Educating LA's Bus Rider's Union and Our View on Fare Increases

Up in the Los Angeles area, Metro continues to discuss increasing its fares over a period of time while adjusting other prices as a means to counter an operations deficit in the coming years. Metro is currently advancing two proposals that have different rates of increase for the base fare. However, both proposals would allow for free transfers within 90 minutes of paying the base fare. Cash-paying riders needing to transfer lines will see an overall fare decrease. For everybody else, fares are proposed to go up. One large LA bus transit advocacy group, the Bus Riders Union, opposes the fare hikes and is going as far as calling them "racist". Really?

A few words about the BRU

The Bus Riders Union in not a free standing, individual group, but is a project of the progressive group the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The BRU describes itself as a transit advocacy group dedicated toward fighting bus overcrowding on Metro Buses. The BRU was founded around 1994 by Eric Mann as a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center of which Mann is the Executive Director.

Essentially, the BRU believes that Metro bus service should be frequent and extensive as possible, while enabling most patrons to have a seat on the majority of trip with minimal fares. They are against any transit infrastructure project relating to urban rail, regional rail and even bus rapid transit, contending that these modes only serve affluent white people while ignoring the core ridership base of Metro’s transit service--poor people of color. Because the BRU views this as a civil rights issue, the group sued Metro in 1995 in federal court and entered into a consent decree agreement with Metro, gaining concessions on fares, bus passes, expanded bus service and improved bus frequency on the most crowded lines. The consent degree has since expired, freeing Metro from BRU control. The BRU derives its funding from large individual contributions and a small amount from foundation grants. It has received legal support from the ACLU, NAACP, and other civil rights groups.

The BRU has 200 active members, 3,000 dues-paying members, and 50,000 supporters. The organization follows a strict adherence to ideology, even if the facts prove otherwise. With the exception of freezing rail spending and its ill-advised racial claims, some of the organization's goals mentioned above are noble, but the lower fares are unattainable under the current economic and political climate. Both the economy and the value and spending power of the dollar would have to be strengthened considerably for the BRU's goals to come true without bankrupting the government.

A case for a fare increase

There are a number of fact-based issues that can force a local transit agency to resort to hiking fares as an alternative to cutting service. Important transit-related issues such as funding displacement from the state, inflated capital infrastructure costs, gang crimes and vandalism, decreasing spending power of the dollar, inflation, and a soft market economy all contribute toward an agency's decision to increase fares. However, these issues appear not to be important with the BRU, at least in the public square of debate. It's leaders don't appear to see them as relevant because they don't pertain directly to their motto "We're the BRU, and this is our fight. Mass transportation is a human right." Since Metro is in a position to propose increased fares, here come the charges of racial discrimination once again.

So if we back a fare increase as a last resort to prevent cuts of productive transit routes, we're a racist according to the BRU.

That's where we have to step in and set the record straight. And we hope that the fair-minded individual dues-paying members and supporters of the BRU, who really want to improve LA's bus transit system and quality of life are reading this and taking note.

Fare hikes are better than service cuts

Fare increases are certainly a debatable solution to solving budget problems. They are in fact universally loathed. Ask any transit rider whether or not they would pay more to ride the bus and he/she would likely dissent and say, "No Way!". However, if the same rider was told that their preferred bus is going to be cut, the fare hike would not sound so bad, especially if there are no other viable transit options. Riders have shown over the years that they want efficient transit service and are willing to pay for it. The evidence of that is overwhelming.  

Spending our transit money wisely

Fare increases should be a band-aid, last-resort solution to prevent the tearing apart of productive transit lines. However, public officials must stop misspending precious public resources on waste. The BRU labels any spending on rail and BRT infrastructure "waste" and calls Metro to freeze such spending. What the BRU really should be asking the government to "freeze" is actual government waste, not rail transit infrastructure.

Sacramento has a long history of displacing precious public infrastructure funds to programs that really do not benefit the public. There's no question that the state spends money on foolish things. To name one, Caltrans had big plans last year to spend $10 million for a PR campaign when the eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge opened. Governor Jerry Brown was forced to halt that spending boondoggle after the local press exposed its numbers.

