Free public transportation for all. It is a concept rooted in equity, specifically to benefit low-income residents in Los Angeles County and could eventually permanently apply to all LA Metro riders.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Board of Directors recently approved a fareless pilot program that will provide free bus and train rides to K-12 students and community college students starting in August.

“With (the May 27th) vote, Metro moves forward to finalize a fare-free transit pilot for students and low-income Angelenos, boosting ridership and removing barriers in historically underserved communities,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti, who also serves on LA Metro’s Board of Directors.

Right now, Metro’s base fare is $1.75 but rides are currently free during the pandemic. Metro previously offered discounted fares to certain demographic groups like students, seniors, low-income residents, and people with disabilities, but officials believe a fully fareless Metro system would provide an even greater benefit to all Metro riders.

According to Metro, 75 percent of their 1.2 million daily weekday passengers before the pandemic were Latino or African-American, meaning this pilot program will directly help Black and Brown riders. Metro is the third-busiest transit agency in the nation, serving more than 10 million residents in LA County.

Over the past several months, Metro staff has been studying fareless transit, which will start in January 2022.

“Seventy percent of residents who rely on Metro for essential travel have annual (household) incomes of less than $35,000,” explained Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who represents the 2nd District in Los Angeles County. “Metro continues to offer fareless rides for residents and all riders should continue to board (buses) through the rear doors to help keep our community safe.”

Additionally, 51 percent of Metro riders live below the federal poverty level, with a median household income of $19,325 systemwide and only $17,975 for bus riders.

Meanwhile, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many riders have directly benefited from fareless transit, specifically on local buses, where passengers were encouraged to enter the back of the bus to limit contact with bus drivers.

“Service on Metro buses and trains will remain free as the agency develops details of a fareless pilot program,” said City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the city’s 11th District which includes Ladera and West Los Angeles.

Supervisor Mitchell said the pandemic has been a game-changer for Metro.

“For the last 14 months, Metro has been operating as a fareless system to help Angelenos recover from the pandemic. Without action, fare collection would have resumed in June,” revealed Mitchell.

According to LA Metro, about 70 percent of the transit system’s riders are considered low-income. The pilot program is expected to end in June 2023 and will be a great way to test the feasibility of making the entire Metro system fareless, regardless of income status.

Dozens of community-based organizations have expressed their support.

However, the way the program is ultimately implemented is still up for discussion, and advocates believe showing proof of low income will end up discriminating against communities of color and undocumented immigrants. Metro said their goal is to make pilot participation for eligible riders as simple as possible, removing barriers for anyone who qualifies. One idea is to partner with social service agencies that already offer low-income benefits and have them distribute pilot passes to their clients.

According to a county-wide survey with more than 46,300 responses, 86 percent of current Metro riders and 80 percent of prospective Metro riders surveyed support free transit.

As Metro staff research funding options to pay for the pilot program, they are going to work with other transit operators within LA County to see if they will also participate in the fareless pilot. Current estimates from Metro show the 23-month pilot program would cost approximately $250 million. If city and regional transit operators participate, the pilot program will end up costing more.

New sources of revenue could be used to pay for the program. However, Metro is hopeful that federal grant funding will be approved to fund fareless transit nationwide.

Supporters believe the fareless initiative is a great way to encourage more people to ride Metro. They also believe it would have environmental benefits by reducing gas emissions, as more people would be walking and biking to and from bus stops and train stations. A fareless system in LA County would also help California reach climate goals more quickly and improve air quality in disadvantaged areas across the region.

Another benefit would be to increase transit ridership. According to Metro, ridership has only recently rebounded to nearly 600,000 in April, or 50 percent of average daily weekday passenger boardings compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Free fares are also seen as a way to provide ongoing COVID relief and transportation access to jobs, schools, and essential trips. Officials said it is an immediate way to reduce transportation costs for households that will instantly benefit from the savings. It is a way to hedge against the rising cost of living across LA County.

Overall, the Metro Fareless System Initiative Task Force believes a fareless system in LA County is an important tool to help Metro fight against income and transportation inequality.