Metro has officially launched a pilot for its Fareless System Initiative with 17,000 K-12 students in six LA County school districts, and is planning to expand the program with the approval of the Metro Board at its September meeting. As we follow Metro’s efforts to scale up this important program—with multiple benefits not just for student riders but for everyone who wants to see reductions in GHGs and VMT—we've been thinking back to the time we began advocating for a student transit pass program at least a decade ago.
That was when Executive Director Denny Zane started working with Santa Monica College to create an “Any Line, Any Time” student transit pass program in partnership with the Big Blue Bus. Student interest in taking transit—paid for in part by their student fees—grew quickly and the program became a key marketing tool for recruiting new students to enroll.
In 2015 we started working with Metro on a student pass program with the encouragement of LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, then Metro Board Chair, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. We also began lobbying the Legislature for funding for a statewide student transit pass program, working with Assemblymember Chris Holden.
In 2016 Move LA hosted a Student Transit Pass Summit to mobilize students to support funding for discounted transit passes in Measure M—with the result that 2% of Measure M funds are now being used to reduce the cost of student passes. Metro launched its U-Pass Program that same year, while we kept working to win funding from the Legislature, Asm. Holden's bill made it to Governor Jerry Brown's desk . . . and was vetoed. But success was on the horizon—so read on!
In 2019 Move LA was funded to initiate and manage a universal student transit pass pilot at Manual Arts High School in South LA, in partnership with Metro and the South LA Promise Zone (SLATE-Z), and to explore expanding the program to other K-12 schools. LADOT and the LA Community College district helped leverage more funding for the program from the state’s Low Carbon Transportation Operations Program (LCTOP), which made it possible to provide free DASH bus service for LAUSD and LA Community College District students.
About a year later Metro CEO Phil Washington created a task force to explore the idea of a “fareless transit system” for all riders, beginning with low-income riders and students. We'd like to tell you the whole story, and explain how Metro is now moving forward to implement its fareless program with K-12 and community college students. The whole story, and the details of the current implementation of Stage 1 of Metro's Fareless System Initiative are below and also on our website HERE.
Metro CEO Phil Washington's idea to create a “fareless transit system” beginning with low-income riders and students—had strong support from LAUSD’s Superintendent and Board Member Dr. George McKenna, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Metro Board Member Jackie Dupont-Walker, and Metro and LAUSD staff. All saw the potential to increase access to educational and workforce opportunities and to encourage students to use public transit instead of driving to school.
The LA Community College District began to lobby to reduce the cost of transit for their students or make it fareless, and helped us stage a virtual student rally in May to encourage a good turnout of students at the next Metro Board meeting. The idea of launching a fare-free program for K-12 and community college students when schools re-opened in August (and for low-income riders starting in January 2022) was championed by some board members was championed, but not all believed the agency could afford it—especially post COVID with ridership down and limited farebox revenues.
Move LA made a video of students talking about why fareless transit was so very important to them—which we sent to Metro boardmembers and their staff—and more than 100 speakers turned out to make the case for fare-free at the next board meeting, including advocates from ACT-LA, SAJE and the Bus Riders Union.
After much back and forth among boardmembers who supported the idea and those who did not, a last-minute compromise put forward by LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn and Mayor Garcetti, and the FSI pilot was approved in a 12-0 vote. Conditions were set, however, including the need for “a final funding plan and assurances that the pilot program would not impact Metro’s service or ability to keep its transit system in a State of Good Repair.”
SO WHERE’S THE PROGRAM NOW?
While Metro has provided limited information to the public, the FSI implementation team has been regularly reporting their progress to the Metro Board. The latest report can be found here, and we will update this post when we know more.
According to a memo from August, Metro is currently testing the program with 17,000 K-12 students in six school districts in LA County, and LAUSD— which represents close to a third of the 1.4 million public K-12 students in LA County—has made a verbal commitment to join. In addition, Metro has received interest from dozens of other K-12 districts representing more than 1,139 schools and 695,610 students.
While the families of K-12 students are not charged a fee, participating school districts must contribute $3/student/year, and municipal transit agencies interested in joining the program must cover the remaining cost—for a total cost for all partners, including Metro, of about $50 million over 2 years. This allows K-12 students to ride any Metro bus, rail line, or participating municipal bus service without paying a fare at the point of entry, if their school district participates in the program.
As mentioned above, this program is very similar to the Any Line, Any Time program that Move LA Executive Director Denny Zane helped pilot at Santa Monica College about a decade ago and we have been working to expand ever since. Now it appears we’ve succeeded—with the help of all the parties mentioned above, as well as the students!
BUT WHAT ABOUT COMMUNITY COLLEGE STUDENTS?
Because community college students ride more frequently than K-12 students, they will be charged more. The community college program will launch if the Metro Board approves the program at the September meeting, with the colleges that have ongoing reduced-fare agreements with Metro at first at a charge of only $7 per year per student.
However, colleges that have an existing arrangement with a municipal bus operator can keep that program going according to those agreements and have students gain access to Metro service without additional costs. Their TAP cards will simply be programmed to work on the Metro system.
The use of TAP cards is key to helping Metro measure the impact of the program on ridership—and will provide information on the vehicle miles traveled per student, and whether there are reductions in tardiness and absences.
We hope to see a dramatic jump in Metro’s ridership since almost 1 million students could be eligible. One possible result is that Metro may be able to return to pre-pandemic ridership levels earlier than anticipated and ahead of other transit agencies—which will help reduce traffic and improve student outcomes at school.
Move LA plans to track this program as it develops—beginning with Phase 1 and a proposed Phase 2 for all low-income residents of LA County, including qualifying older adults and people with disabilities. We’ll be making the case that this program is not only financially feasible but also a moral obligation for a public agency funded by sales tax dollars to benefit those most vulnerable and in need of high-quality transit service.