LA Just Launched America’s Largest Free Ride Experience

Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In March 2020, Los Angeles transit agency Metro stopped collecting fares for its buses as a COVID-19 safety measure. Over the next 22 months, Metro scrapped fares for anyone who wanted to continue using its buses wherever they wanted to go (as long as they wore a mask, of course). And people kept rolling. Outside of the initial stay-at-home order in spring 2020, Metro ridership never dipped below 50% of ridership before, with buses eventually recovering to less than 10-15% of the number before the pandemic. While the agency doesn’t know exactly how many people were riding free buses during this time — as collecting fares is one way to track ridership — a spokesperson said that from April 2020 through December 2021, it’s safe to say Metro buses provided around 281 million free boardings. This means the agency has inadvertently conducted what could be the largest free transit experiment in US history. Fare collection restarted last week after an unprecedented two years in which transit agencies learned a lot about how people were getting around (or not) in their cities, and now Metro is using some of that information. to make improvements and pilot other free and discounted services. -tariff programs.

Even without precise information, the numbers tell us something. Transit ridership in Los Angeles hasn’t dropped as much as other systems during the pandemic. “Just comparing ridership across the country, Metro ridership is approaching 80% of pre-COVID levels, and that’s better than any other national agency,” says Advocacy Manager Alfonso Directo Jr. for the Alliance for Community Transit, citing data from the American Public Transportation Association. (According to that same data, the New York MTA has yet to exceed 60% of its pre-pandemic ridership.) That at least suggests that free fares were a factor. Bus ridership also recovered at a faster pace than rail, where fares continued to be collected, says Oscar Zarate, deputy organizing director with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy: “I don’t think this either a coincidence. I think it’s because most people who take the bus depend on it because they’re workers and it’s their primary mode of transportation. And since they didn’t have to pay for it, it was really easy to get on board and take advantage of our public transportation system.

The LA Metro is unique among major US transit agencies in that its budget isn’t heavily dependent on the fare box, which made the decision to temporarily remove fares a bit easier in the first place. A ride costs only $1.75 and the total funds raised represent only 6% of total revenue, of which about a third goes directly to fare enforcement (although this does not include contracts with the forces). of the order). Adding to Metro’s relatively comfortable financial situation is a local sales tax, Measure M, which was approved by voters in 2016 to generate $120 billion for the system over 40 years. Besides the Los Angeles Experience, the largest permanent free ride program in the United States is operated by Kansas City, which provides free rides to 30,000 to 40,000 passengers daily. Boston is trying it on some dedicated bus routes. But New York’s MTA has argued that the fares, which bring in $6 billion in a non-pandemic year, are too critical to drop, and instead cracks down harder on fare evasion, even on buses. .

The unofficial pilot program has helped Metro take a few steps toward a universal tariff-free future for Los Angeles, which advocates have been calling for for decades. The agency is offering deeply discounted weekly and monthly passes for low-income riders — with a free pass for the next 90 days — and pre-K-12 students in select school districts , including the half-million students who attend LA Unified Public Schools, can now ride for free. But, as advocates point out, since a majority of bus riders are already eligible for these discounts, Metro should make them standard, not an exception requiring additional paperwork (and additional administrative costs). “They have good stats on who rides in terms of demographics,” says Directo. “We know ridership is extremely low, earning $18,000 a year or less, for half of bus riders.” Yet as of this week, according to Metro, only 103,083 people, or one-fifth of the current daily number of bus riders in the system, are enrolled in the low-income fare program. If the goal is to provide more affordable public transit to those who need it most, restoring fares is not the answer, Zarate says. “If you don’t look at what happened as a way to better understand your ridership and how they might have benefited from no fare, to me it means there may not have been the intend to transition to the zero-tariff universe in the future.”

Metro is also considering other benefits of its free experience. Buses have seen a two-second reduction in what’s called “dwell time” at each stop when they’re not collecting fares, according to the agency. It may not seem like much, but Metro estimates that it has accelerated boarding by 10%. Again, however, the system-wide effects are hard to judge when so many other pandemic-era service factors have been disrupted — like many transit agencies, the combination of cases of COVID of operators and labor shortages has The metro cancels bus journeys — but Metro says it highlights the need to move to all-door boarding.

Universal public transit without fares would also have a disproportionate climate impact. According to a Subway report who studied which investments in regional transport can most reduce the kilometers traveled by vehicles – a priority of the agency, according to it – the exemption from tariffs would lead to both fewer kilometers traveled and less gas emissions greenhouse effect more than any other intervention, including congestion pricing or driver pricing a mileage-based charge. And that alone is a very good argument for keeping buses free. Directo and Zarate believe that one of the likely repercussions of restoring fares will be to see Metro ridership, which has recovered fairly steadily so far, start to fall again. (The Omicron surge is likely to be a contributor as well, but what better reason to keep fares free?) Beyond the obvious benefits for the most transit-dependent riders as they recover from In the face of the pandemic, free fares offer a built-in ridership boost, which should make it a top priority for any agency looking to seriously tackle the climate crisis.

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