A pandemic-era pilot program designed to make local bus trips safer and more efficient — at the expense of rider convenience, according to many — comes to an end this week, with the resumption of cash payments aboard the Big Blue Bus.

Beginning Wednesday, June 22, Big Blue Bus will roll out a slate of changes that also includes permanently discontinuing paper passes and tokens and adding a new 10-ride pass.

The changes come at the end of the pilot program that began in February 2021 around the height of the first COVID-19 winter wave. At the time, the plan called for the phasing out of paper passes in April 2021, followed by cash in July 2021, meaning it has now been nearly one year since greenbacks have been accepted on the Big Blue Bus, replaced by regional transit cards, called TAP Cards.

When changes were introduced, residents complained that the cashless system disenfranchised bus riders who are elderly or otherwise vulnerable. The longstanding BBB policy to allow rides even to those who do not offer a TAP Card or mobile payment was sometimes not followed, residents told City Council members at the time.

The decision to resume collecting cash fares came after a long public comment period where Big Blue Bus collected survey results from about 700 riders, including an estimated 3,000 individual comments, according to Transit Planning Administrator Tim McCormick, who offered a detailed presentation about proposed fare changes to Santa Monica City Council back in April.

“Money is very problematic to collect,” McCormick acknowledged at the time. “The machines don’t work well for very long before they need repair and cleaning. What we can do is work with their social service partners to get cashless fares into the hands of poor people who need them.” McCormick said Big Blue Bus estimates about a third of riders are unbanked, meaning they do not have bank accounts or access to debit or credit cards.

Cash fare resuming means that now, cash, TAP Cards and mobile tickets (available through the Transit App) will be accepted. 

In addition to the return of cash fare collection and the new 10-ride pass, Big Blue Bus tacked on an additional year that young children can ride free, moving from a maximum age from four up to five. That change, which brings Big Blue Bus in line with LA Metro following a recent change, will bridge the previous one-year gap between toddlers riding free and school children receiving student passes.

A temporary price reduction in the youth 30-day pass was also made permanent by the recent changes, but other price changes, including a proposed drop in single-ride fares from $1.10 down to $1 per ride, were not approved.

Big Blue Bus did add a new deal on a 10-ride pass for $9, or a discounted rate of $4.50 for seniors, disabled riders and riders on Medicare. In addition, there is also now a free Big Blue Bus-to-Big Blue Bus transfer within two hours for one-way trips.

During the April City Council hearing, Councilmember Phil Brock wryly asked if his old tokens and half-punched paper passes would still be accepted, and the answer was that their value can be transferred to “an equivalent pass product” — TAP Cards or mobile app value.

Riders with tokens and paper passes have through Sept. 30 to exchange them. To do so, visit Blue: The Transit Store at 1444 4th Street. The store is open for limited hours: from 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. It is also open on some Friday afternoons, including June 24 and July 8 and 22.

emily@smdp.com