Did the LA experiment with free buses work?

For nearly two years, as the pandemic raged, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has made its buses free. Ridership, for the most part, grew steadily and at a faster rate than on the trains, which still charged a fare.

Some hailed the experience as proof that free public transit is a surefire way to attract riders. So what happened when rates returned on January 10?

Bus ridership fell 10% from the previous month. Rail travelers barely moved. These figures also remained stable in February. In March, however, as gas prices rose, commuters flocked to buses and trains.

Bus ridership has returned faster than rail in Los Angeles

Does this prove that being free pushes people towards public transport? Making a conclusive case is tricky because there were so many other factors at play, like the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in early January, followed by the spike in gasoline prices in March.

Economic animals

However, some see politics as playing an influential role. “People are economic animals,” said Professor James Moore, director of USC’s transportation engineering program. This applies to free fares as well as rising gas prices. “If they can’t afford to fill their auto gas tanks, they still have to drive to work,” Moore added.

Low-income riders, many of whom cannot afford a car, account for 70% of Metro ridership. “Transit riders are captive to some degree,” Moore said. “They’re on these vehicles because they don’t have a lot of alternatives.”

This is even more true for bus users than for train passengers. “You tend to see discretionary passengers using the rails more often because maybe they work at a specific location and the rail goes straight there,” said Dave Sotero, Metro Communications Manager. Discretionary passengers have the ability to drive, unlike captive passengers who must use public transport because they do not own a car.

Overall bus vs. rail ridership Los Angeles

Another factor influencing the numbers, Sotero notes, could be a gradual return to the office for some workers as pandemic restrictions lift. “I have to go to work three days a week now, and I could work from home twice a week,” he said. “But that means I ride Metrolink three days a week, whereas I haven’t ridden it for two straight years during the pandemic.”

And even though bus drivers are supposed to collect fares, enforcement remains lax. Mendy Kong, a 21-year-old student who travels to school by bus, described how some passengers are still jumping on buses through the back door and not paying.

“Drivers will get paid anyway whether you pay or not, so for the most part they’ll leave you if you’re struggling,” they said.

Go Fareless

Part of the reason Metro was able to go fare-free in the first place was thanks to, well, taxpayers. Los Angeles County voters passed Measure M in 2016, a local sales tax that will generate $120 billion for Metro over the next four decades, unique among other U.S. transit authorities. Bus and train fares then represent only about 15 to 20 percent of Metro’s annual operating funds, said Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. KCRW.

“It’s a small but important revenue stream for the agency, and at this point we can’t afford to provide free rides to the entire running population of LA,” Sotero said.

Still, that doesn’t mean Metro has given up on a future without a future.

He has a program called Low-income fare is easyor LIFE, which offers discounts and free 90-day passes for new low-income passengers.

“We are looking for additional funding opportunities to potentially offer free fares to passengers in the future,” Sotero said. “So we haven’t given up on the idea, but it’s going to require us to identify other sources of funding for this to happen.”

Other cities, in the United States but especially abroad, have experimented with free transport systems. In California, the city ​​of commerce has a free bus system that dates back to 1962, one of the few free bus systems in the country.

Kong, the student, was able to qualify for Metro’s LIFE program, making bus rides free for them even after fares were restored in January. However, the express bus that Kong takes as part of his ride is not included and costs $2.75 each way.

“If you think about it, at least $2.75 a day counts,” they said. Kong spends now

about $25 a month on public transit and should budget for extras.

“Free fares are important to me because I don’t want to pay money to get around,” they said. “[Transportation] is a basic human right.

how we did it: We reviewed monthly train and bus ridership data Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for three years.

Do you have questions about our data? Email us at [email protected]

Christy J. Olson