Los Angeles Transit to Abandon Honor System

The Los Angeles subway system doesn't have turnstiles, relying instead on the honor system. But the transit authority is losing money because some riders don't pay, so the system could soon end.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to public transit here in Los Angeles. The subway system works on the honor system, meaning no turnstiles or gates. But that could end soon. L.A.'s transit authority says it looses money because some riders just don't pay.

Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Unlike most subway systems, getting onto the Metro in LA is simple. You just buy a paper fare pass for $1.25 each ride and hold onto it in case a ticket checker asks to see onboard. They rarely do, though the fine for not having one is $250. And to board the subways or light rail trains you don't have to pass through any turnstiles or gates.

Ms. YVONNE BRAITHWAITE BURKE (County Supervisor): Everyone just walks in. You just get on the train.

DEL BARCO: County supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke says L.A.'s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has had faith in passengers to pay their fares.

Ms. BURKE: It's kind of unheard of in most places. And I'm sure that most people would not really understand it. But this is California. We do things differently here.

DEL BARCO: So up until now you've trusted us.

Ms. BURKE: Well, it was a matter of honor system.

DEL BARCO: When L.A.'s public transportation system was built in the 1980s, that honor system was the MTA's way of encouraging people to ditch their cars and ride public transit. Now the system has 17 miles of subway lines and another 56 miles of light rail. Recent studies show that up to 11 percent of riders do not pay their fares.

Ms. BURKE: We need to really get with it. The honor system works often. But you have some people who just violate it routinely.

DEL BARCO: Burke says they cost the MTA $5.5 million in loss revenues each year. So she proposes that many of L.A. subways and light rail stops be equipped with turnstiles, possibly the same type found in Manhattan's new World Trade Center subway stop, turnstiles that count passengers and provide extra security.

Ms. BURKE: If a person touches that turnstile and they have been in touch explosives, it will put off an alarm.

DEL BARCO: The proposed turnstiles could cost $30 million to install and about a million dollars a year to maintain. Some passengers like Randy Derosia(ph) say the investment is worthwhile.

Mr. RANDY DEROSIA (Passenger): I pay my monthly pass every time, and a lot of people that are riding for free. So...

DEL BARCO: But subway riders Lina Ruiz(ph) and Damon James(ph) are troubled by the proposal.

Ms. LINA RUIZ (Passenger): It's just a waste of money. Yeah, they should make more subways.

Mr. DAMON JAMES: It might cause long lines. They just leave it like it is. You know, turnstiles - people could still could jump over them if they didn't want to pay. So they just leave it like it is.

DEL BARCO: Critics also complain that the turnstiles would disrupt the aesthetics. And at least one light rail architect says that the change would mark a cultural shift.

Mr. ROLAND GENICK (Architect): It's really more the image that it conveys because, I don't know, I guess in an ideal world public transportation would be free.

DEL BARCO: Roland Genick is the lead designer for L.A.'s upcoming rail line from downtown to Culver City. He says the MTA should be encouraging people to ride public transportation, not creating an air of mistrust.

Mr. GENICK: You can't really design a system for those occasional intentional cheaters. You shouldn't burden 250,000 people going to work every day because 200 people decide not to buy a ticket.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

DEL BARCO: In car-crazed Los Angeles, the subways and light rails still only have about seven million riders each month. If the honor system is what keeps them riding, it may soon be a thing of the past. Next month the MTA will vote on whether to install the new turnstiles.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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