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Transportation and Mobility

Free Transit Is Coming For Many LA County K-12 And Community College Students. Here’s What To Expect

A rider wearing gloves looks toward a train while walking in an underground Metro rail station.
A rider waits to board a Los Angeles Metro train amid the coronavirus pandemic.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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More than one million K-12 and community college students in Los Angeles County will be able to ride L.A. Metro and other local transit systems for free, beginning Oct. 1

The county transit agency’s board of directors approved the long-awaited pilot program Thursday after previously delaying the launch until Metro staff delivered a plan for how to cover the cost of the program.

It’s the first phase of Metro’s exploration of creating a fully free transit system, known as the Fareless System Initiative, or FSI.

Metro has also secured participation from several local municipal transit agencies, giving students more access to free trips in their community and around the county.

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Foothill Transit, along with bus lines operated by the cities of Santa Monica, Culver City, Commerce, Montebello and Norwalk will participate. Several other agencies are awaiting approval or are undecided.

While hundreds of thousands of students will be able to ride for free, the pilot program will not be open — at least initially — to all students countywide.

“Only students at districts participating in the cost-sharing will be eligible,” said Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero.

Each K-12 district that opts in will pay Metro $3 per student per year for all of its students to take part in the program. Community colleges will pay $7 per student per year.

Metro will distribute TAP cards to participating districts, which students will need to register via an online portal. Metro is also working to rebrand the program with a "catchy" name that will resonate with students, one staff member told the board.

So far, 41 of L.A. County’s 87 school districts are interested in participating, according to Metro staff. That includes, among others:

  • Los Angeles Unified
  • Inglewood Unified
  • Santa Monica-Malibu Unified
  • Pasadena Unified
  • Azusa Unified
  • Monrovia Unified
A row of turnstiles at the entrance to an L.A. Metro line.
(Chava Sanchez

Those pending contracts represent $2.18 million annually in cost-sharing available to fund the pilot. Metro staff estimates the agreements with school districts will cover between 12% to 24% of the program's cost.

The agency is projecting a revenue loss of just under $50 million over the two-year pilot program, but notes the majority of that figure — $41.5 million — will be covered with federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Some Leaders Press For Universal Fareless Transit ASAP

Board members applauded the move, though some were adamant that it didn’t go far enough, given Metro leadership’s initial hope to make the system free to all riders by the start of 2021.

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“This is a huge deal — but falls short of the goal of universal fareless transit,” board member and L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin wrote on Twitter, calling a free system “a necessary step for economic and social justice.”

Both Bonin and fellow board member and County Supervisor Holly Mitchell pointed to some big-picture merits of a fully free transit network.

“According to Metro, not only would a fare-free system accelerate Metro’s congestion reduction and sustainability goals faster than nearly any other initiative of this agency, a fareless system is an important tool to assist in the fight against income and health inequality,” Mitchell told the board Thursday. “This is backed by long-established and renewed research that mobility and poverty are inextricably linked.”

New Opportunities For Students

The move toward universal fareless transit is something local advocates have been championing for years.

Eli Lipmen is the director of programming and development for Move LA, which works to build pro-transit community support in the county. He applauded Metro’s decision, saying it “opens up a world of possibilities” for students and will increase transit ridership, which has fallen dramatically during the pandemic.

“That means less cars on the road, less people driving their kids to school, less traffic, better air quality, less pollution — so that's fantastic,” he said. “We also see these educational benefits, we see less tardiness, we see less absences, which means more funding for the school district — and that's really why the school districts love this program.”

Lipmen also sees free transit for L.A. County’s young people as integral to another longer-term goal: securing the next generation of transit riders.

“I really believe that we've lost a generation culturally in Los Angeles, who just will never ride public transit because of the stigma around it, but also this idea of independence of a car,” he said. “But if we can create the next generation of ridership — who really believe that public transit means something to them and has provided them a real public benefit, and that they know how to ride — we can actually start to shift the culture around here to get people to use more public transit, and that benefits us all.”

What About Low-Income Riders?

A woman steps out  to the curb from the rear door of an orange L.A. Metro bus as the driver, wearing a face mask, watches.
( Courtesy L.A. Metro)

Also noteworthy: Metro will resume fare collection on its buses in January 2022. Bus trips had been free systemwide during the pandemic, easing the financial impact on low-income riders, who represent 70% of Metro's ridership.

Phase 2 of the fareless pilot would expand free transit to all low-income riders on Metro’s system, but staff says the agency doesn’t have currently enough money in the budget to move forward. Metro will work to secure additional federal, state and local funding to make that happen, to the tune of $440 million.

In the meantime, Metro will also work to improve its current program that offers free and discounted fares to low-income riders. The LIFE program, short for Low Income Fare is Easy, has struggled with low enrollment and a not-so-easy application process. Metro staff will work to streamline applications, create a new online tool to sign up, and improve distribution of LIFE TAP cards. Staff will report back quarterly on that progress.

Enrollment in the program has increased through the pandemic. Pre-COVID, Metro estimates 35% of its qualifying low-income riders had enrolled in LIFE. Currently, about 60% of low-income riders are enrolled.

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