BBB: The Big Blue Bus system will take cash again as part of the fare updates. SMDP Photo

Following community push back and concerns over equity in response to its cashless fare pilot program, Big Blue Bus will once again accept cash fares.

This change comes alongside several other new fare policies designed to make sure the transportation system is affordable and accessible to all riders. Other changes include free bus to bus transfers for one-way trips taken within a two hour window, raising the age of free rides from 4 to 5, acceptance of the Metro 1-Day pass as fare, and a new cheaper 10-ride pass pricing.

“The fare policy changes were developed with significant input from our community, and promote safe, convenient, and equitable access to our system, by lowering fares, maintaining health and safety improvements on board, reducing boarding and travel times, and re-aligning fare products with customer preference,” said Ed King, Santa Monica Department of Transportation Director.

The cashless fare pilot program began in February 2021 in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID by minimizing contact between passengers and motor coach operators. Additional benefits from this program were faster boarding times and increasing rider use of TAP fare payments, which provide access to the greater public transportation system and have discounts based on income, age, disability, and school enrollment status.

At the outset of the pilot more than 12 percent of riders were unable to pay their fare and this decreased to around 6 percent by the third month of the pilot. This is comparable to the approximately 6 to 7 percent of customers who refused to pay a fare prior to the start of the pilot. Big Blue Bus has a long-standing policy of allowing customers who do not pay a fare or only pay a partial fare to ride the bus.

Prior to COVID around 32.8 percent of riders paid using cash fare and 37 percent of riders were unbanked or without smartphone access. In community surveys around the pilot program approximately two-thirds of customers recommended the resumption of cash fares. BBB ultimately made the decision to bring back cash fares and focus on outreach efforts to transition vulnerable customers, such as homeless, low income, or elderly riders, to cashless payments.

“For a contactless fare system to be effective and convenient, it must cater to the most vulnerable customers, including those who depend solely on cash, are unbanked, and/or don’t have a smart phone. While BBB has made great strides in increasing access to contactless fares and while smart phone usage has risen precipitously, there is more work to be done before most unbanked customers can conveniently access BBB pass sales or TAP stored value loading venues,” states the staff report on the fare change policy.

The fare change policy also decreases prices for BBB rides, which is part of an effort to increase ridership. While BBB service levels are back to 81 percent of pre-pandemic levels, only 46 percent of pre-pandemic ridership has returned. The new $9 pricing of the 10-ride regular pass reflects a 16 percent cost reduction per ride. Additionally, the new free bus transfer policy eliminates the need to pay two boarding fees for a single journey that requires changing bus lines.