In March 2020, Los Angeles’ public-transit agency, Metro, stopped collecting fares on its buses as a COVID-19 safety precaution. For the next 22 months, Metro waived fares for anyone who wanted to keep riding its buses, anywhere they wanted to go (as long as they wore a mask, of course). And people did keep riding. Outside of the initial stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020, Metro’s ridership never dipped below 50 percent of before-times ridership, with buses eventually recovering to within 10 to 15 percent of pre-pandemic numbers. While the agency doesn’t know exactly how many people were riding fare-free buses during this time — because fare collection is one of the ways to track ridership — a spokesperson says that from April 2020 to December 2021, it’s safe to say Metro’s buses provided about 281 million fare-free boardings. This means the agency has inadvertently been conducting what may be the biggest free-transit experiment in U.S. history. Fare collection restarted last week after two unprecedented years in which transit agencies learned a lot about how people moved (or didn’t) around their cities, and now Metro is using some of this information to game out improvements and pilot other free- and reduced-fare programs.

...(According to that same data, New York’s MTA has yet to surpass 60 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership.) That at least suggests that free fares were a factor. Bus ridership also recovered at a faster rate than rail, where fares continued to be collected, says Oscar Zarate, assistant director of organizing with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy: “I don’t think that’s by coincidence. I think it’s because most of the people who ride the bus depend on it because they’re workers and that’s their primary transportation. And because they didn’t have to pay for it, it was really easy to get on and benefit from our public transportation system.”

...L.A.’s Metro is unique among large U.S. transit agencies in that its budget doesn’t rely heavily on the fare box, which made the decision to temporarily waive fares a bit easier in the first place. A ride costs only $1.75, and the total funds collected make up only 6 percent of total revenue — about a third of which goes right back into fare enforcement (although that doesn’t include contracts with law-enforcement agencies). Adding to Metro’s relatively comfortable financial situation is a local sales tax, Measure M, which was approved by voters in 2016 to generate $120 billion for the system over 40 years. Aside from L.A.’s experiment, the largest permanent free-transit program in the U.S. is run by Kansas City, which is providing free rides for 30,000 to 40,000 passengers a day. Boston is trying it on some dedicated bus routes. But New York’s MTA has argued that fares, which bring in $6 billion during a non-pandemic year, are too critical to waive, and is instead cracking down harder on fare evasion, even on buses.

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