Every student pays a fee for a U-Pass card. Less than 20% use it.

USC students get unlimited Metro rides under expanded transit program.

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This semester, USC expanded its U-Pass program which covers fares for all students to ride an array of bus and train lines throughout L.A.

The program works by supplying U-Pass cards to students which can be used on 10 different transit agencies, including Los Angeles Metro buses and trains. The cost of the program is included in a $93 Transportation Fee charged to all registered students at USC. Before the fall semester of 2023, USC’s U-Pass program was only available to graduate students.

“We launched this program to increase transit riders among the college sectors,” said Metro senior account executive Jocelyn Feliciano.

A Metro board report obtained by Annenberg Media shows that in November 2016, only 1% of the 1.4 million public college students in Los Angeles County actively participated in Metro’s reduced fare college pass programs. “So we needed to figure out what were the barriers to getting those people riding,” said Feliciano.

Feliciano oversees the Metro’s U-Pass program, which covers more than 20 public and private universities in the L.A. area.

“Having the undergraduates be in the program is a real benefit,” Feliciano said. She said that USC students accounted for 97,000 boardings on participating Metro routes for fall and winter of the last fiscal year, the most recent period for which Metro has data.

Despite the fact that every USC student pays a fee for a U-Pass, less than 20% of them actually have the card, according to data from the Metro and USC. Many students still prefer driving over public transit.

David Donovan, associate director of USC Transportation, wrote in an email to Annenberg Media that the University has sold some 6,500 parking permits to students at both L.A. campuses so far this semester. USC Transportation oversees more than 15,000 parking spaces between HSC and UPC, all of which require paid permits.

Daniel Ynchausti, a political science and public diplomacy undergraduate student at USC, commutes about 20 minutes from Koreatown every day. Ynchausti decided to live farther away from campus because rent prices are more affordable.

While the arrangement works for now, Ynchausti said he’s worried about what increasing gas prices could mean for his budget. He said he’s already shelled out about $530 for a permit to park in Parking Structure X next to McCarthy Quad.

After seeing gas prices top $6 in his hometown of Covina, California, Ynchausti said he wished he owned a hybrid.

But gas prices aren’t his only concern. Despite the relatively short trip, the looming risk of expensive fixes for his car could force him to find alternative transportation arrangements. Without his car, he said he’d take a Lyft or ride with a friend.

“I’m definitely pro-transportation,” he said when asked about the possibility of using public transit, though he prefers the convenience of driving.

Rising gas prices and the costly car maintenance are not the only things that might tempt a student to use public transit.

“One study that [Metro] participated in showed that students receiving the free transit passes have a 27% or up to 27% higher graduation rate than other students out there,” said Devon Deming, deputy executive officer of the Metro’s Fareless System Initiative.

“A lot of them have said that having a free pass program allows them to not worry about how they’re going to get to school or how they pay to get to school, but really just focus on the ability to do their schoolwork,” said Deming.

But many students choose to drive, finding the L.A. transit system inconvenient and unmanageable. Kenton Sakurai, a medical student at Keck School of Medicine, commutes to the UPC campus just once per week. Like many Angelenos, traffic is his biggest concern—his commute can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.

Additionally, Sakurai thinks that L.A. public transit has gained a reputation for being slow, unreliable, and even dangerous.

For Makayla Lysiak, an undergraduate playwriting and screenwriting student, fears about safety on public transit have been the main drawback of using the Metro. She used to pay for a Metro TAP card to commute when U-Passes were unavailable to USC undergraduates.

“I took the Metro train at Union Station all the time, maybe every other week, and then sometimes the wire train that runs along the street and then also the subway,” Lysiak said.

But that changed this year, when she had several experiences on public transportation that made her feel unsafe.

“I had people coming up to me, asking for my name, my number. And it was all just men around me, like, I was the only woman down there,” Lysiak said. “One guy came up to me saying, ‘You better be careful, there’s pedophiles down here.’”

Lysiak said she hasn’t taken the Metro since. She now drives to USC and has a permit to park on campus.

For some, the fears become reality. Last week, KTLA reported that a USC graduate student identified only as Anna S. was attacked while waiting to board a 5 p.m. train at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

KTLA retrieved surveillance footage of the attack which showed that she was approached from behind and hit over the head. She is now considering other modes of transportation as she is concerned about her safety going forward.

David Carlisle, the assistant chief of USC’s Department of Public Safety, said DPS does not distribute flyers or other information materials to students who commute on public transportation. But he advised that everyone should avoid displaying valuable items while on the Metro, travel with a friend whenever possible, stay awake and alert, and keep belongings close by.

Despite safety concerns, use of the U-Pass for Metro is growing at USC. In spring of 2023, only 484 graduate students at USC used the U-Passes, according to Metro data obtained by Annenberg Media.

As of the third week of fall semester 2023, almost eight thousand students (including both graduate and undergraduate students) have U-Passes. While the number of students using the program is about 16 times greater than last spring, it still accounts for less than 17% of the USC student population.