Where the Sidewalk Starts: Los Angeles public transit can — and must — be free for all

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

Imagine: No more misplaced TAP cards. No more fumbling around for quarters. No more grimacing at the bus driver and admitting you have no cash, only to be dismissed by a shake of the head and wave of the hand. Better yet, imagine actually riding the bus for free.

I’m sure that if public transit were free, we’d all be using it more. We’d be saving the environment, saving on gas costs and Lyft fees, saving Los Angeles from devolving deeper and deeper into the standstill traffic stereotype. So that’s exactly what the L.A. Metro must do: Make public transit free.

With careful planning, Metro can afford to do so. Metro’s 2017 Funding Sources Guide reports that in that year, Metro’s fare revenue totaled at $540.1 million from Metro rail and bus, non-Metro operator fares and Metrolink. When this fare revenue is stacked against Metro’s other sources of revenue, it proves to be not as much as it seems.

Metro is legally authorized to enact four sales tax initiatives — Propositions A and C and Measures M and R — which would impose a half-cent sales tax in Los Angeles County and would total $3.2 billion. The $540.1 million from fares pales in comparison. And there are still other local sources of revenue, such as the $410.5 million from the Transportation Development Act.

These numbers don’t even take federal and state funding into account. Federal and state funds are allocated by discretion, and because of the size and comprehensiveness of L.A.’s Metro, the city receives a high percentage of federal and state transportation funding.

But $540 million won’t appear out of thin air. There are not many other immediate sources for funding, and with L.A.’s 2028 development goals in mind, there aren’t many expenditure cuts that can be made either. Though it seems like a move that is one step forward and two steps back, the city must increase taxes to fund transit.

Though taxing cars on the freeways may be a setback for regular drivers, transportation officials are revisiting the idea again and again — it was even endorsed by the Chief Executive Officer of Metro. And these city leaders are right to rethink a congestion tax. Other cities are making it work. Since London enacted a congestion charge to enter its higher traffic area in 2003, entering traffic decreased by almost 40 percent during morning rush hour.

Since then, London’s annual net revenue from transportation is about $216 million annually, according to a San Francisco County Transportation Authority comparison. If L.A. imposed a similar congestion tax and accrued that much revenue, the loss of revenue from fares would easily be balanced out.

Transportation officials are also considering taxes on ride-hailing services, electric scooters and shared bicycles. Metro approved a study to look into this additional tax on Thursday. If the investigation proves this tax to be beneficial, Metro will then pilot a tax on these vehicles in a few years. Anyone looking to ride a Spin scooter or take an Uber ride share will pay an additional fee to the usual rates on every single ride. This could dissuade use of these services and increase use of public transit. It would also provide L.A. more revenue to work with for transportation development.

But these investigations aren’t aggressive enough. Whether the end goal is reducing congestion or increasing development funding, someone needs to speak out about offering free transit. It’s unlikely the topic will even appear on city and transit planning agendas without a strong supporting voice.

The Boston Globe published an op-ed at the end of January from Boston councilmember Michelle Wu, calling for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to offer free public transit. She believes Bostonians’ quality of life would be greatly improved with free transit for all. With this piece, Wu emerges a champion for urbanists and public transit lovers all across the nation. Los Angeles needs a similar mindset — and someone to advocate for it.

Los Angeles is by far the most populated county in the United States. To implement free public transit would be a project for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.

“We need bold proposals to make public transit the most reliable, convenient and affordable transportation option,” Wu said.

With an election season around the corner and a promised reconsideration of current officials, policy and legislature — now is the time for bold proposals.

Breanna de Vera is a sophomore writing about urban planning. She is also the opinion editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Where the Sidewalk Starts,” runs Mondays.