For many transit agencies in Southern California, a free ride translates into a safer ride during the new coronavirus pandemic.

What does one have to do with the other? It has to do with keeping your distance.

Since fare boxes are always at the front of the bus next to the driver, requiring riders to deposit money or tap the electronic pad with a pass violates social distancing guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and county health agencies have issued to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Hence, many bus agencies are temporarily eliminating fares or not enforcing whether someone “taps” or pays — all in an effort to keep bus riders farther away from bus operators.

“We are not enforcing fare collection. We are trying to maintain social distancing for the bus operators,” said Felicia Friesema, spokesperson for Foothill Transit, which serves 13 million people a year in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles and parts of the San Bernardino Valley.

This avoidance of the bus operator is made possible by requiring every bus rider to enter and exit the bus through the rear door, where there are no fare boxes. By going to rear-door boarding, it makes reaching up to the front to pay impractical, if not impossible.

Those in a wheelchair who must activate the lift can enter through the front doors, she said.

The third-largest transit agency in the country, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, known as LA Metro, also this week began mandating rear-door boarding for all bus riders.

However, LA Metro has not said passengers can get rides free, even though some advocacy groups say the policy represents a de-facto free ride.

“While riders are not expected to use the fare box or tap validator at the front of the bus, they should have a loaded TAP card,” LA Metro spokesman Dave Sotero said in an emailed response on Thursday, March 26.

Riders using the LA Metro subways and light-rail system are required to pay their fare at the turnstile, as per usual.

Move LA, a transit advocacy group, emailed out a petition Tuesday demanding that LA Metro suspend fare collection for the duration of the stay-at-home order to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County. Transit agencies in Seattle, New York City, Alameda County and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation are no longer requiring fares, the group said.

Among those not enforcing fare collection in the region are: the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Antelope Valley Transit Authority and Omnitrans in San Bernardino County.

All require bus patrons to enter and exit through the rear doors. At Omnitrans, which provides 10 million passenger trips a year in San Bernardino Valley, the fare suspension continues through April 19, said Nicole Ramos, spokesperson.

On Thursday, Move LA was reconsidering its petition drive. “We are satisfied with the policy (LA Metro) has put in place. It is de-facto free,” said Eli Lipman, director of programming and development for Move LA.

Lipman said to force the agency into no fare collection as a policy may encourage discretionary riding, such as people boarding buses and trains to trails and beaches. The crowds at beaches and mountain trails last weekend caused the state to close all park parking lots and many agencies to close off trails.

Move LA wants to keep the trains and buses running so that grocery and hospital workers and employees at restaurants serving take-out and delivery can continue to use the system. Often, these are low-income workers who are mass-transit dependent.

Although paying may add to their burden, Move LA said Metro is correct in striking a balance that keeps the trains and buses safe to ride.

“Metro has adopted an approach requiring people to enter the bus from the rear door,” said Denny Zane, Move LA executive director on Wednesday. “In a practical matter, that has made (bus) transit free.”

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