CLOSE TO HALF the travel time on most L.A. bus routes is spent at the curb. Bus riders know the frustration of waiting to board while someone coaxes a floppy dollar bill into the fare box. Likewise, plenty of irritated local drivers have been stuck behind that bus in the right-turn lane. Oh, and the despair of the train rider left struggling with an uncooperative ticket vending machine as the train pulls away.
So what would happen if, instead of hiking MTA fares as is currently under consideration, we made all the buses and subways free?
Eliminating transit fares is the logical flip side to the anti-congestion pricing schemes so favored by economists. London, for instance, charges a daily fee equal to about $15.60 to drive in the traffic-chocked central city between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays. Just as such fees on cars supposedly discourage driving, eliminating fares could encourage public transit use.
A one-way fare that's only $1.25 may not seem to be a big factor in someone's transit decisions. But I wouldn't be so sure. The costs of owning a car -- buying, fixing, registering and insuring it -- have to be paid in advance, regardless of how much we drive. For the millions of Angelenos barely scraping by, another $40 or $50 a month on transit can be a significant disincentive.
Angelenos don't have to look far for an example of how sensitive transit use is to price. In the early 1980s, L.A. voters approved Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax tied to a drop in bus fares from 85 cents to 50 cents for three years. During this period, mass transit ridership in the county rose 40%, reversing a decades-long decline. Today, there are nearly 1.5 million bus and rail boardings every weekday. That's 482 million car-free trips a year.
Axing fares would lift a drag on the whole transit system. People could quickly get on or off buses at the front and back. Bus drivers could focus on being helpful, as opposed to being fare cops. New riders could give it a try without worrying about having "exact change." The ease and accessibility of a free system might even instill a feeling of "fun" to riding transit -- not an insignificant factor in a city where people famously love to drive.
The host of tangential benefits may ultimately prove even more important than reducing traffic -- such as better air quality, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and reduced oil dependence. Free transit also would provide a small measure of much-needed economic assistance to the urban poor.
So how would we pay for it? Keep in mind that the $270 million the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collects in fares each year covers only a fraction of the agency's annual operating and maintenance costs. So it really comes down to a policy decision about how much of the cost of public transit should be subsidized.
A countywide sales tax of just one-quarter of one percent would cover the entire amount. In addition, there would be cost savings. The MTA wouldn't need to buy or maintain fare collection equipment. Faster bus travel times would translate into lower labor and fuel costs.
Unfortunately, the professionals, politicians and developers who normally make transportation policy are unlikely to support such a solution -- one that promises no major construction contracts, high-profile ribbon-cutting ceremonies or lucrative real estate opportunities. It will be up to the public to demand and then support real solutions to our traffic woes.