Should train and bus rides in LA be free?
- US News
- December 11, 2022
- No Comment
Should it be free to use Los Angeles County’s public rail and bus systems? That’s a question new Mayor Karen Bass may soon have to answer.
As one of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s final acts on the board of directors of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he revived a conversation about free bus and rail travel. On his final day, Garcetti asked the agency to consider what such a change would entail.
It’s an issue Bass – who will replace Garcetti on the 13-voting board and appoint three more – will need to address this summer if the study is to be presented.
The end of the tariffs will be an early test to see if it can deliver on a campaign promise and offset some of the thorny issues that come with it.
Critics and even supporters say the move could contribute to an influx of homeless people that has put some commuters off buses and trains. And it wouldn’t be cheap: Early estimates by Metro put the cost of nationwide fare abolition at $1 billion a year. Additionally, analysts at Metro say, such a move could jeopardize state and federal funds tied to fare collection.
Proponents believe legal solutions can be found and the costs could be met through new revenue streams and savings from eliminating fare collection and enforcement.
“I don’t think we should have barriers to using public transport,” Garcetti said. “We don’t do that on our streets. We don’t do that on the Autobahn. We tax the poor to use public transport, but not the better off to use the roads.”
Garcetti, who didn’t always believe toll-free transit was possible, said he changed his mind after Los Angeles found a way to keep buses free during the COVID-19 pandemic. One way to offset the costs, he suggested: congestion charges, which force some drivers to pay tolls when traffic is at its busiest.
“The promise of free transit with a small fee for those who can afford it in the car seems worth it,” he said.
Metro is considering expanding the congestion charging program, now used on freeways, to downtown or other areas, but has no plan on how it might be implemented or where the proceeds would go.
Transport experts say congestion charges are a great way to encourage commuters to use public transport, but drivers are likely to grumble. In New York, a plan to charge $23 for a rush-hour ride to Manhattan is met with opposition.
A Bass spokesman, Zach Seidl, declined to elaborate on how the new mayor would approach the issue, only to say that she “has championed toll-free transit and looks forward to helping improve our public.” to work in the transport system”.
There are many questions about what “free” means for the transit system. Will it attract more commuters? That could drive up costs, but fewer cars on the road – a bigger climate goal. Or is it largely a subsidy to the region’s working poor? Will it attract more homeless people and potentially discourage commuters? Could new revenue streams be better focused on improving service with faster buses, more bus lanes, and more cleaning and maintenance?
Social justice activists have pressured the agency to act quickly.
“The sooner the better,” said Alfonso Directo Jr., advocacy manager at Alliance for Community Transit. “Drivers need that help now. This is an economic stimulus that transit drivers are absolutely feeling today.”
The household income of 62% of Metro drivers is less than $24,000. On an average weekday, around 687,000 people use the bus.
These riders have been relieved during the pandemic when Metro temporarily suspended fares to enforce social distancing; Bus drivers entered through the back door, not the front where fares are collected. The move gave advocates and commuters a glimpse of a tariff-free system.
While it helped those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, it brought with it a surge of homeless people without shelter, pushing Metro into the role of a welfare agency, forced to find homes for those who were on trains, buses and train stations were asleep. According to a recent survey, safety and hygiene became the top concerns of drivers.
“It’s a delicate balance,” said Oscar Zarate, director at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. Zarate, who wants to end fares, said many members of the group who use public transport sometimes feel unsafe. But he said the new ambassador program, which has customer service agents on hand on the subway system, has eased fears and increasing the frequency of buses could discourage commuters from waiting on streets where they might feel vulnerable.
“We want toll-free transit, we want better service, we want security — because together we’re going to create a system that’s truly a haven for all,” he said.
Free rides ended that year as state stimulus dollars began to dry up, but pandemic-era programs helped fuel the problem of free fares in Los Angeles and across the country. Washington, DC became the largest city to offer free service after the city council voted this week to waive fares on Metrobus rides.
