Hidden Costs

The Need For Transfers In The MBTA System


The MBTA’s recent proposal to raise fares by 18-33 percent, the second fare increase in three years, prompted public outcry with several hundred people turning out to public hearings and thousands more contacting the MBTA to protest the looming fare increase. The T admits that the fare increase would cause some riders to abandon the T for their cars, resulting in more traffic and worsened air pollution. Some believe that this will begin a downward spiral of decreasing ridership and increasing fares. Other riders protested that the series of fare increases so outpaced their increases in personal income that they would not be able to afford to take public transportation. Many more simply said that they did not want to pay more for the current level of service-service that was often late, overcrowded, and on vehicles in poor repair.

Throughout the debate over the MBTA’s planned fare increase for January 2004, MBTA officials asserted that the MBTA had the lowest fares in the country, and that a fare increase of 20 to 30 percent would still make the MBTA among the cheapest of big-city transit systems.1

The MBTA’s assertion is oversimplified and simply ignores a major piece of the puzzle. Thousands of riders transfer between modes to get from point A to point B every day, and every time they switch modes they pay another full fare. With the fare increase, these riders will have to pay even more.

Transit systems provide two types of trips for their riders:

1. Base fare: a single seat, single ride trip. For example, a person boarding a train at Ruggles Station and exiting at Downtown Crossing pays a “base fare.”

2. Linked Trips: Someone who takes the No. 66 Bus from Union Square to Harvard Station and then boards a Red Line train to Alewife Station takes what is considered a “linked trip.”

While the MBTA has a low base fare, when riders take linked trips in the MBTA system, which many must do, MBTA fares are the highest in the nation. Compared to other transit systems that offer free or discounted transfers, multi-fare discounts, and/or day passes, the MBTA “round trip” linked fares are the most expensive in the country.

1. MBTA, Boston $4.302
2. VTA, San Jose $4.05
3. WMATA, Washington, DC $3.95
4. SEPTA, Philadelphia $3.80
5. PAAC, Pittsburgh $3.75
6. RTD, Denver $3.70
7. MTA, Baltimore $3.50
8. MTA, New York $3.34
9. Metro, Buffalo $3.30
10. CTA, Chicago $3.28

Many systems offer free or reduced price transfers, which ease the burden of transferring throughout the system.

Furthermore, at $71.00 per month, the MBTA combo passes (for bus and subway combined) under the proposed fare increase will the second most expensive in the nation.

1. CTA, Chicago $75.00
2. MBTA, Boston $71.00
3. MTA, New York $70.00
3. SEPTA, Philadelphia $70.00
5. MTA, Baltimore $64.00
6. MDTA, Miami $60.00
6. PAAC, Pittsburgh $60.00
6. SRTD, Sacramento $60.00
9. Metro, Buffalo $55.00
10. MARTA, Atlanta $52.50
11. VTA, San Jose $52.50

The T owes it to its riders to be the most efficient, affordable, and environmentally friendly transportation authority it can be. To improve the affordability and user-friendliness of the system, the MBTA must take steps to offer free or discounted transfers to offset the high cost of linked trips.


1 “Information On The Proposed Fare Increase”, Fall 2003, brochure distributed by MBTA at Fare Hike public meetings.

2 Fare calculation is based on a linked round-trip, i.e., bus to subway or subway to bus.