Another questionable item is the high costs to get high speed rail infrastructure built for the state. We cannot afford to have high speed rail done wrong. The technology has already been proven to be efficient in many parts of the world beyond reasonable doubt. There's enough evidence that HSR technology can be incorporated into our public transportation infrastructure. State officials have got to get the per-mile costs down so that marketplace investors would be better inclined to pay for the rest of the project.

In addition, there are new reports of some government employees double-dipping into the public pension system, namely retiring with a pension paid for in part by us and then applying and working for another government agency under a different pension program, again paid for in part by us. Pensions have traditionally been a retirement benefit and must be maintained. However, they must not serve as free money fountains for public workers who switch jobs. Also, skyrocketing personnel costs must be addressed. According to the Press Enterprise, 75% of San Bernardino's general fund goes toward employees.

Those are the items the BRU really should be asking officials to "freeze", not rail infrastructure.

Cleaning up crime and revitalizing South LA

The BRU needs to stop opposing stronger law enforcement in South LA. The group currently advocates for "1000 More Buses, 1000 Less Police," calling on the city Mayor to fund "social services, not criminalization" and labeling legit criminal cases against gang activity in troubled neighborhoods into charges of racial bias. We and the vast majority of residents would like to see decreased crime in South LA. That's why we have law enforcement. Also, one ethnic group does not force another ethnic group into the criminal culture.

Stats show that when police flooded South LA, crime went down with some gangs migrating--sadly--into the Inland Empire. South LA is much safer than the 1990's, but still has a long way to go. Placing 1,000 more police and concerned service-minded citizens, even if it be volunteer reserve deputies to patrol street gang areas, community-oriented groups who promote stronger family units, and caring mentors who help fatherless youth to keep them out of gangs should be a goal. And residents must be protected with zero-tolerance policies on police corruption and racial discrimination. For those already incarcerated for crimes, programs need to be available for those who desire to turn away from the criminal culture and reintegrate back into the community once their sentences are served. That's how more African Americans, Latinos, and every other race can prosper equally in society rather than spending their lives in jail or on the run.

South LA's transit fleets and the people who use them deserve to be in a robust state, not mired in crime or vandalism. As street crimes go down, quality of life goes up. In addition, with the decreased crime rates and with more LA youth disciplined and determined to be selfless, productive and sober workers, more investors would come in and revitalize South LA's commercial corridors with both entry-level and high paying job opportunities for these youth with better and affordable housing options for hardworking families regardless of what skin color they have.

And finally, any group obstructing decades-overdue transit infrastructure and sound law enforcement broadcasts negativity to the neighborhood it claims to serve. Such obstruction leaves these neighborhoods in positions where its law-abiding citizens have to deal with such troubling issues on their own. That's discrimination.

With a strong member and support base from South LA, the BRU and the other civil rights organizations have a key opportunity to strongly improve the city's quality of life while fulfilling their goal of ridding racial discrimination. Their members need to help The Transit Coalition, put together these facts, confront the leadership, and propose real solutions to improve LA's mass transit system and quality of life for people of all races. Let's get South LA moving and on the road to peace and justice.


  1. As a lifelong fanatic for mass transit combined with an interest in anthropology I find your comments not only brilliant but reasonable and executable. Often the best ideas are amazingly simple and easy to implement. However, the elephant in the room, as I see it, is ossifying government at all levels unable to accomplish social change due to fear of not being reelected, i.e., selfishness. Our legislators, fearful for their own skins, have brought economic and cultural progress to a standstill in many areas of responsibility including caving in to the BRU. Instead of taking into consideration the legitimate complaints of the BRU, they gave in to their demands which are counter-productive to the very people the BRU claims to represent. Your suggestion of embracing their complaints and dealing with them in the spirit of serving all citizens is just what is needed. The same with NIMBYS. They also have legitimate complaints, so bring them into the big tent, deal with their legitimate complaints and end up with a transit system of great value for all. The $1.50 fare is absurdly low compared to other cities. Milwaukee, WI for example, has a base fare of $2.25 for a city of less than 1 million population. Taking the Blue Line from DTLA to Long Beach has to be the best transit bargain in the country. The BRU is way off base and self-defeating in trying to keep the fares at the current rate. Their action along with one judge brought the MTA to its knees preventing it from performing what would now be a much more complete system.

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