LA Aims to Make Public Transit Free

LA Metro. Image: meltwater/Flickr

Recently the CEO of the  L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched a task force to assess how the transit system in America’s second-largest city could become free for its riders. As LAist reported, Metro CEO Phillip Washington told Metro’s board of directors he hopes the system could go fare-free as soon as “the beginning of the new year.”

Washington added that “L.A. Metro has a moral obligation to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from both a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region. Fare-free transit will help essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities. I view this as something that could change the life trajectory of millions of people and families in L.A. County, the most populous county in America.”

Why This Matters: Though there are concerns that riding mass transit may be unsafe after the coronavirus, countries like Japan and France have shown that these systems can be safe despite the pandemic. Furthermore, as Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, explained, public transportation is essential in aiding the post-COVID economic recovery.

The Details: According to LA’s NBC4, the median household income of its riders is low, about $17,975 for bus riders and $27,723 for rail riders, according to a customer survey conducted last fall.

  • The task force will look at obtaining grants and/or re-prioritizing Metro funds, such as revenues from advertising or sponsorships that could be put toward eliminating fares, and it will examine possible effects fareless transit would have on other transportation agencies in the county.
  • In fiscal year 2019, which ended before the pandemic, Metro collected between $250 million and $300 million in fares but had $1.9 billion in operating costs, a recovery of about 13%. That percentage has been in decline for the past 20 years and is expected to decline further as operating costs rise, Metro stated.
  • The task force will also look at how eliminating fares could reduce or eliminate allegations against Metro of targeting people of color for fare enforcement, and will discuss how eliminating fares could affect homelessness in the region.

Increasing Mobility: Access to reliable public transportation is critical for economic mobility. As the New York Times reported in 2015, “in a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.”

And while public transit systems are crucial for getting cars off the road and reducing emissions, they cannot be discounted in economic stimulus plans. Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan for national infrastructure could also be what’s necessary to put Americans back to work while also ensuring that people have reliable transportation that gets them to work and school.

Learning From the Past: Several cities in Massachusetts (as well as throughout Europe) have experimented with free public transportation. While these measures didn’t necessarily get cars off the road, they did increase metro ridership and affordability.

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