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Want More People to Take the Bus? Make Transit Free

Los Angeles ran the nation’s largest fare-free program for almost two years. It shouldn’t have stopped.

three empty seats on an LA metro bus
Image: Jeremy Divinity | Knock LA

“Nobody takes public transportation in Los Angeles!” 

That statement reverberates across the miles and miles of congested pavement that transformed Los Angeles into the car-centric city that we now know.

But it begs the question, who counts as nobody? 

It is no secret that we live in a car-obsessed city dominated by historical injustices. Every day, millions of Angelenos sit idly, privy to the many illnesses of traffic while reluctant to use public transportation as an alternative way to commute. There is a deeply rooted stigma against the public transit system in LA related to issues of inconvenience, reliability, and cost of fares

Yet, the reality is there are hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, who are disproportionately Black and brown, that rely on the Metro as their primary mode of transportation. These transit riders don’t have the privilege of choosing whether or not to drive, as 84% of Metro riders don’t have a car available to make their trips. 

According to the National League of Cities, “almost 70% of Metro customers are very low or extremely low-income earners; the median household income of Metro riders is just over $19,000 per year.” There is a heavy financial burden of daily ridership felt hardest by those who are already struggling to afford basic needs such as rent, food, and healthcare. According to a recent study, LA is the least affordable city for commuting — monthly passes account for 9% of the average commuter’s income. Given the added burden many low-income riders have faced due to the financial hardships of the pandemic, a $100 monthly Metro pass is money that could be saved to meet daily and weekly needs.

Transit is, or at least should be considered, a public good, and fare-free transit reflects the moral duty to provide equitable access. 

Yet the demographic of daily transit riders show that the same people who depend on public transportation are also the people who keep our city moving by attending school, running our hospitals, stocking supermarkets — or making the trek across the city’s sprawl from South LA to Beverlywood to clean the houses of the wealthy. 

Due to decades of residential segregation, such as redlining, a study of LA Metro ridership found that high transit tracts, meaning areas of high commuter density, were predominantly “Hispanic” with portions of Asian and Black populations but few white populations. Ironically, while disadvantaged due to spatial inequities, these commuters are making the greener transportation choice while more than likely living in neighborhoods devoid of green spaces. Today, it is rapid gentrification that is displacing these communities and pushing them further from transit opportunities.

We live in a city where race, income, and geographic mobility influence one’s preferred and accessible mode of transportation. For communities of color, public transportation represents a daily reality. For those who say that nobody takes public transportation in LA, that statement is blinded by privilege and painted by the inequities that historically define the city. 

As a native Angeleno with past stints in New York and Washington DC, I made the decision to be intentionally carless when I moved back to LA six years ago. My exposure to the subterranean passageways of the east coast inspired my choice to be car-free. It is also important to acknowledge the privilege that comes with my decision.

Many of my friends have to ask, how do I do it? I often reply that it’s a lot more doable than you think, especially once you’re able to move away from the stigma of public transit and outside of a car-centric mindset. Metaphorically, and in a sense metaphysically, being untethered to a vehicle has been freeing. Yes, the public transportation system in LA is imperfect and often unreliable. Be that as it may, the commute times driving in traffic can be just as long. 

As I approach seven years without a car in a car-dominated city, I realize that beyond the ecological and economic benefits of public transportation, access is an equity and social justice issue. In our auto-centric metropolis, without having equitable access to rapid transit alternatives, there is a reliance on the same gridlocked infrastructure that historically destroyed, divided, and discarded communities across the city. 

A start to a fair transit system is fare-free transit. 

With a sharp decline in ridership, the pandemic laid the testing ground for a universal fare-free pilot program. Metro began allowing passengers to ride without payment in March 2020, making it the largest agency in the country to test a fareless program. Unfortunately, Metro resumed fare collection on January 10, 2022. 

Throughout those 22 months, Metro provided approximately 281 million fare-free boardings, with ridership increasing to pre-pandemic levels. This recovery in ridership is a testament to the benefit of a fare-free transit program as a means to not only increase ridership but to provide equitable public transportation to those who depend on it most. Those who saw the fare-free program as a saving grace are also those who are hit hardest by the return of fares.

“Your fares help keep our system running,” said Metro in a press release on the restart of fare collection. On the contrary, funds from fare collection only make up about 6% of Metro’s annual total revenue. With an annual budget of $8 billion, and provided that fare collection only accounts for about 15–20% of Metro’s annual operating funds, it is safe to argue that Metro is well suited to make a permanent fare-free transit program in LA work. 

Despite the premature end to the universal fare-free program (the pandemic is still very much happening), the fare-free program was a climate, economic, and racial justice victory

“Stop moving to Los Angeles. We’re full!” Screams the angry driver emboldened by the sea of single-passenger cars that make up LA traffic. 

