As leaders attempt to address an economic crisis, a health crisis, and a climate crisis, one bold proposal may be picking up speed: Metro could drop all fares for bus and rail rides as soon as next year. A task force will convene on September 1, with the goal of developing a proposal by the end of the year.
Backers of the idea say free rides makes essential transportation more accessible to those who are suffering financially, and more people opting to use public transit has environmental benefits that protect the planet and promote respiratory health. Proponents even point out that people of color are more likely to be targeted by authorities claiming suspicion of non-payment of fares, a problem which is eliminated by not having fares to pay.
And yet, it would be an unprecedented experiment. No major city in the world has ever made public transportation completely free for all passengers.
“LA 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 affects of the lack of affordability in the region,” Metro CEO Phil Washington told the agency’s blog, The Source. “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.”
Washington thinks offering free transportation as a public service–the way taxpayer-funded firefighters perform their service without charging a fee to the owner of the building that caught on fire–and as a potential driver of economic development.
The median household income of current Metro riders is low–$17,975 for bus riders, $27,723 for rail riders–and making transportation available for free could mean they have more funds available for other expenses. Metro authorities even suggest it might help currently unhoused individuals in the region have a way to get to job interviews or shifts of work that could propel them into more sustainable housing situations.
Right now, Metro says fares only cover about 13 percent of the cost of operating the system, and that percentage has been dropping for years. In 2019, the agency logged $1.9 billion in expenses, but only sold between $250 and $300 million in fares.
Going fare-free has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who tweeted on Thursday that he would be backing the plan.
“I support fare-free public transit in Los Angeles, and in my role as Metro Board Chair, I’m working with [Metro Los Angeles’s] CEO and team to bring that vision to fruition in 2021,” the mayor wrote. “This is an important step toward a more equitable and sustainable future.”