MIT report says subsidizing the T would benefit low-income people

A study by MIT transportation and urban planning professors suggests that low-income folk would benefit from a reduced costs associated with riding the MBTA.

Preliminary findings from the report “How Low-income Transit Riders in Boston Respond to Discounted Fares” found that reducing the cost of riding the MBTA would increase ridership for those who are low-income during off-peak hours.

Participants in this study included 240 people who receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. One group was given a discount for MBTA rides while the other wasn’t.

Jeffrey Rosenblum, a PhD candidate in the Urban Studies and Planning Department at MIT, said the preliminary findings of his study show that providing low-income people with a discount really makes a difference.

To determine how effective a discounted fare would be for low-income individuals, the study measured how many rides were taken by two groups of people – those with a 50 percent discounted CharlieCard and those with a regular CharlieCard.

CharlieCard usage data provided by the MBTA and daily travel diaries provided by participants were used to collect ridership data for this study, which took place from February to May 2019.

The group with the discounted card rode the T 11.1 times per week compared to those in the other group who rode the T 8.6 times a week.

Discounted cardholders in the study also used their trips to access more healthcare and social services than those without the discount and took most of their rides during off-peak hours.

“The two groups were exactly the same,” Rosenblum said. “The discount was the intervention that made the two groups different … statistically I can conclude that there was a difference in the average number of trips that were taken per week.”

Documenting when trips were taken was also important for the study, Rosenblum said.

He plans to have more conversations with the participants to better understand the role that transit plays in their lives and in their decision-making. He expects his dissertation on the topic to be out next fall if not later.

“The study results so far show numerically that low-income people take more trips when provided a discount, but we still don’t necessarily know why this happens,” Rosenblum said. “The next step is how you would implement such a thing and how is it going to get funded.”

The MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board said it is in favor of further studying the issue after it was confronted by people citing the report at a recent meeting.

Fare hikes for the MBTA were approved by the financial oversight board in March and are scheduled to take effect on July 1.

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.