Why Los Angeles Might Make Transit Free

Why Los Angeles Might Make Transit Free

September 1, 2020

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With ridership hovering around 50% of pre-pandemic days, the transit agency serving the most populous county in the U.S. is considering a radical change: eliminating bus and rail fares.

In a board meeting on Aug. 27, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Phil Washington announced a new internal task force to study options for a fare-free system, calling the step a “moral obligation” to meet the needs of riders during the pandemic.

“I thought, what can we do in our transportation foxhole as an infrastructure agency to relieve some of the economic pressure on people that need it most?” Washington said in a subsequent interview, citing the county’s high Covid-19 mortality rates among low-income Black and Latino communities, representing some of Metro’s most consistent riders.

The announcement comes as Metro leaders also weigh budget cuts that carry significant implications for riders. Due for approval in September, Metro’s proposed 2021 budget outlines a 17% service reduction from pre-pandemic levels, with the heaviest cuts coming for buses. The agency expects to face a $1.8 billion deficit by mid-2021 due to Covid-19’s economic impacts.

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While a fiscal crisis might sound like the very worst time to eliminate a revenue source, payments from passengers represent a small share of the agency’s budget. In fiscal year 2019, Metro collected between $250 million and $300 million in fare revenue, just 13% of its $1.9 billion operating costs. Other large agencies, such as New York City’s MTA, Chicago’s CTA and the Bay Area’s BART, have much higher farebox recovery ratios that would make free rides a much costlier consideration than for L.A. Metro.

Starting Sept. 1, the Metro task force will study the finer points of going fare-fee. Those details include funding alternatives such as government grants or a reallocation of advertising and sponsorship revenue. (Separately, Metro is also studying congestion pricing, whose tolls could eventually be used to fund transit service, Washington said.) The task force will also examine impacts on smaller transit operators in L.A. County and on other parts of Metro’s budget, such as fare collection staffing and infrastructure.

Another issue up for scrutiny is Metro’s use of police officers to enforce fare evasion laws, the subject of a2017 civil rights complaint that described a discriminatory system targeting Black riders. “If you have no fares, then it stands to reason that you’d get rid of those potential confrontations on fare enforcement, as well as the allegations of targeting people of color,” said Washington.

The task force is set to deliver its findings by the end of 2020.

Once a novelty of tourist destinations, college towns and a handful of mid-sized European cities, the concept of free public transit has lately been gaining traction among larger transit agencies. In Europe,Estonia andLuxembourg instituted nationwide fare-free public transit programs, and Paris recently announced plans to make transit free for minors. In the U.S.,Kansas City, Missouri, announced plans in December 2019 to eliminate fares on its bus system, and Olympia, Washington, stopped collecting payment in January 2020. Boston and Houston have also weighed the idea. 

The coronavirus pandemic offers a fresh rationale: A wave of transit operators, including L.A.’s, temporarily waived bus fares as a way of reducing contact between passengers and drivers. But going fully and permanently fare-free would represent a bigger milestone. L.A. Metro serves a county with more than 10 million residents; if it decides to proceed, it would become the world’s largest agency to do so.

Channing Martinez, a lead organizer of the L.A. Bus Riders Union, applauded the news. BRU circulated a petition when the pandemic began calling on Metro to cease fare collection for at least a full year; before that, it has consistently called for fare reductions and pushed back against service cuts.

“We’ve been struggling for 20 years to fight for things that our members have needed,” Martinez said. Free fares “have been an agenda item for us for many, many years.”

Martinez also struck a note of frustration that his group’s work went unacknowledged in Metro’s announcement. The activist group represents about 500 transit users, mostly working-class riders of color, and is best known for winning the 10-year consent decree that forced Metro to invest more in bus service in the midst of its 1990s rail expansion. The vast majority of L.A. transit riders use buses; the median income of Metro bus riders is less than $18,000 per year.

But not all transit advocates support making transit free. TransitCenter, a think tank, recently published a blog post critiquing L.A. Metro for prioritizing capital expansion projects ahead of the 2028 Olympics over long-promised service improvements to its bus network. Ben Fried, the organization’s communications director, said that while forgoing fares may do little damage to Metro’s finances, riders could wind up paying in other ways if bus service does not return to pre-pandemic levels. “Lower service levels will impose real costs on riders, in the form of lost time and higher spending on other forms of travel, like taxis or personal cars.” he said. Service cuts have been shown to drive down ridership over time.

Fried also stated that the local, state or federal authorities from which Metro says it may seek funding are also facing coronavirus deficits. “L.A. residents should be skeptical,” he said. “Is the fareless initiative real? Or is it a sideshow to distract from bad news about shrinking service?”

There are other reasons to believe that free rides aren’t the panacea that they might appear to be. While some cities have seen ridership boom after eliminating fares, others haven’t. Programs in Denver, Trenton and Austin in the 1980s and 1990s were scrapped after attracting, in the case of Austin, “joy-riding youth and inebriated adults, as well as vagrants,” according to a 2002 academic study. L.A. Metro has struggled to manage safety and sanitation issues stemming from a surge in homeless people seeking refuge on transit on recent years. Washington said that the task force will look at this dimension as well.

Overall, he believes that the “good will outweigh the bad” when the fare-free model is studied. Washington predicts that it will help L.A. reduce its carbon footprint, lighten an economic load for riders, and ultimately make Metro more attractive as a travel option. “I don’t see us cutting service,” he said. “I see us increasing service to deal with increased ridership.”

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