Make public transportation free to get people to give up their cars

‘Free public transport works’: a Q&A with Boston mayor Michelle Wu

Wu’s vision for transport is informed by her life story – as the first mother elected to run the city

by Aliya Uteuova

ine months ago, Boston voters voted in a history-making mayor. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle Wu became the first woman, first person of color, first mother and first millennial elected to run the city of Boston.

Now she is making headlines for another reason: championing free public transportation as part of a broader focus on affordability and tackling carbon emissions. This March, the city dropped the $1.70 fare for three bus lines that serve predominantly low-income areas and people of color. Amid budgetary concerns, the city will use a Covid-19 relief fund to make up for $8m of lost revenue. Ridership on the first free bus line has soared by 48%, from 47,000 to 70,000 weekly riders.

Ever since Wu entered city politics as an at-large city councilor in 2013, she has stood out as someone invested in the nitty-gritty of policy. The Harvard Law grad spearheaded policies like six weeks of paid parental leave for city employees, a plastic bag ban and restricting short-term rentals, which made Wu a target of Airbnb.

Wu’s personal experiences have made her deeply aware of gaps in civic services. At 22, Wu put her consultancy job in Boston on hold and moved to Illinois to take care of her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and her two younger sisters. Barely out of college herself, she became head of the family, moving her loved ones to Boston and enrolling her sibling in the public school system.

In an interview at Boston City Hall, Wu, 37, outlined a vision for the city that centers on addressing the climate crisis.

What was the impetus for free public transportation?

I take very seriously the responsibility of being the first mom elected to this role, and it also has given me a direct look at how much of a barrier transportation can be, whether it’s the costs or the reliability or the accessibility of the services.

Boston mayor Michelle Wu in her office at city hall.
Boston mayor Michelle Wu in her office at City Hall. Photograph: Simon Simard/The Guardian

For several years, before my kids were old enough to start at the elementary school, they would both commute with me to City Hall childcare. We’d get on the bus, and then from the bus to the orange [train] line, with a big double stroller with two babies inside. And every decision that I had to make between waiting for the bus and not knowing when it might come, and then being very crowded, or going to the commuter rail, which was much more reliable, but three times the cost – that lives with how I make decisions about the services today.

What’s the long-term goal?

Our plan is to continue demonstrating that this works and that this is an investment where we very quickly see the returns. I have spoken with so many families who have said it’s been life-changing to not have to worry about how to cobble together enough change in your pocket for that day to get to class, and to know that this is a service that is truly available to everyone. So we picked three routes that serve communities of color in our lower-income neighborhoods, but also that connect with planned or already implemented infrastructure improvements. To show that we can deliver faster service that is actually affordable for everyone.

What is driving you to lead the city with a focus on the climate emergency?

My older son, Blaise, was born in my first year serving on the council, and there were all sorts of headlines about how it was the hottest year ever recorded. It was quite a weight to think about what that meant as I was bringing a new life into the world. So when I think about what it means in this window of time we have left to give our kids and their kids a chance at inheriting a city and a world that they deserve, it does come down to the little details. Because what we know from city government is that you can do big things by getting small things right.

Michelle Wu, center, at an event introducing the fare-free bus pilot in Roxbury.
Michelle Wu, center, at an event introducing the fare-free bus pilot in Roxbury. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

Planning for extreme cold in northerly cities like Boston is a given, and Boston has a heating standard – buildings are required to be heated in winter. But as the climate is getting hotter, are you looking at mandating a cooling standard – air conditioning – too?

Of the about 120 school buildings in Boston, the vast majority are pre-world war two structures. Only about 30 of them have modern HVAC systems and so temperature control, both in the winter, but also as Boston is getting hotter temperature wise and earlier into the school year, has been a tremendous challenge.

We’re recognizing that the traditional ways that the city government had provided relief in times of heatwaves has to change. Previously, much of the focus in a heat emergency was through cooling centers open at community centers or basketball gyms and having air conditioning there. We saw that we weren’t getting people coming to those locations and I’m sure the pandemic was part of it. But even before that, the numbers have been going down. We are watching the temperatures very carefully and are in constant communication with our community leaders to understand what the needs are – to provide immediate relief but also build it into the structural changes that the city is undergoing.

Some neighborhoods – like Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan and Roxbury – are affected by problems like extreme heat worse than others.

Yes, there is a documented degree difference in heat between some of our wealthier neighborhoods and some of our neighborhoods with the least number of trees. Tree canopy is really important to how we create livable neighborhoods. There is generational environmental racism when it comes to which areas had direct access to transportation, which were bypassed, and the impacts continue to be seen today.

Michelle Wu outside City Hall.
Michelle Wu on the steps outside City Hall. Photograph: Simon Simard/The Guardian

We often talk about the Green New Deal, but the Blue New Deal, which aims to promote thriving oceans, is something that hasn’t quite had the same level of exposure. It’s part of your climate agenda – what does it mean for Boston?

We are a coastal city, and so much of how we speak about that day today is in the negative – that we need to worry about flooding, or that sea level rise is a threat and we need to find ways to move away from the ocean.

But what a treasure and resource that is for us to have a direct connection to the potential jobs that are there. We’re seeing Boston and Massachusetts move towards wind energy and regenerative ocean farming. Massachusetts has a proud history and continued vibrant fishing industry and so there are many towns along our coasts that feel much more connected to the ocean and the water and the coastline. There’s so much of that can come from seizing hold of the benefits of being a coastal city as opposed to just trying to mitigate the harms.

Where will all these changes lead Boston in the future?

I am hopeful and determined that Boston will be the greenest city in America, a city for everyone.

What does it mean to you to be the first Boston mayor who is a person of color?

I spend some time every week in our schools. It’s something I do no matter what else is happening across the city – we revisit at least one if not multiple schools. [When I was their age] I never even considered that I could be in this role much less dream of it, so I hope me being in this role opens up the realm of possibility for anything that they might dream of becoming too.

During this summer will you get much of a break?

What do you mean by break?

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