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Fare-free Public Transport? We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

LA Metro is considering going fare-free. But will it be able to overcome the possible challenges and drawbacks that experiments with fare-free public transport have encountered elsewhere? [1]

Last week LA Metro announced the formation of a new internal task force that will look into making all buses and trains fare-free [1]. While it’s still early days, make no mistake, the operational area covered by the LA Metro is one of the most populous areas in the United States.

We have covered free public transport before in two previous articles, one about fare-free buses in Kansas [2] and another which served as a bit of a deep dive looking at some of the peer-reviewed evidence on whether the fare-free approach achieved broader public transport policy goals [3].    

If realized, a fare-free LA Metro would dwarf the scheme for free public buses being (incrementally) implemented in Kansas – which collects about $8 million in fares compared to LA Metro’s $300 million. However, in both cases, the fare recovery ratio is only between 8-13 percent of operating costs. 

Along with stated aims which include social equity, cost of living pressures, and decongesting the road system, post-pandemic economic recovery was announced as a major focus for the study. 

“In his remarks, Phil [LA Metro CEO] said that he views eliminating fares as an economic development tool that will also improve mobility for all people and put money back in the pockets of those who need it the most. That’s especially important as L.A. County recovers from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.” 

Some of the specific aspects of the fare-free proposal that will be investigated by the task force are:

  • Funding opportunities
  • Determination of current fare collection and enforcement costs
  • Impact on ridership numbers and experience
  • Impact on allegations of targeting people of color for fare enforcement
  • Impact on homelessness 

The plan is for the task force to report back to the Metro CEO and board of directors by the end of 2020. 

 

Personal comments

At the end of our previous little dive into what the evidence says about fare-free public transport, my personal conclusion was that price is only ever one part of the equation to a well-functioning transport system – and that making fares free will not necessarily be a silver bullet. From an economic point of view, many of the stated goals of fare-free systems could potentially be achieved using more targeted measures as well. On the other hand, the symbolic power of fare-free public transport (in a day and age where the imperative to shift away from personal vehicle use is greater than ever) should not be underestimated. 

It will be interesting to see whether the LA Metro taskforce will address some of the challenges that peer-reviewed studies into case studies like Estonia, Worcester City (Massachusetts), and Austin (Texas) have identified. Some of these challenges mentioned in studies and reports include increases in vandalism and rowdiness, as well as declines in service levels. However, it should be pointed out that given the still very limited number of large-scale, real-life implementation of such policies, there is the risk of relying too much on outcomes and conclusions from such a small sample size. So as a mobility researcher, I for one would be very keen to see a fare-free system for LA Metro actually become reality, if only for the added data points! 

*For those interested in Swedish based case studies of fare-free public transport, the following site contains several cases at the municipality level [4].

 

Written by Bobby Chen, RISE.

 

Sources

1. 2020-08-27. Metro to study and consider eliminating bus and rail fares

2. 2019-12-19. Free Public Transport? Yes We Kansas!

3. 2020-01-30. Free Public Transport: A Deeper Dive

4. 2014-07-16. Fare-free public transport: lessons from Sweden