Last fall, Metro in LA County took steps in the same direction. The agency launched a two-year, $50 million pilot program that will make most high school students free to ride the metro and will make participating city buses free when schools reopened. The program was funded from one-off federal funds and is scheduled to expire in July.
The number of students using public transit has more than doubled in the last year, and GoPass, as the program is called, has been a bright spot for Metro boss Stephanie Wiggins.
One study suggests that student performance improves when they don’t have to worry about paying for transportation: At Rio Hondo College, students with a transit pass had a 27% higher graduation rate.
Officials are studying how such a program could be extended to low-income drivers, the majority of transit users.
At the same time, Metro officials have been trying to figure out how to make buses and trains more attractive to Angelenos, who have cars that can get them to their destinations faster. The agency will pour billions of dollars into building railroad lines over the next few decades, but critics say free fares are unlikely to help.
“Los Angeles has pretty poor transit service, and providing free transit services doesn’t really attract that many more riders,” said David Bragdon of the TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group and research group. “You need to think about improving transit instead of making bad transits free because bad transits — even if they’re free — aren’t very attractive.”
Bragdon points to a 2018 UCLA study that found ridership is declining in part due to increasing car ownership.
Michael Manville, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, said the trend has likely been more pronounced since the pandemic. Though no data is available, many regular transit drivers who were essential workers likely now have cars, Manville said.
“Once you have a car,” he said, “you’re not going to go back, or you’re less likely to go back to the bus.”
The cavernous subway stations were almost empty at the height of the pandemic, save for workers and those sleeping there. But commuters have slowly returned as Metro has sought to improve the system with a range of programs to bring the homeless into apartments, clean up graffiti and introduce the unarmed ambassadors to promote a sense of security.
On a weekday morning, Talia Sonrisa and a friend boarded the B subway at Union Station bound for Los Angeles City College. Sonrisa is not enrolled in the student program and said she doesn’t mind paying for transit.
“There are already so many homeless people here,” she said. “At least when people pay they keep it clean. But you feel like something is going to happen to you all the time.”
As the train’s doors closed, Elisheva Glaser, a 24-year-old actress from East Hollywood, walked toward the turnstile. She carries a taser because the transit system can get “patchy” at night, she said. She doesn’t own a car and would love for transit to be free.
“You should definitely do that,” she said, clutching the skateboard she uses to get from the bus to the train station. Also, she said, “I mostly see people who don’t pay.”
Metro is the country’s third busiest public transit system, but unlike its counterparts in New York and the Bay Area, it doesn’t rely heavily on fares.
Fares account for less than 5% of Metro’s operating budget this year. Before the pandemic, it was about 17%.
In contrast, fares account for more than 60% of the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s budget and accounted for about half of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget before the pandemic.
“Farees are not a big value in the metro budget. It’s a fraction of the total budget,” said Eli Lipmen, Executive Director of MoveLA.
His group has advocated a slower approach to a free system by first expanding the student program.
“For us,” he said, “it’s a question of how do you create the ridership, the future, and how do you create a culture that is no longer the culture that we know as Los Angeles, a car culture?”
His group supported legislation to fund student transit across California, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it this year, saying the state doesn’t have the funds.
Manville said history shows the strategy can work. Fare reductions in the 1980s increased ridership, as many school districts shoveled students onto public transit instead of their own buses, but it didn’t bring more riders with cars.
Los Angeles – with its wide boulevards, lots of parking lots and sparsely populated houses – is made for the car. Congestion charges could lure some onto public transport and reduce congestion, he said, but the policy should not be tied to free fares.
“It’s backwards,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to justify congestion charges by saying you can lower public transport fares.”
It was disappointing, he said, to see Garcetti’s idea just before his departure.
“On the way out, he’s pro-this controversial policy that he’s let idle for years,” Manville said. “It’s been going around the Metro boardroom for years, and he’s avoided it.”
But Garcetti said raising tariffs could be a transformative move for the region.
“I think the public and [the board] deserve a good, honest look at how you could do that, how you could pay for it,” Garcetti said. “It could be the most revolutionary thing we can do for the climate, poverty and increasing ridership.”