L.A.'s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a ridership problem. Despite an enormous rail-building boom and the imposition of billions of dollars in new taxes to support public transit, fewer people are riding the subways and buses.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District has a poverty problem. More than 80% of its students live below the poverty line. Their families often struggle to cover the basic expenses, including transportation.
What if these two public agencies could work together to help solve each other’s problem? That’s the idea behind a proposal, floated by LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner and transit advocates, to provide free transit passes to the district’s more than 600,000 K-12 students.
The proposal comes at a time when advocates around the country are increasingly arguing that public transit should be free. Affordable transportation, they argue, is key to helping people get to school, jobs and opportunities to help them escape poverty. It’s good for the planet too, as more people choose to ride transit rather than drive, which reduces the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
Metro’s board of directors will vote today on whether to study the costs and benefits of giving LAUSD students free transit.
Metro could potentially see an immediate increase in ridership while training the next generation of bus and rail riders to use the expanding transit system. Research shows that people who ride public transportation at a young age are more likely to use it as adults. There are traffic benefits too.
For LAUSD and its students, free transit passes could help improve attendance, as the lack of affordable or reliable transportation is often cited as a reason for chronic absenteeism. The passes could also make it easier for young people to participate in extracurricular activities or get a part-time job.
Of course, free transit comes with costs. Metro would have to forgo the revenue from fares currently paid by LAUSD students. And it is possible that some routes could become so popular and crowded that Metro would need to add more buses or rail cars to meet demand. That’s a good problem to have, though, after several years of declining ridership.
There are two pilot programs underway providing free transit for students. One gives passes to juniors at Manual Arts Senior High School in South Los Angeles, and the other provides students with free rides on the city’s DASH buses. They are funded with philanthropic and state dollars. Separately, Metro is in the early stage of studying the possibility of funding free transit for everyone systemwide using revenue from toll roads or congestion pricing.
For the moment, it’s clear that there are real benefits to free student passes — for the kids, for the transit system and for the environment. Metro needs to move forward on this promising proposal and figure out if the costs are outweighed by the benefits for ridership and the climate.