LA Metro looks to senior citizens to boost its sagging ridership

Will Fernandez said it was real easy.

He asked for a TAP card embedded with the LA Metro senior discount, since he was 62 years old and qualified. He provided his information, the attendant took his photo and he was presented with a temporary senior TAP card.

“I am looking forward to using it,” said the Monrovia resident. “I won’t have to drive the freeways and I can get out of my car, and like I said, it is important to make a difference for the planet.”

After investing heavily the last few years in ride-free passes for K-12 students and community college students as well as low-income riders, the county mega transit agency made a big push on Thursday, May 18 toward getting senior citizens to use mass transit.

An “older adult transportation expo” brought about 400 people to the Pasadena Convention Center who learned about which train or bus went where, what is this thing called the “Regional Connector” rail line, the logistics of paying with a TAP card instead of cash, and applying for the senior discount.

Whether one calls it social engineering or inevitability, if there’s anyone in the inner city or the suburbs of car-centric Southern California that may have to reckon with the loss of driving privileges, it’s older adults.

“There will come a time when we all won’t be able to drive, so public transportation will be an option,” said Lily Ortiz, who oversees Metro’s older adults program, called On The Move Riders.

Tony Brock, who is homeless, rides the Metro on Thursday, May 18, 2023. In an effort to get more seniors to ride public transportation LA Metro held an expo for senior citizens at the Pasadena Convention Center. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Sara Williams, 57, rides the Metro to Los Angeles on Thursday, May 18, 2023. In an effort to get more seniors to ride public transportation LA Metro held an expo for senior citizens at the Pasadena Convention Center. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Recycler Jay Anthony of Hollywood takes his day’s work to a recycling center using the LA Metro on Thursday, May 18, 2023. In an effort to get more seniors to ride public transportation LA Metro held an expo for senior citizens at the Pasadena Convention Center. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Urbano Robles attends LA Metro’s expo for senior citizens at the Pasadena Convention Center on Thursday, May 18, 2023. Urbano and his wife Maria took a New Freedom Transportation taxi cab, a free service with LA County Aging and Disabilities Department, to Pasadena from their Los Angeles home. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Rodrigo Batres, 74, and his wife Rosario Medrano, 75, pass a Metro Art Bus at the Pasadena Convention Center as they leave a Metro expo for senior citizens in an effort to get seniors to use public transportation on Thursday, May 18, 2023. The retired couple who live in downtown Los Angeles came to learn about the opening of Metro’s Grand Avenue Arts/Bunker Hill station, a half block from their home. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)



Ridership on its seven rail systems is at 58% of pre-pandemic levels, while bus ridership is at 78% of pre-pandemic levels, Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins reported in April. Rail ridership has been flat in the first quarter of this year, she said.

Bringing back those riders has Metro straining against the trend. More commuters are working remotely, instead of taking the train to job centers in downtown L.A., Culver City, Long Beach, Torrance, North Hollywood and Pasadena, for example. So the agency has added more service to weekends, when rail ridership is increasing due to soccer, basketball and football fans heading to sports venues.

To increase bus and rail ridership, Metro has planned to spend $32.5 million in its 2023-2024 budget for its Low-Income Fares is Easy (LIFE) Program, which provides fare-less rides for 200,000 low-income Metro riders. The program includes 13 other participating transit agencies. Metro will spend $20 million in the next year’s budget to continue its GoPass Program for K-12 and community college students.

Those 62 years of age and older who sign up through Metro get discounted fares when using their TAP cards. The base fare of $1.75 drops to $0.35 off-peak one-way, and $0.75 during peak hours.

But many riders still pay cash and therefore don’t automatically get the discount, so a session at Thursday’s expo taught seniors like Fernandez how to apply for a TAP card with the senior discount.

“It is a little complicated for older adults to apply for their TAP cards,” Lily Ortiz said.

Many bus riders, especially those who are unbanked, low-income and not familiar with loading money onto a plastic transit card, often pay full fare with cash. Metro reports that 43% of seniors pay cash.

In the past year, Metro reported 3.3 million monthly senior fares were collected. Of those, 92% of the seniors rode the bus, while only 8% rode on a train.

That follows what Grace Kim, manager of the Korea Town Senior and Community Center at Normandy Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in L.A. reported. “Most of our seniors use the bus,” she said.

A survey of riders 65 years or over taken last spring by Metro found that 68% of the respondents were “satisfied” with Metro, while 75% said Metro offered a good value.

Kim said many seniors who take the bus to attend classes or eat meals at the Korea Town Senior and Community Center complain to her about buses that did not show up, which is known as a cancellation. “Sometimes they would miss their class (because the bus was not on time and delayed their arrival),” she said.

The Foothill Transit bus agency, operating in the San Gabriel Valley, Inland Empire and downtown Los Angeles, also sent representatives to the senior adult expo. Their senior customers, 62 and up, ride for $0.75, said Felicia Friesema, spokesperson for the agency.

“If you don’t have the ability to drive yourself, having this access to transit enables you to go to doctor’s appointments, to visit family and to explore your town and neighborhood you live in,” Friesema said on Wednesday.

Laura Trejo, director of L.A. County Aging & Disabilities Department, said it’s important for seniors to connect with others and using public transit is one way to do that. “What we are finding out from research is connections matter in very deep ways, to live well and live longer,” she told the audience. “Social connections are a factor in a good, long life.”

Panelists from the L.A. historic core and Little Tokyo talked about possible field trips run by senior groups to  visit shops, museums and restaurants. Thirty-five new restaurants opened downtown last year, and the area added 10 more this year, said Elan Shore, director of Economic Development for the Downtown L.A. Center Business Improvement District.

Roberta Martinez, 68, lives in San Bernardino. She takes Metrolink to Union Station, then rides Metro rail lines. She recently took the B (Red) Line to watch a movie at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. She’s also taken the E (Expo) line to Santa Monica. “It was 100 degrees in San Bernardino that day and it was a lot cooler there,” she said.

There are many reasons why senior citizens no longer drive, Friesema said. “It might be a financial reason. It is so expensive to maintain a car,” she said.

Katie Brandon, executive director of Pasadena Village, a community of active older adults who want to age in place in their own homes, said her group booked a Metro community liaison to talk to members. She said community members often take field trips to L.A. But before they go, they map out the routes ahead of time and make sure it is safe.

She said the Metro community liaison goes over basic safety measures, such as staying in groups, looking up and not at your phone, and being aware of your surroundings.

“We have heard a lot of concerns about safety on the Metro,” Brandon said on Wednesday. “We’ve had people ask questions, people who said, ‘I haven’t been back on the trains because I am nervous.’ “

Present at the expo were officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who contract with Metro, as well as Metro’s Transit Security Officers. The safety contingent did not make a presentation, although the topic was raised by attendees.

Ken Gee, a senior from Monrovia, was concerned whenever his wife rode Metro rail to work. He said there were too many scary incidents and he was glad she stopped riding on Metro.

He said he’d seen homeless people on the L (Gold) Line, and a couple of months ago one was lying across the seat and blocking the aisle. “We had to step over him,” he said.

Martinez said she has seen more law enforcement on trains lately, but gets nervous sometimes. “When I rode the Red Line two weeks ago, I saw two county sheriffs stepping off and I said: ‘Please don’t leave us.’ Because there is a safety issue. I don’t blame a lot of people being afraid and not using public transportation.”

Other presentations and exhibits included trip planning, how to use Metrolink to get to other counties and joining a “travel buddy” group. Ortiz said riding with one of the Metro volunteers can make a senior rider feel more safe.

“Our goals is to remove barriers for older adults,” said Ortiz.

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