Growing Transit Ridership

Our Work With Students

SHORTLY AFTER VOTERS overwhelmingly approved the Measure M sales tax for transit last November, news stories began surfacing about LA Metro’s declining ridership, which fell 6% in 2016 alone. Actually, a decline in bus ridership had begun in 2010, initially in response to service cuts and a fare increase that Metro adopted to cope with the dramatic decrease in revenues during the Great Recession. Another fare increase in 2014 yielded another decline in ridership—but the decline continued well after the effects of the increase in fares. Something else was happening.


Transit ridership has fallen all over the U.S. and a search for explanations is underway nationally. Many possible causes have been suggested: effects of the Great Recession; declining immigration; displacement of low-income residents in gentrifying neighborhoods; the 2015 California law allowing undocumented immigrants to get drivers licenses; declining gas prices; and LA's traffic congestion, which slows bus service.

LA Metro is working hard to rebuild ridership. We’d like to recommend a focus on “growing” student ridership.

LA Metro has ramped up its efforts to market its current discounted student transit pass program with notable success. However, some colleges and universities have pioneered a new kind of student pass program that has yielded far greater increases in student ridership. To cite three examples: At the University of Washington in Seattle 40% of students ride transit to school, at Santa Monica College 37% of students take transit, and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it's 31% of students.

There are basically two types of student pass programs: “Model 1” programs make passes available at a discount to students who are already interested in riding transit, which allows them to reduce the cost of their commute but isn’t likely to significantly build new student ridership.

The “Model 2” programs make discounted student passes available to all students at a group rate when they register for classes. These Model 2 programs—much like “pooled insurance”—create an economy of scale that dramatically reduces the cost of the passes.

At Santa Monica College, for example, students pay $10.50 per semester during registration and the college pays another $10.50—a real bargain when compared to the price of parking as well as the cost of providing parking! This Model 2 program ensures that every student gets a pass—not just those who choose to buy them—making it likely that many more students will ride. Some ride a lot, some only a little. But the results, as in the three examples cited above, show that student transit ridership soars!

Metro is interested in this new model and we believe that after a pilot project to work out the details, LA County may soon have the most expansive and universal student transit program in the country, with multiple colleges and multiple transit operators participating.



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