Why Boston’s Cash-Strapped Transit System Is Piloting Lower Fares for Students: The MBTA’s forthcoming Youth and University passes are the result of years of activism.
It's been a long, hard winter for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, but starting in June, a new pilot program will let many more Boston-area teenagers and college students ride public transit at a discount.
The transit system's new Youth and University passes are not the result of any sort of grand charitable gesture. Instead they're a joint effort between the MBTA and young activists who worked hard to make public transportation more affordable for themselves and their peers.
The effort dates back to 2007, when a coalition of community organizing groups identified the high cost of transit as a major factor that kept teenagers and college-age adults from accessing jobs and education. The MBTA’s existing Student Pass—with its curfews and geographic restrictions—just wasn’t cutting it.
“It left out a huge chunk of students who were in school, and even more so it left out a huge chunk of people who were out of school,” says Dave Jenkins, an adult program leader for the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, which joined with other organizations to form the Youth Way on the MBTA campaign and the Youth Affordabilit(T) Coalition.
One of those students is Armando Barragan, a senior at John D. O'Bryant High School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He got involved in 2012, after the MBTA proposed fare increases that would affect his family’s ability to move around the city.
“I thought, there's something I could actually do about it, and not just complain that the fares are too high,” he says.
By the time Barragan got involved, the movement had momentum. In March 2012, a thousand young people marched to the Massachusetts State House to advocate for affordable transit access. Public hearings followed, and influential politicians and MBTA administrators alike publicly expressed their support for creating a youth pass.
And then, nothing happened. For two years, the initiative stalled amid budget crises and leadership changes.
“Our voice wasn't getting through to them,” Barragan says. That’s why he helped organize and participate in a July 2014 sit-in at the state Secretary of Transportation’s office, along with a group of 30 youth activists and adult leaders. The sit-in resulted in 21 arrests, including Jenkins.
“I didn't get arrested, but we were all pretty much ready to do that,” Barragan says. “I talked with my parents and let them know what was going to happen. They understood the cause, they understood why I was doing the sit-in.”
The MBTA also understood. Shortly after that act of civil disobedience, MBTA officials started meeting with the activists to hammer out a program. Barragan was on the front lines of those meetings, working as a fare policy intern at the very agency he lobbied.
“I saw that once they saw there was an actual need, that they were able to work with us,” he says.
The resulting year-long pilot offers discounted passes for 1,500 teenagers under the age of 18, and makes it easier and cheaper for the Boston area's many, many college students to commute on mass transit. Taken together, it’s expected to be revenue-neutral for the MBTA, and—if successful—could be made permanent.