Metro Is Considering A Program To Let LA County's K-12 Students Ride For Free

(James Bernal for LAist)

What would it take to allow Los Angeles County's K-12 students to ride our regional transit system for free? Los Angeles Metro is now working to figure that out.

After spirited debate and verbal finessing, the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board of directors unanimously approved a motion Thursday to study the feasibility of providing free transit for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and potentially all K-12 students countywide.

Some board members lauded the study as a vital first step to exploring whether the system could one day be free for everyone.

The study will examine cost estimates and how much fare revenue Metro could potentially say goodbye to, plus projections of ridership increases and how that could affect service (aka overcrowding on trains and buses). It will also look at existing free transit programs for K-12 students and survey students from LAUSD and other school districts to get a sense of how many are dependent on transit now and how many would take Metro if rides were free. Staff is slated to report back to the board in April.

Metro officials say providing L.A. County's schoolchildren free, equitable access to its transit system could boost school attendance, improve mobility and health, and ease traffic congestion. Agency leaders also see it as an opportunity to instill an appreciation for public transit in a new generation of riders.

That could be a life-saving move for Metro, which continues to see ridership plummet on its system. The number of trips on the agency's trains and buses has fallen more than 20% over the past decade, according to Metro statistics.

(Courtesy Steve Hymon/Metro)

Metro's leaders voiced support for the idea at the heart of the motion, but the vote was delayed after a long discussion about which students — and districts — would actually be studied.

Initially, the motion was titled "Free Transit for Los Angeles Unified School District Students." Some board members were against approving a study that didn't account for students countywide.

"Why not give more of our students this golden ticket to explore the wonders that we have to offer?" asked board member and L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn.

But board members and L.A. City councilmen Mike Bonin and Paul Krekorian said LAUSD should be studied first to understand the feasibility of such a program before expanding to other districts.

Bonin urged fellow board members to not "make perfect the enemy of the really significant good." Krekorian argued that finding a way to make free student fares cost effective for Metro will be a considerable challenge, and a tighter focus would be the best approach.

But after a lot of back-and-forth, board chair and Inglewood Mayor James Butts asked staff to redraft the motion to specify an expanded scope for the study, arguing that focusing solely on LAUSD would be "totally unfair" to the hundreds of thousands of other students and families across the county. Butts also called for a "tiered system of study" that would use an equity-based assessment to determine "most needy to least needy."

"It should be homeless children and their parents who ride free if anyone is going to ride free," Butts said.

That revised motion, now titled "Free Transit For Los Angeles County Students" tacks on "and other school districts" to every mention of LAUSD.

The idea of free rides for students enjoyed wide support from LAUSD leaders, teacher's union representatives, parents and students, who spoke ahead of the board discussion.

"Our schools serve families of whom 80% live in poverty; 90% of our students are kids of color," LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said in an address to Metro's board. "Something as basic as coming up with the money to buy a bus pass to get to school can be a barrier, which prevents a child from getting the education they deserve."

Beutner also has a separate ask of Metro: consider allowing the district's school buses to use Metro's dedicated bus lanes "to help cut down on commute times for students otherwise stuck in traffic."

Access to reliable, low-cost or free public transit "is a critical component of housing affordability" for L.A. County residents, Metro officials said in the motion. We've reported previously on the links between transportation costs and poverty — and what experts and advocates are pushing for to address our regional surge in homelessness.

Metro is already conducting some smaller-scale experiments with free student transit, including at an arts high school in South L.A., which we reported on last year.

And the city of L.A. offers free rides to K-12, college, and vocational students on its DASH bus network through its DASH to Class program, which launched last August.

The motion also ordered a separate report, slated to return to the board in June, on how a similar free transit program might look if expanded to community college students in L.A. County.

Read Metro's full motion below:

MORE PUBLIC TRANSIT COVERAGE

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote from a Metro board member. The quote was from board member and L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn. LAist regrets the error.