Bus passes for youth got a little cheaper at the Oct. 27 council meeting thanks to a one-year pilot program to subsidize the cost of a 30-day youth pass.
The decision to cut the price of a 30-day youth pass to $28 was prompted by a desire to motivate more youth to consider the bus as a primary mode of transport and City Hall will spend up to $50,000 on the program to offset costs.
Council were presented with several rate adjustments including increasing the base cash fare by $0.25 to $1.25, increasing the express cash fare by $0.50 to $2.50, increasing the 13-ride pass by $2 to $14, decreasing the regular 30-day pass by $10 to $50, decreasing the 30-day youth pass by $2 to $38, increasing the express 30-day pass by $9 to $89, and creating a new rolling 7-day local pass priced at $14.
The new schedule has already been discussed several times in the past year. Staff said the reasons for the new fares included increasing revenue to offset Expo service integration operating expenditures, reducing fare handling and vehicle dwell time by encouraging use of prepaid period passes, and minimize ridership loss by providing a range of attractively priced options.
The item was scheduled for the consent calendar but Mayor Pro Tempore Tony Vazquez requested additional discussion of the youth pass following several public comments that questioned the need for the fare increases in general and the specifics of youth fares.
Deborah Lynch said improving connections to the Expo didn’t justify the price increases.
“There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed and I think they are falling through the cracks in order for us to be able to dovetail with the light rail and I just don’t think it’s that important,” she said.
Speakers said the Big Blue Bus had turned its back on youth when it eliminated youth fares several years ago and long-standing hopes for some kind of free pass, similar to the deals available for SMC and UCLA students, shouldn’t justify delaying action that night.
Director of Transit Services Ed King defended the overall pricing, including the price of youth passes, saying the rates were necessary to avoid losses and that the 30-day pass was good value for money as it allows for unlimited rides.
“The 30 day pass is good any line, anytime, any day of the week,” he said. “That, we believe, encourages youth not just to ride the bus to and from school, but to other places perhaps on weekends to the beach, social events, movies or wherever.”
Vazquez said it should be possible to lower the price and make up the losses in volume, citing BBB figures that show only 2 percent of riders use a monthly pass.
“For me I’m really trying to figure a way to, one, give these youngsters a break but at the same time reach the goal that you’re after which is to obviously generate more revenue here…”
City Manager Rick Cole said monthly pass sales would have to increase by about 58 percent to offset losses incurred by lowering the price but said a city subsidy could be used to establish a pilot program. He said staff could return to Council in a year to evaluate how many additional passes were sold at the lower price and discuss additional subsidies at that time.
“The big blue bus would like nothing better than to have additional young people riding the bus, as long as they behave themselves, so if we can incentivize that I think that’s a win-win,” he said.
Councilwoman Gleam Davis questioned the focus on prices, saying education and outreach efforts would be as, if not more, effective in increasing ridership. She said some residents are simply in the habit of driving, don’t know how the bus system works or have a negative opinion of the bus.
“Is the fare really the reason people aren’t riding the bus? I think the reason people aren’t riding the bus are issues about convenience,” she said.
Both UCLA and Santa Monica College have agreements with BBB to purchase student passes in bulk with students able to claim one of those passes for free. The city has long desired a similar deal for Santa Monica Unified School District students but SMMUSD has repeatedly said they lack the funding to offer free passes.
Despite the perennial ask and answer, Council again directed staff to talk about SMMUSD subsidized passes.
“That really should be our goal,” said Mayor Kevin McKeown. “Not a stop gap single issue change like this where we’re just juggling money from one pocket to another but finding some way to make it so that going forward any high school student in Santa Monica grows up with absolute free access to the big blue bus, I think that solves the problem.”

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...