Why Free Public Transit Is Also Climate Justice For Many Angelenos
As a teen mother without money for a car, Maryann Aguirre relied on buses, trains and her bike to get around.
“In more affluent communities, sometimes riding your bike is seen more as recreational,” said Aguirre, who grew up in Boyle Heights and now lives in Montebello. “In communities of color it's out of necessity. So access to public transportation was really important for me. Access to safe bike lanes, especially with riding my bike with my daughter, was super important.”
Aguirre has seen firsthand the dangers and stresses of being car-less in a car-centric city. Her experiences led her to becoming an activist first with an all-women-of-color bike collective, then as an advocate with local nonprofit People For Mobility Justice, where she now manages the organization’s campaign for universal fare-free transit.
“Everything is getting more expensive and the thing folks should worry about less at this point is finding ways to effectively and equitably and safely get around L.A.,” Aguirre said.
On Feb. 4, transit agencies around the country, including L.A. Metro, offered a day of free rides to mark Transit Equity Day, a national holiday honoring civil rights icon Rosa Parks. But with costs of living rising and a climate and air pollution crisis driven in large part by pollution from cars and trucks, Aguirre and other transit justice advocates say one day isn’t enough, but that fareless transit should be the norm.
Fighting for “a healthy L.A.”
Aguirre said fareless transit would ease one of the many stressors on L.A. Metro riders, the vast majority of whom are Latino and Black with incomes less than $35,000 a year.
Metro offers free and reduced transit to low-income, senior and student populations, part of its efforts to "phase in" fareless transit, according to the agency. But applying for such programs requires proof of income and paperwork, which hindered people from enrolling in the past. L.A. Metro says it's eliminated much of the paperwork, doubling the number of Angelenos who are in the program to 200,000 in the last year. You can apply online here.
Aguirre said making free access universal, now, would have a bigger impact.
“If we want to talk about climate change and we want to talk about a healthy L.A. and a healthy California, incentivizing and improving our methods of transportation and access to that transportation is important,” Aguirre said.
At $1.75 a trip, L.A. Metro buses and trains are a bargain compared to other transit options, and especially when compared to the price of gas these days. Despite that, safety concerns have kept some riders from returning to L.A. Metro, the L.A. Times has reported – something Aguirre hopes can be partially addressed through a new program deploying 300 unarmed “transit ambassadors to Metro stations.
“The city is trying to move towards this kind of new era of transportation, but it's like we don't even have some of the basic necessities that we need.
But Aguirre doesn't buy into the idea that fares are needed to address those concerns. Fares provide less than 5% of Metro’s funding, which mostly comes from local sales taxes. That’s why Aguirre and a coalition of transit activists argue Angelenos are already paying their fair share of well…fares.
But ridership is still far from what it was before the pandemic, when total weekday ridership was more than a million people on average. As of this year, that ridership has remained about 70% of that, according to Metro data.
That’s a problem for maintaining good service, as well as achieving L.A.’s climate goals, which include slashing how much Angelenos travel by car by 40% in less than 20 years. While the city has slowly added more bus and bike lanes, it has fallen far behind on implementing its own transit and mobility plan.
What’s mobility justice?
Aguirre said it’s not just about expanding and improving public transit, though. She’s more about mobility justice, which brings climate-friendly transportation options to the communities most overburdened by pollution.
Those programs look like an e-bike lending program that People for Mobility Justice and fellow community organization Pacoima Beautiful launched in the San Fernando Valley, and are currently expanding. It looks like a similar program happening in port cities for small business owners, and an electric vehicle sharing program Aguirre’s working on with the L.A. Department of Transportation in South L.A.
But it also looks like the basics of improving traditional public transportation and making streets safer and better maintained. In an age when “sustainable transportation” has become something of a buzz phrase, Aguirre said it can be frustrating to see those necessities still overlooked.
"In some communities and communities of color, we don't even have access to bus shelters or access to bike lanes,” Aguirre said.
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