By Ryan Fonseca
Originally published Jan 9, 2022
Within days of pandemic stay-at-home orders back in March 2020, Los Angeles County’s public transit agency moved to rear-door boarding and stopped collecting fares on its bus lines.
It came down to safety. Skipping the fares and requiring rear-door boarding made it possible to do a better job of social distancing. That offered a layer of safety for L.A. Metro’s riders and workers.
Now that free ride is scheduled to come to an end Monday, Jan. 10 on the majority of Metro’s buses.
Advocates for commuters say it’s the wrong move. New COVID-19 cases have reached the highest points here since the pandemic began.
“These times do call for all of us to take care of each other in the same way we did in the beginning of 2020,” said Scarlett De Leon, campaign director for L.A.’s Alliance for Community Transit. “The right thing for Metro to do would be to extend back-door boardings for now.”
De Leon said that not only did the boarding change increase safety, the fare-free bus system brought “much-needed economic relief for a lot of the community we work with, that relies on public transportation every day.” Many of those riders are workers who faced job loss and evictions as the economy took a massive hit.
And those effects are lingering, she said.
“Bus ridership is up — it’s not going to go down… We’re going to continue to see a lot of folks — mostly low-income folks who rely on bus — having to ride crowded buses going from the front, plus the economic burden for these folks as they try to catch up on things like rent [and] debt.”
De Leon also pointed to what ACT-LA feels is a “contradiction” by Metro: the agency is resuming fare collection and front-door boarding, but recently canceled some in-person events aimed at helping riders enroll in its low-income fare program “to protect everyone’s health.”
The surge in new COVID cases is impacting Metro staff, too. According to the agency’s most recent report, over 400 cases have been reported among Metro employees and contractors since Dec. 27. Bus and rail operators account for 134 of those cases — nearly a third.
Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero said he could not speak to safety concerns raised by advocates about the current case surge, but said “safety is one of our primary concerns”. He said Metro has made hand sanitizer available at stations and boarding areas.
According to Sotero, 85% of Metro employees are vaccinated. He said there is a deadline for unvaccinated workers to get their shots or get a new job, but did not provide the date by the time of this publication.
Rear-door boarding will remain in place for its 720, 754, G Line (Orange) and J Line (Silver) bus lines, according to Metro officials.
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Fares Return At A Discount (And Free For Some Riders)
One important note: Bus fares will resume, but Metro is offering discounted passes for all riders for the first half of 2022.
Through July 20, 2022, riders not already enrolled in a discount program will pay half-price for passes: $3.50 for a day pass, $12.50 for a weekly pass, and $50 for a 30-day pass.
Metro already offers reduced fares for low-income riders through its Low-Income Fare Is Easy (LIFE) program, and has discounted them further for the next six months.
From Jan. 10 through late July, qualifying riders will pay $26 for a 30-day pass (normally $76) and $6.50 for a 7-day pass (usually $19.50).
Metro also said new LIFE program riders will ride for free for the first 90 days after fare collection resumes Jan. 10. Enrollment is now available online.
The agency is studying the feasibility of a fully fare-free transit system. Through its Fareless Transit Initiative pilot program, hundreds of thousands of K-12 students from Los Angeles Unified and dozens of other local school districts qualify for free rides through June 2023. Students from Los Angeles Community College District campuses can also ride fare-free (though their participation in the program is currently slated to end on Dec. 31 2022).
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.