Students piled onto the G Line (formerly Orange Line) bus at Balboa Boulevard station early Tuesday morning, backpacks swaying, chatter lingering in the air, as they made the short walk to the Birmingham Community Charter High School in Lake Balboa.
The students are part of an expanding LA Metro program offering K-12 and community college students unlimited free rides on all of its public buses, light rail and subways throughout the school year.
Because a large number of charter school students come from different parts of Southern California and the San Fernando Valley, and because there is a nearby bus stop, the public bus has become a popular method for Birmingham students to return to school.
The charter school, focused on college readiness, has the most students using Metro’s GoPass program of any K-12 school in Los Angeles County. Fairfax High School, Bell High School, Santa Monica High School and Paramount High School, Birmingham Community Charter High School, are busy, according to Devon Deming, deputy chief executive of the Fareless System Initiative.
The top three community colleges using the program, from first to third, are Santa Monica College, East Los Angeles College and Los Angeles City College, she said.
“We really help students, so they can focus on their schoolwork instead of worrying about how to get to school,” she said.
The program has 140,000 participants at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. Of these, 122,000 are K-12 students and 18,000 are community college students. The number jumped from the 64,000 K-12 students who participated in the pre-COVID year of 2019, nearly doubling the number of K-12 participants today, Deming said. .
In October 2021, the Metro Board approved a fare-free TAP card for participating school districts to distribute to all of their students. Prior to this, students paid a discounted rate of $24 for a monthly pass. The fare-free GoPass went into effect in mid-January, when Metro reinstated fare collection after a hiatus during the early years of the pandemic.
Since students were offered free passes, the agency has had 5,000 enrollments per week, she said.
With the new school year just beginning, Deming thinks the numbers will increase as more school districts learn more about the program. “The program is growing in popularity,” she said.
Metro is adding 20 new K-12 districts and two new community colleges – Glendale and Mount San Antonio in Walnut, she said.
It costs each K-12 district $3 per student, while community colleges pay $7 per student. Metro estimated it was losing $27 million a year from student ridership before the fareless pass took effect, Deming said.
The question remains: Can LA Metro, still struggling to win riders and fill deep shortages of bus and train operators, adequately handle the influx of free student passengers?
Deming says yes, because the agency’s bus and train ridership is at 80%, since before the pandemic, so there’s room to grow in the current system.
Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA, a pro-transit organization, said students ride when buses and trains aren’t full, especially in the afternoons when schools are closed.
On some crowded morning routes, such as along Western Avenue and Vermont Avenue, more buses may be needed, Lipmen said. But in most areas, students will take buses that already run their routes. The three main rail lines used by GoPass holders are B Line (formerly Red), E Line (formerly Expo) and L Line (formerly Gold), she said.
Lipmen expects the students to help increase LA subway ridership.
“The ridership has decreased during the pandemic. They plan to be 100% on the bus by the end of this year and a lot of that is driven by the student use program,” Lipmen said. “These student pass programs are a surefire way to get people back on public transit very quickly.”
Longtime subway watcher Bart Reed, who heads the Transit Coalition, said the program is valuable for students who rely on public transit. But he wonders if Metro can overcome the problems of late bus arrivals and cancellations on routes.
“The problem is this: can the agency provide the amount of services required to meet the needs of the students?” Reed asked.
A report on the bus driver shortage in June found that the hiring and training of new drivers reduced the driver shortage to 582 from 617 in May. Additionally, the report said the agency increased bus operator training classes from 85 per class to 125. The report also said it hired 150 new drivers in a month in June.
Students currently make up 5% of Metro’s annual ridership, Deming said. About 88% of students using GoPass are classified as being from low-income families.
LAUSD is the largest participant in the program, Deming said. The district promoted the program in June to its staff and parents. The district estimates that 70,000 students have active GoPass TAP cards and have registered 2 million boarding schools through June 2022.
“We’ve heard amazing stories of how having a TAP card that allows unlimited rides has been a huge help for our families, especially those who need it the most. We plan to continue to spread the word so that more of our students can benefit from this program,” wrote Maritess Plewnarz, LAUSD Program and Policy Development Advisor in an email response.
Denny Zane, founder of Move LA and head of programs, said the program is modeled after one launched by Santa Monica College in partnership with the Big Blue Bus. The more students who rode the bus, the less parking problems neighbors had and the less traffic there was, he said.
Additionally, studies have found that those who rode the bus and were guaranteed to get to class experienced decreased absences and increased school performance, Zane said. The GoPass program reduces vehicle miles traveled and reduces air emissions that cause smog, he said.
A study of a similar program at Rio Hondo College in Whittier found a 27% higher graduation rate among cyclists compared to the non-cyclist population, Deming said.
Zane’s group supported a bill by Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, AB 1919 that would allow every school district and community college in the state to start a fare-free pass program. The money would be allocated to interested districts from the state budget, Zane said.
“There are so many good things that happen when you have student transit pass programs,” Zane said.
LA Metro’s program ends June 30, 2023, at the end of the current school year. “Our goal is to secure funding to continue this program beyond the end of the school year,” Deming said.
For more information, visit metro.net/gopass.