Fareless Rides from Metro: Does This Really Help Transit Riders?

TALKING TRANSIT-For my mobility, in 1992 I began the process of moving from complete vehicle reliance to a mixture of driving, mostly single passenger, to riding the buses of the many transit agencies in Los Angeles County.

And after they were built, I rode the trains of Metro. Shortly thereafter, I began attending public transit meetings to learn the transit systems and networks, and to support increasing transit options for Los Angeles.            

My motivation was, and remains, my environmental concerns. Back in 1992 it was air pollution. Then, and still today, Los Angeles has the worst air quality in the nation, with vehicle exhaust from single passenger vehicles the greatest source of air pollution. 

Climate change from global warming raised its existential threat a few years later, and like air pollution, in Los Angeles the greatest source was vehicle exhaust.            

Environmentally the switch to transit was easy. The practicality of the switch presented too many unneeded obstacles from Metro and transit agencies, and too many obstacles remain.             

When the late Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl created the Transit Empowerment Committee for District 11, I quickly joined, and for the end years of its existence was co-chair with Ken Alpern, MD, a fellow City Watch contributor. Dr. Alpern was very adept in bringing transit experts to committee meetings.            

At one meeting the yet to be built Expo Line was discussed. Dr. Alpern presented a traffic and transit engineer. During his talk, the engineer said he drove by the sections of the planned Expo Line we were discussing and made what he called “a windshield estimate” of the situation.           

This is a strange term that describes many of the comments and suggestions I have heard, and continue to hear, regarding buses and trains. These comments do not come from transit riders, but from drivers who make “windshield estimates” of how to improve transit while riding in their car, looking out behind the windshield, removed from the reality of riding transit.           

I knew that ideas presented from non-transit riders did not reflect the reality of riding transit in Los Angeles on a regular basis. However, when some of these ideas and plans came from Metro – the uber transit agency of Los Angeles County, California, and one of the nation’s largest transit agencies -- what I see as “windshield estimates” have been disappointing.           

The latest grand plan from Metro is to consider making fares on buses and trains free to encourage ridership. It will do the opposite.           

Metro and its advisors need to get out from behind the windshield (and offices), and regularly ride transit in Los Angeles -- not for a day, a week, a month, but for months if not years.            

Then, their perspectives as transit riders would change their thought processes.           

Charging fares act as a gatekeeper for transit. It creates an obstacle from just anyone riding buses and trains, and transit riders need protection from those who have no regard for others. From the perspective of my years of transit experiences, fareless Metro will invite more chaos on buses and trains and more disrespect for transit riders.           

Making someone pay modifies behavior, and this is for the general good. It creates the situation where a person is called on to be part of the greater community, to pay for the service, and to behave while riding.           

Fare evasion is a problem not only in Los Angeles, but throughout the nation. Fare evaders on a bus or train know they have broken the compact between them and society, and this bit of proper guilt can modify their behavior, so they behave while riding. Without these constraints there are too many people who will see this not only as a free fare ride, but also as free-for-all to act as they wish.           

Portland, Oregon is getting rid of its fareless service. In addition to the financial issues of loss of revenue, there are reports that fareless service invites riders who do not care about the other riders, but only about themselves. They create havoc and an unpleasant transit experience.           

As reported by Metro, transit mostly serves low income people who would benefit from fareless rides, and there is discussion of how in the time of COVID fareless rides have helped essential workers. I do not agree.           

Low income people, essential workers, and all transit riders deserve a safe and orderly ride on a bus or train. We pay for the service not only through fares, but we pay sales taxes which go towards transit, and if we have a car, or live in a household with a car, we pay gas and vehicle taxes which also go towards transit.            

We are partially paying for the buses and trains, the drivers, mechanics, cleaners, administration, and Metro employees, managers, and consultants, and we deserve a transit ride in which there is some semblance of comfort and order. But by inviting anyone to board who will be free to act as they wish, we will lose that.           

In our COVID pandemic, wearing a face mask is required when riding buses and trains. Remove the behavior modifier of paying fare, and people will feel emboldened to not wear a mask.            

And don’t forget, when the pandemic first hit, Metro resisted the call from bus drivers to require all passengers to wear a face mask, and continued to resist until Los Angeles County Janice Hahn stepped in to make face mask wearing a requirement.           

Many transit riders are the essential workers we praise so much these days. They are also the caregivers for the sick and elderly, nannies, people who clean houses, work construction, and are students. Many are concerned environmentalists.           

When we ride to our work or school and are trying to organize our thoughts on how to approach a COVID- filled day, and when our work or school day is finished and we want to unwind, we deserve transit rides that give us some kind of order, some peace, some quiet. We do not want radio/boomboxes, eating, drinking, and smoking on buses and trains.            

This happens to some extent now, but if people are allowed to ride without the social requirement of paying a fare and taking some personal responsibility, will they feel constrained to act civilly towards others?           

If Metro thinks this will increase ridership, they, their consultants, and the social and political forces who are pursuing fareless ridership are wrong. It will create a worse situation for us, the transit riders they are supposedly trying to help.            

Fareless rides have been enacted in parts of the world with smaller populations and where situations can be better controlled than in Los Angeles County. Here, it seems that fareless ideas to have come from windshields. This method of estimating how to improve transit riding in LA County does not have real life transit riding experiences behind it.


(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native. He is a transit rider and advocate, a composer, music instructor, and former member and president and executive director of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra. He is a CityWatch contributor.) Photo: LA METRO. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.