LA’s journey to free public transit
Los Angeles has a geometry problem. Multiply the space that even the smallest car occupies by the number of Angelenos who need to get from A-B and you’ll see that there’s no way that the city is compatible with private vehicles.
Building more highways means clearing more live- and work-space, which pushes everything apart, which makes journeys longer, which requires building more highways…
Sadly for advocates of individual transit solutions, geometry has a socialist bias.
(and no, you can’t fix this by putting private vehicles in tunnels, no matter how fast the tunnels are — these are just shitty, inefficient subways that let plutes escape the company of their laboring neighbors during their morning commutes)
Los Angeles actually has one of the world’s most extensive public transit systems, but it’s not a system that most people use voluntarily. While the subways are fast and efficient, they’re not nearly extensive enough.
The bus system is very extensive but it’s slow and meandering and lacks the dedicated lanes that the evidence tells us we need if we’re going to seriously shift people out of low-capacity private cars and into efficient, speedy buses:
As a result, LA’s transit overwhelming serves low-income Angelenos, who don’t merely suffer disproportionately from the slow service, but who also face significant drain on their budgets from the $1.75 fare (about $1200/year for regular riders).
The LA system isn’t reliant on these fares, either: only 4% of the system’s budget comes from fares, and 20% of the money collected in fares is spent enforcing fare-collection (!).
All of this led to activists like the Bus Riders Union to advocate for abolishing fares altogether, and now the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has published a plan to create “the largest free mass transit system in the world.”
As welcome as that plan is, it’s far from perfect. It calls for phasing fare-waivers between now and 2023, with free rides for students (from kindergarten to community college) this Aug, expanding to riders earning less than $35k in Jan 2022.
The plan’s means-testing might undo it, by excluding people who need it the most: for example, homeless people with no income, no W-2 and no way to prove they qualify; or low-income workers whose lack of English fluency and digital literacy freezes them out of the system.
These aren’t hypothetical risks — they’re what’s already happening in the Metro’s existing pandemic low-income fare waivers. There’s no reason to think the problems will go away when these emergency programs are institutionalized and made permanent.
Fare waivers are the right thing to do, both as a matter of transitioning LA sustainable transit and to end the racially biased fare-policing practices in the system (20% of Metro riders are Black, but 50% of fare-evasion citations go to Black riders).
It’ll also improve the working lives of drivers — 40% of driver assaults stem from fare disputes.
When systems like Kansas City’s eliminated fares, they saw increased access for poor people, survivors of domestic violence and veterans.
Feared increases in crime on the system never materialized — nor did the predicted de facto conversion of the system into a homeless shelter.
Transit is a public good, and it is good for the whole public.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.