How Low-income Transit Riders in Boston Respond to Discounted Fares: A Randomized Controlled Evaluation

Jeffrey Rosenblum, Jinhua Zhao, Mariana Arcaya, Justin Steil, Chris Zegras
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

 Preliminary Results Report (June 2019)

The purpose of this project is to investigate how the cost of public transit influences low-income transit use and access and, thus, how a low-income fare policy instrument could improve the quality of life of low income transit users. A randomized controlled evaluation was conducted to study the effect of providing a 50% discounted MBTA fare to low-income individuals in the Boston region. Individuals receiving food stamps (SNAP) benefits were recruited and then randomly assigned to either receive a 50% discount CharlieCard or a regular CharlieCard. Participants daily provided the purposes of their transit trips via an automated text-based mobile-phone ChatBot tool. Pre- and post-study surveys were also administered by the ChatBot.

Preliminary findings of our research suggest low-income riders in the study took more trips as a result of receiving a subsidy. Compared to the control group receiving only a CharlieCard, those participants receiving a 50% discounted CharlieCard:

  1. Took about 30% more trips.
  2. Took more trips to health care and social services.

The research also suggests that low-income transit riders in the study use the MBTA differently from the average transit rider.  Compared to the average MBTA rider, the low-income individuals participating in the study:

  1. Took more of their trips during off-peak times.
  2. Relied more heavily on buses and Silver Line.
  3. Made more transfers among modes and routes (e.g., subway to bus to another bus).
  4. More often paid with stored value on a card rather than one-day, seven-day, or monthly passes.

Finally, in answer to the question, “What do you think is the biggest problem with public transportation (MBTA) in Boston?” participants in the study:

  1. Reported reliability, affordability, frequency, and crowding as top concerns.

 Preliminary Results Report (June 2019)

 For more information contact Jeff Rosenblum at jeffreyr@mit.edu.

Press Coverage


  • Jeff Rosenblum is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning
  • Jinhua Zhao is an Associate Professor of Transportation and City Planning
  • Mariana Arcaya is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Health
  • Justin Steil is an Associate Professor of Law and Urban Planning
  • P. Christopher Zegras is a Professor of Transportation and Urban Planning