The front of a Metro bus waiting at a stop.
A Metro bus on the corner of Vermont and Normal Avenue. Photo by Jonathan Riley/Flickr.

Could Metro Fares Disappear?

Last updated:

Metro develops a proposal that could eliminate all bus and rail fares as a form of relief from the economic impact of COVID-19.

Starting Sept. 1, a Metro internal exploratory task force will begin developing a proposal to eliminate all bus and train fares. The project, titled the “Fareless System Initiative,” will be presented to Metro CEO Phil Washington and the Metro board of directors no later than the end of 2020.

The task force will use the next four months to study the operating costs currently covered by fares, alternative funding options available through local, state and federal grants and whether the Metro system can handle increased ridership, according to a press release published by Metro. They will also examine how fareless transit can potentially impact L.A.’s homeless population and alleviate disproportionate fare enforcement on people of color.

If Metro does go fareless, it will be the first transit system in the world to do so. Kansas City, Miss., is the only U.S. city that currently offers free bus transit. Other U.S. cities, such as Salt Lake City, Portland and Denver, have only floated the idea of eliminating fares.

Metro officials said that a fareless system might ease the economic burden currently faced by low-income Angelenos whose finances have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A Metro customer survey revealed that the median household income of Metro bus riders is $17,975, and for rail riders, $27,723.

“LA Metro has a moral obligation to pursue a fareless system and help our region recover from both a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the devastating effects of the lack of affordability in the region.” Washington said in a statement released by Metro’s official blog. “Fare-free transit will help essential workers, moms and dads, students, seniors and riders with disabilities.”

Over the month of July 2020, Metro’s bus and rail system — which covers 1,433 square miles — facilitated more than 16 million rider trips. In the 2019 fiscal year, Metro expended $1.9 billion in operating costs while only collecting between $250 and 300 million in fares. Officials estimate that Metro’s 13 percent fare recovery ratio will only decline further in the coming years. Throughout the last decade, Metro has seen a steady decrease in bus ridership as Angelenos opt for driving themselves.

In 2018, the transit agency launched the “Metro Vision 2028 Plan,” a strategic 10-year plan with the goal of expanding Metro’s accessibility and usability. While the possibility of a fareless transit system wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the original Vision 2028 summary, Metro officials said they have discussed the possibility of going fareless in conversations surrounding Measure M, the half-cent sales tax increase voted on in 2016 that funded the agency’s research into methods of reducing car traffic. In 2018, Washington told the Metro board of directors that enacting a toll on rush-hour drivers could fund free public transit in time for the 2028 Olympics.

On the same day as Metro’s announcement, Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted in support of implementing a fareless system in 2021, calling it “an important step toward a more equitable and sustainable future.”

Washington likened a fareless Metro system to other programs typically funded by the public — such as firefighting, policing and infrastructure — that serve as “a public right and common good” capable of transforming L.A.’s social and economic landscape.

Los Angeleno