Sunday, March 19, 2017

Are LA Metro's Fares Fair?

Let's take a few minutes to think about the fare structure on Metro, Los Angeles County's largest public transportation provider.  There are four sets of prices: 1) the regular adult fare, and reduced fares for 2) seniors aged 62 and up, the disabled and people on Medicare 3) college students and 4) K-12 students.  In addition, there are some special income and geography-based discounts available through the Rider Relief Program, the Immediate Needs Program, the LA County Transit Subsidy Program and some city-specific transit subsidy programs.  While these special programs seem good, they can only help you if you know that they exist.

I'd like to focus on the regular fares, since these fares are the same for myself, with my car and middle-class job, and for people who are poor, can't afford a car and rely on transit much more than I do.  For "regular" people like all of us, the price of a one-way ride is $1.75, which includes two hours of free transfers to other lines in the system.  The price of a 30-day ("monthly") pass is $100.  Doing some math, the monthly pass would save you money if you rode transit in such a way that you would have racked up 58 or more one-way fares during that time, an average of 1.9 one-way fares per day.

Who does the monthly pass make sense for then?  People who ride transit a lot.  People who commute to work every day on transit and ride transit on their days off.  Even if you did one round trip every single day on transit, you'd only save $5 per month with the monthly pass.

According to Metro's own research, the average user of its system in 2015 had a household income well below LA County's median household income ($14,876 for bus riders and $19,374 for rail riders compared to a median household income of $55,909).  In other words, transit riders, particularly bus riders, tend to be poor.

Which brings me back to the idea that it doesn't seem fair that my fare as a relatively well off occasional rider is essentially the same as for someone who rides transit every day and buys a monthly pass.  So, what's the solution?  I say let's give the core riders of transit a break by making their monthly passes cheaper, and to pay for it, let's up the cost of the one-way fare.  Thus, people like me subsidize people who are poor and could use a break on their transit fares.  This gets at an interesting issue.  What is the core purpose of public transit?  Is it to reduce traffic by trying to get people like me out of our cars, or is it to provide high-quality affordable mobility for people who cannot afford cars?  It's not a trivial question, because LA Metro's answer appears to be that traffic reduction is more important.  That's how the sales tax increases are always sold anyway.  The goal of traffic reduction is why they invest in faster services like rail lines, and park and ride lots, and haven't been afraid to raise fares from time to time (to raise money for more convenient service).  But perhaps transit should be primarily about helping the poor.  With car dependency in LA County still stubbornly high, despite decades of investment in new rail lines, it may be time to rethink our transit strategy.  Ridership has fallen recently, and while this is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon with many causes, one cause may be that poor people need a break financially, particularly in light of our soaring housing costs.  If poor people are being priced out of LA County, and poor people disproportionately ride transit, our transit ridership should suffer as a result.

Allowing higher one-way fares for tourists and the relatively well off to subsidize cheaper monthly passes for the poor might be a good first step towards alleviating poverty and reversing the fall in ridership.  If we really wanted to take it a step further, we'd stop spending billions on freeway expansions that primarily benefit wealthier people and compete with transit (and contribute to air pollution, and global warming), and pour the savings into cheaper fares for transit riders.  It is also critical to build a hell of a lot more housing, both affordable and market rate, in proximity to transit, so that poor people actually have a chance to live here and use transit into the future.

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