How did we get here? The gridlock seems to be growing to the point where every day is a lived Carmageddon. In what has become the world’s car capital, the transit history in LA started with promising beginnings.

Here’s a brief history lesson. 

By the early 20th century, LA had a thorough and thriving interconnected mass transit system of subways and streetcars. The Pacific Electric Railway Company financed this system, which was also the most extensive electric railway system in the world at the time. At its peak, the system served 275,000 passengers per day on a vast network of 1,100 miles of track. That’s 25% more than the subway system in New York today. 

In 1925, faced with rapid population growth and traffic congestion, Kelker, De Leuw & Co., a consultancy group from Chicago, proposed a comprehensive elevated railway plan to the LA City Council and LA County Board of Supervisors. The plan was commissioned to accommodate a future city population of 3 million. The report detailed the costs and economic benefits of implementing the project while considering using the existing infrastructure laid by the Pacific Electric Railway Company. 

Due to opposition from the LA Times and apprehension amongst homeowners because of property value concerns, the city never enacted the plan. 

But what if it had?

The railway system would’ve been completed before World War II, which is prior to the emergence of highways that displaced communities of color across the city. 

Oh, what if. 

Ultimately, there was a shift in the 1940s and ’50s to the more car-dominant culture and infrastructure we know today.

You see, LA isn’t full, but it was designed exclusively for an inefficient mode of transportation that has been proven unsustainable. 

Yet, public transit persists as the model of opportunity for generational mobility.

“In many ways, you are trapped if you don’t have a car,” acknowledged fellow Angeleno and Black feminist theoretical physicist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein in her book, The Disordered Cosmos. As a native of East LA, she tells the story of her mother who, although financially struggling, owned a car and drove her outside the city limits to Joshua Tree to see the passing Comet Hyakutake. At the age of 13, this was the trip that inspired her to become the 54th Black American woman to ever earn a PhD in physics. 

For Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, public transportation is the unforeseen answer to her Black feminist astronomy question: What are the community structures needed that not only interfere with the night sky but make the night sky accessible? What relationship with the land is needed so that any 13-year-old Black kid and their single mother can look at the night sky away from the city lights? 

In LA, adequate, accessible, and equitable public transportation is an equity issue that improves geographic and economic mobility while making the city and surrounding communities accessible for millions of Angelenos. 

In a city heralded as a mecca for cars, communities not only need reliable public transportation but, first, accessible public transportation. A functional and affordable public transportation system creates opportunities for improved quality of life and overall better community health.

The opportunity cost of owning a car, especially for low-income residents, is the ability to use that income for further investment in the community, or simply, to exacerbate the financial burdens that limit accessibility. 

Non-car transportation is a social justice issue, especially for marginalized people without the ability to get out of the city and dream under the star-speckled night sky. 

As Edgar Mejía said in an article for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, “Those who rely on public transit experience the city differently from those who travel primarily in a private vehicle.” 

There are few better ways to intimately experience and engage with the city than public transportation. 

There’s a texture of the city that can’t be felt from a car. 

Whether by bus or rail, there is a connection with the heartbeat of the city as you snake in and out of the crevices of the innocuous landscapes that connect our mosaic of diverse neighborhoods. Not readily available to the eyes of drivers, there are views that overlook the canopy of neighborhoods, the ecological forest of backyard trees, and the graffiti-marked banks of the urban concrete river.

Some days the commute is calm, meditative in a sense. Others, there is more of a chaotic calmness. Yet, there’s an ability to create space, listen, and observe the city as it moves, lives, and pulsates. 

Public transportation allows the ability to slow down. Not slow down literally, but in the sense of being able to stay present in the world around you. In a time when we are in a rush to get nowhere fast, we might recognize the city isn’t as hollow as our empty single-passenger vehicles

As I rode the public transportation system in the early pandemic and during a time of limited social interaction, it was my observations of riders that oddly brought me joy. Although I couldn’t see facial expressions due to the sea of masks, eye contact told a thousand stories of hardship and grief, but also the happiness of living — the joy of striving. 

These transit riders made the city go, and often, their stories are left unheard. 

Beyond avoiding contributing to the societal and ecological effects of driving, my public transportation experience has been, for me, a pleasure. 

LA has its fair share of transportation issues — especially with increased traffic and population growth. Across LA County, only 6.8% of the 4.5 million commuters utilize public transportation. The continued use of private automobiles without reliable and accessible alternatives to them will have compounding social and environmental costs. We must look for ways to encourage ridership amongst Angelenos while ensuring those who rely on the public transit system continue to have equitable access. Fare-free transit is a means to reach this end.

In a car-dominated society, fare-free transit can improve the city’s health, address housing issues, and close in on climate goals. In addition, reducing car dependency is the opportunity to promote increased wealth building in low-income communities. 

With proper funding, resources, and most importantly, the ability to dream, we can reimagine our streets and what it means to commute in the City of Angels.

It’s a wacky world of rapid transit.