About 140,000 students in K-12 and community colleges are participating in new GoPass program in LA County and numbers are growing
Students piled off the G Line (formerly Orange Line) bus at the Balboa Boulevard station early Tuesday morning, backpacks swaying, chitchat lingering in the air, as they made the short walk to Birmingham Community Charter High School in Lake Balboa.
The students are part of an expanding L.A. Metro program offering K-12 and community college students unlimited free rides on all its public buses, light rail trains and subways for the entire school year.
(Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Because so many of the charter school students come from different parts of Southern California and the San Fernando Valley, and because there’s a bus stop close by, the public bus has become a popular method for Birmingham students to go back to school.
The charter school, focused on college prep, has the most students using Metro’s GoPass program of any K-12 school in Los Angeles County. Birmingham Community Charter High School’s high usage is followed by Fairfax High School, Bell Senior High School, Santa Monica High School and Paramount High School, according to L.A. Metro’s Devon Deming, deputy executive officer for the Fareless System Initiative.
The top three community colleges using the program, from first to third, are Santa Monica College, East Los Angeles College, Los Angeles City College, she said.
“We are really helping the students, so they can focus on doing their school work instead of worrying about how to get to school,” she said.
The program has 140,000 participants as the 2022-2023 school year begins. Of those, 122,000 are K-12 students and 18,000 are community college students. The number has jumped from the 64,000 K-12 students who participated in the pre-COVID year of 2019, almost doubling the K-12 participants today, Deming said.
In October 2021, the Metro board approved a fareless TAP card for participating school districts to hand out to all their students. Before that, students paid a reduced rate of $24 for a monthly pass. The fareless GoPass went into effect in mid-January, when Metro re-instituted fare collection after a pause during the early pandemic years.
Since students were offered free passes, the agency has seen 5,000 registrations per week, she said.
With the new school year just underway, Deming believes the numbers will grow as more school districts learn about the program. “The program has been gaining in popularity,” she said.
Metro is in the process of adding 20 new K-12 districts and two new community colleges — Glendale, and Mount San Antonio in Walnut, she said.
It costs each K-12 district $3 per student, while community colleges pay $7 per student. Metro estimated it is losing $27 million a year that was obtained from student ridership before the fareless pass went into effect, Deming explained.
The question remains: Can L.A. Metro, still struggling to gain riders and fill deep shortages of bus and train operators, adequately handle the surge from the gratis student riders?
Deming says yes, because the agency’s bus and train ridership is at 80%, since before the pandemic, so there’s room to grow within the current system.
Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA, a pro-mass transit organization, said student riders ride when buses and trains are not full, especially in the afternoons when schools let out.
On some crowded morning routes, such as along Western Avenue and Vermont Avenue, more buses may be needed, Lipmen said. But in most areas, students will ride on buses already traveling their routes. The top three rail lines used by GoPass holders are B Line (formerly Red), E Line (formerly Expo) and L Line (formerly Gold), she said.
Lipmen foresees students helping LA Metro ridership grow.
“Ridership went down in the pandemic. They anticipate achieving 100% on the bus by the end of this year and a lot of that is being driven by the student ridership program,” Lipmen said. “These student transit-pass programs are a sure-fire way to get people back on transit very quickly.”
Longtime Metro watcher Bart Reed, who heads up The Transit Coalition, said the program is valuable for students who rely on public transportation. But he wonders if Metro can get past problems of late-arriving buses and cancelation on routes.
“The issue is: Can the agency provide the amount of service required to meet the needs of the students?” Reed asked.
A report on the shortage of bus drivers in June found that hiring and training new drivers has cut the driver shortage to 582 from 617 in May. Also, the report said the agency has increased bus operator training classes from 85 per class to 125. The report also said it had hired 150 new drivers in one month in June.
Students currently make up 5% of Metro’s annual ridership, Deming said. About 88% of the students using GoPass are classified as from low-income families.
LAUSD is the largest participant in the program, Deming said. The district promoted the program in June to its staff and parents. The district estimated 70,000 students have active GoPass TAP cards and they’ve rung up 2 million boardings through June 2022.
“We have heard amazing stories about how having a TAP card that allows for unlimited rides has been an immense help to our families, especially those most in need. We plan to keep getting the word out so that more of our students can benefit from this program,” wrote Maritess Plewnarz, LAUSD program and policy development advisor in an emailed response.
Denny Zane, founder of Move LA and programs manager, said the program is modeled after one started by Santa Monica College in partnership with the Big Blue Bus. The more students who took the bus, the fewer parking woes neighbors experienced and there were fewer traffic jams, he said.
Also, studies found that those taking the bus who were guaranteed a ride to class experienced a decrease in absences and an increase in academic performance, Zane said. The GoPass program reduces vehicle miles traveled and cuts down on air emissions that cause smog, he said.
A study of a similar program at Rio Hondo College in Whittier found a 27% higher graduation rate among riders over the non-rider population, Deming said.
Zane’s group has been supporting a bill by Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, AB 1919, which would allow every school district and community college in the state to begin a fareless pass program. Money would be allocated to interested districts from the state budget, Zane said.
“There are so many good things that happen when you have student transit pass programs,” Zane said.
LA Metro’s program ends June 30, 2023, at the close of the current school year. “Our goal is to acquire funding to continue this program beyond the end of the school year,” Deming said.
For more information, go to metro.net/gopass.