Buses have been fare-free during the pandemic, but the Metro Board of Directors may soon end this program. Citizens who rely on public transportation are speaking out.
During the pandemic, LA Metro buses have been fare-free. Some of the intended results from fareless buses have been realized — passengers don’t need to tap or pay to board, resulting in contactless entry to protect bus drivers from COVID-19 and faster bus boarding times.
Other results from fareless buses were less intentional, but perhaps more significant. Suddenly, families who were relying on buses — the average Metro rider is a person of color, from an immigrant background, with a median income of $18,000 — were saving up to $400 per month on transportation costs. This money was instead reinvested in health care, other living expenses, and staying housed during this time of crisis.
And while public transit ridership was in decline in Los Angeles (as it was everywhere else in the US during the pandemic), bus ridership recovered first — and has recovered more quickly — than rail ridership. Indeed, bus ridership is projected to continue to grow, with environmental impacts such as reduced congestion and motor emissions to follow.
None of these data points are surprising to bus riders who have weathered continued service cuts over the last decade and during the pandemic in addition to the harrowing conditions of being essential workers who have continued to travel into Los Angeles. As the Metro Board of Directors has met over the last few months to discuss ending universally fare-free buses and replacing it with a K–14 fareless transit pilot, it’s these bus riders who are fighting back.
“I worked several jobs at the beginning of the pandemic,” explained Martha, a Metro rider for over 30 years. “I provided childcare for families, cared for seniors, performed household tasks for families. I was told I was essential. But what was essential for me was the bus and the train, to get to my jobs. Public transportation is not a luxury, it’s a means for so many hard-working people to generate the income they need to survive. It was dire out there then and it’s dire now. We need financial recovery wherever we can get it, including free buses and trains.”
Metro has been signaling since May 2021 that it intends to move to serving a smaller K–12 and community college population because universally free transit wouldn’t be possible without “a sustainable source of additional funding” that the agency had yet to find. Bus riders and community advocates say that simply isn’t true; the real barriers are Metro’s current funding priorities, including spending almost 90 cents of every fare dollar on fare collection operations and enforcement.
“Metro needs to be spending money on what its riders really need,” says Dorothy, who has been riding Metro buses for the last decade. “Because we want quality transportation service. We want more bus stops, more bus shelters, more bus service for more riders. We want everyone who needs buses and trains to be able to access it and [Metro] needs to be spending money that way.”
Community advocates say that Metro’s proposed pilot is an unacceptable reversal from its stated “moral obligation” to be free to all riders. They also reject means testing both because it is impractical — as low-income income riders make up about 70 percent of Metro’s ridership — and that investing in the bureaucracy of means testing and fare enforcement is a waste of the money that could instead be put towards universally fare-free transit. Metro currently has no plans to collect or evaluate data on bus rider satisfaction of the fareless system, or bus system operating gains during the universal fareless period, and has suggested improvements to the LIFE fare subsidy program as a compromise. The LIFE program would not provide free transit; transit passes would be discounted for those who apply and qualify for the program.
“That’s not a compromise,” says a Metro bus rider we spoke to. “It’s good for me that my children won’t have to pay for the bus, but they’re young. I will still have to pay to go with them and take them to school. I can’t apply for the discount for myself, and even if I could, paying 50% of the fare means that I think about buying a car, or taking money from our emergency savings. Please don’t make me do that.”
Metro will be hosting its monthly Board of Directors meeting this Thursday, September 23, at 10:00 AM to discuss how to move its K–14 fareless pilot forward, and has discussed in previous meetings ending universally free buses a month after the pilot launches. Community advocates are continuing to call on Metro for a concrete plan for universally fareless buses, and its continuation in the meantime. For more information on how to get involved and take action for a universally fareless Metro, visit bit.ly/MetroTakeAction.
Alison Vu is the Communications Manager for the Alliance for Community Transit—Los Angeles (ACT-LA).
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