the Boston mayor is second only to the Massachusetts governor and that the leader of the city can wield substantial influence in the Legislature. Boston is unusual in that the metro area’s population and economy control the state’s commanding heights, giving its leader more power than, say, the mayors of New York or Philadelphia have in their respective states.

“The place where Boston has a significant advantage is that its regional economy is probably two-thirds of the state's economy,” says Salvucci, who endorsed Wu along with a slate of other prominent transportation experts and advocates. “Nobody can succeed at getting elected governor of Massachusetts by trashing the city. And the mayor of Boston, if he works the issue and organizes with other mayors, can really change the funding picture for the MBTA.”

Wu backers also claim that her focus on fare-free transit has increased attention on the issue of MBTA pricing. Every candidate in the primary endorsed some form of fare decrease or elimination, even if just for certain modes, like buses or regional rail, or particular lines.

The MBTA even embarked on a three-month fare-free pilot program on the Route 28 bus, which goes through many of the same transit underserved areas as the Fairmount Line. In early October, Streetsblog Massachusetts reported that weekday ridership jumped from 64 percent of pre-pandemic levels to 92 percent after a month of no fares. The system’s overall weekday bus ridership levels only increased from 55 to 66 percent in the same period.

Some transit experts say that Essaibi George’s focus on whether the mayor has direct power over the MBTA is the wrong way to think about it. There’s much that can be done with staffing the bureaucracy, pressure campaigns and focusing public attention.

“She's not going to be able to solve this on her own, but the mayor's role is more expansive than what legislation they can pass,” says Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“If you want to pressure a state legislature and governor who don’t care much about mass transportation, you're going to need political leadership,” says de Benedictis-Kessner. He argues that a mayor who makes a point of winning more transit funding and policy changes at the state level, and rallying support and attention around the idea, can create an environment for reform.

After all, the policy landscape has shifted already: “We're talking about fare-free transit now. We weren't before,” says de Benedictis-Kessner.

But Essaibi George doesn’t only critique the idea because of its feasibility. She also argues it's irresponsible. Who is going to pay for such changes?
Annissa Essaibi George, candiate for mayor of Boston.
Wu wants to figure out a funding expansion at the state and regional level to support fare-free transit, but many national transit advocates say even that idea is flawed. Fighting for more funding is the right idea, but spending it on free fares is misguided. The quality and frequency of service is often a much bigger challenge, even for low-income riders, than the upfront cost. (The MBTA has suffered numerous dangerous accidents in recent months and even with increased frequency the service gaps between Fairmount Line trains are vast. The other lines are even worse.)

“The biggest problem with transit in Boston is not the fare, it’s unreliability and infrequency,” says David Bragdon, executive director of TransitCenter, a national mass transportation advocacy group. “The biggest cost riders pay is the cost of their time. That's where the focus should be. [Free fares] is more of a slogan than a real solution. I think some magical thinking goes into it.”

Transportation Policy for the Greater Good

While the question of the MBTA looms large, the next mayor of Boston will wield much more direct influence over the streetscape.

That doesn’t mean change will come easily. As in most American cities, on-street dining and sidewalk seating became common during the pandemic. In the historically Italian North End of the city, the concentration of restaurants spilling outdoors gives the narrow streets a European feel, where pedestrians rule and cars creep along at a snail’s pace.

But there’s been pushback among some in the neighborhood, just as there has been in areas like Beacon Hill and West Roxbury when protected bike lanes, bus lanes or traffic-calming measures have been proposed. City leaders have backed down numerous times in the face of vocal backlash, despite research showing that the people who tend to be heard at traditional community meetings are older, whiter, wealthier and more oppositional than the average resident.

“We need a leader to say we're adding infrastructure here, and this is why it's important for the entire city and region,” says Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union. “Mayor Walsh never did that. He was always too afraid of the small number of people that were really angry versus the greater good for the public.”

Wolfson isn’t proposing bulldozing through neighborhood groups, but instead erring on the side of adding safety measures and then adjusting them based on what the complaints are afterward. She wants to see a directive that orders the city transportation and public works departments to add traffic calming or a protected bike lane when they are repaving, especially on large corridors or particularly unsafe routes.

“You need internal advocates to push for these changes that could help us with the incremental change, let alone the transformative change,” says Wolfson. “A directive would prevent infighting, so individual staff in the transportation department don’t feel like everything they want to do is a battle.”

These questions are only growing more urgent as Boston returns to some semblance of normalcy. Downtown is bustling again, even as many office workers haven’t come back yet. The South Station transit hub, which was a ghost town with few businesses open, feels lived in again. The traffic grows ever worse, especially as MBTA ridership remains depressed.

There are some indications that the new mayor will have the wind at her back when it comes to transportation. A recent poll found majorities of Boston-area voters willing to sacrifice parking and car lanes for alternative uses, especially outdoor dining. The Massachusetts state Senate recently released a report proposing an array of surprisingly aggressive transit reforms to meet the moment, and attract riders back to the rails and buses. They did not go so far as to suggest full fare-free transit.

As the mayor’s race draws to a close, Wu has been polling strongly, besting her opponent among every racial group. But Essaibi George performed well in the debates, hitting Wu for fare-free transit and a proposal to bring back rent control, another idea that would require cooperation from the state Legislature. There are still some undecided voters, especially in the Black and Latin electorate, and Essaibi George’s signs are more in evidence in Dorchester and Roxbury than Wu’s are.

For Mark McElerey, riding the Red Line into his job at a hotel in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the mayoral debates over Wu’s policy proposals have swung him away from his initial support for her.

“I like the idea of [a free MBTA], but it's unrealistic,” says McElerey. “Where would the money come from?”

McElerey says service levels are more important. As a service industry worker, he needs to get home late at night and the rail lines all close after midnight. Without access to the Red Line, he has to rely on Uber ¯ and prices have skyrocketed.

“They really need to run the T later,” says McElerey, echoing a concern held by many late-night service workers. “I used to be able to take an Uber from work and it was $20. Last time I had to it was $61. I can’t afford that.”

For McElerey, police reform and housing affordability are more important than transportation policy. But a lot of the issues are tied together anyway. He lives far from work because that’s what he can afford, and that’s why he rides the T every day.

“Look, I’m not a politician. I don’t know how this would work,” says McElerey. But if whoever wins can help the trains run on time, and with the schedule and frequency he needs, that would go a long way toward securing his vote the next time around.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
From Our Partners