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Youth Perspectives on Transportation: Free Public Transit for a More Just, Equitable, and Sustainable Urban L.A.

When you wake up each morning, what do you think of first? You probably think about what you’re going to do that day. Off to school, then back home, but do you ever pause to think about how you’ll get there? Probably not, but take a second to consider it, because whether you step out into the crisp morning air and into the driver’s seat or into the nearest subway car can change a lot. It’s not just a matter of how you get to where you’re going, but the means of getting there.

Building networks of public transit users - ones from across the spectrum of people who live in Los Angeles - requires removing the biggest barrier to use: the transit fare. It’s imperative that the change be made now.

Compared to public transportation, a single car throws vastly more carbon into the atmosphere, fits fewer people, and isolates us from our communities. Like any other essential program, say healthcare or college, we need free public transportation. Until transit is free, every city without it will be plagued by the dominance of cars - and car companies - which destroy an environment already under siege.

As a young person, and a lifelong Los Angeles resident, it’s not just a choice between free and priced, it’s a choice between growing up in a city that is accessible to all and a city where one of our biggest infrastructure projects is more of a luxury than a basic entitlement. No matter how low the cost, someone always gets left on the margins, as with any means-tested policy or other anti-poverty measure that isn’t universal.

So let's make public transit fare-free. It’s a public good, and all of us who constitute the public should be able to use it.

In California, transportation is low-income families' third largest budget item, ranking just behind food and housing. Transportation costs also interfere with employment prospects and economic self-sufficiency, which has traditionally been dealt with by making transportation more “affordable,” but affordability doesn’t go far enough. Even low transit fares in cities like Los Angeles are too high, meaning there won’t be a solution until fare-free transit is a reality.

Transit is getting lots of government funding, just in the wrong ways. With regard to Los Angeles, in 2017 Metro board approved a $646 million policing contract for security on transit lines over the next five years. Transit funding is there, but it’s a question of priorities. The regional transit agency wants to spend millions of dollars on policing public spaces that ultimately criminalize black and brown youth, while racial justice and transit equity advocates want to spend it on creating a world-class public transit system that is fare-free and truly a public good for all. Incidentally, removing fees would make everyone safer, as the primary need for law enforcement is to check payment of public transportation fare.

What is needed is nothing short of the transformation of a car-centric city into one where people have voted to tax themselves and restrict car usage in the hope that a common system which serves all can thrive. Every person should be able to live close to transit, with a well designed system that serves everyone. Fare-free transit creates a culture that's more open to using transit, in general, and encourages the growth of a system that better serves communities which rely on it. L.A. Metro’s CEO Phil Washington has endorsed his support for congestion pricing that would fund free transit fares, and has suggested starting a pilot program for youth between kindergarten students and high school seniors. It’s an issue for us, the youth, first and foremost. There can be a new culture built around the common right to transportation, where low-income, young, and primarily black and brown communities live in a city that's built around their needs instead of the profit incentives of automobile and oil companies.

Fare-free transit has already been successfully tested. Los Angeles Metro has held days where transit is free across the city. Generally those have happened on New Year's Eve, Earth Day, and Election Day. On those days, ridership increases some 15%, according to Phil Washington. People realize the huge advantage to fare-free transit, and they make use of it. If you make transit fare-free, more people will ride it. Fare-free transit is the only sure way to increase ridership for all groups, all the time. It’s also the only method by which transit can become a safe public space which serves the groups that need it most - primarily young people and the poor.

This isn’t one for the policy wonks to work out, it’s a moral crisis. Cities keep growing, costs keep rising, and it’s not the developers who pay for it - it’s the poor and disenfranchised. The same people who climate change will hit hardest are the ones with the biggest barrier to taking a more eco-friendly form of transportation. How people get around changes the world each child grows up in, and where and how the youth can live hinges on these simple choices. Fare-free public transit is a bold but necessary step toward adapting our infrastructure to fit a rapidly changing world.

The people of Los Angeles need to use public spaces in a way that serves the many, not the few, and in such a way that we cut our carbon footprint to address the climate crisis which science tells us is already underway. If the climate is going to stop spiraling out of control and if humanity is to survive, we will need to seriously cut carbon emissions. The more people taking the bus, the better - especially as buses in cities like L.A. go electric. Taking a form of transportation that fits more people is better for the environment, reducing the overall emissions per person. Short of transitioning to a fully green economy, the greatest thing any city can do to save the planet may be getting its residents to step into a subway car instead of a private one.

Fare-free transit should be a personal issue, especially for teens. Youth like myself want to be enabled to be lifelong riders, like teens in New York who opt out of driving because there simply is no need. If we, the young people of Los Angeles, need look no further than the nearest Metro station to see an efficient and thoughtfully planned system, then we can be confident that when we step into the train car we will arrive at our destinations where and when we need to.

It’s a question of both how we want our cities to look in the future and how we want people to live in them. Do you want to know your neighbors? To feel a sense of solidarity with them because every morning you have at least one common experience? Do you want your city to be built for the reality in which all of us live? With every part of the infrastructure doing its part to defend a healthy climate?

A free public transportation system is about more than good policy - it’s about changing a basic element of the urban experience. Community and climate must come first, because no other stance can suffice.

Eli Pallrand is an L.A.-based youth activist and a senior at Oakwood School. He served as an intern with Alliance for Community Transit - Los Angeles during summer 2019. He can be reached at eli.pallrand[at]

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