Op-Ed: What America Gets Wrong about Fare Evasion

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This post originally appeared on the website pedestrianobservations.com. It is reprinted here with permission.

There’s a moralistic discourse in the United States about fare evasion on public transport that makes it about every issue other than public transport or fares. It’s a proxy for lawlessness, for police racism, for public safety, for poverty. In lieu of treating it as a big intra-urban culture war, I am going to talk about best practices from the perspective of limiting revenue loss to a minimum.

This is an issue where my main methodology for making recommendations for Americans — looking at peer-developed countries — is especially useful. The reason is that Americans practically never look at other countries on hot-button culture war issues, even less than (say) the lip service the center-left pays to foreign universal health care systems. Knowing stuff about the rest of the world is a type of competence, and competence is not a factor in a culture war. The upshot is that successful policies regarding fare collection in (for example) Germany are obscure in the United States even more than policies regarding wonkier transportation issues like train frequency.

The current situation in New York

In the summer, Governor Cuomo announced a new initiative to hire 500 cops to patrol the subway. The justification for this scheme has varied depending on who was asking, but the primary goal appears to be to defeat fare evasion. Per Cuomo’s office, fare evasion costs $240 million a year on the subway and buses, about 5 percent of total revenue. The MTA has also mentioned a higher figure, $300 million; I do not know if the higher figure includes just urban transit or also commuter rail, where conductors routinely miss inspections, giving people free rides.

But New York fare evasion is mostly a bus problem: the rate on buses is 22 percent. On the subway the rate is only 4 percent, and there is somewhat more revenue loss on buses than on subways. This, in turn, is because bus fares are enforced by drivers, who for years have complained that fare disputes lead to assaults on them and proposed off-board fare collection as an alternative. On many buses, drivers just let it go and let passengers board without paying, especially if nearly all passengers are connecting from the subway and therefore have already paid, as on the B1 between the Brighton Beach subway station and Kingsborough Community College or on the buses to LaGuardia.

So realistically the subway fare evasion level is closer to $110 million a year. The total cost of the new patrol program is $56 million in the first year, escalating by 8 percent annually, thanks to a pre-agreed pay hike scale. Whereas today the program is a net revenue generator if it halves subway fare evasion, a level that already seems strained, within 10 years, assuming normal fare escalation, it will need to cut fare evasion by about 90 percent, which is a complete fantasy. A sizable proportion of riders who do not pay would just stop riding altogether, for one. The governor is proposing to spend more on fare enforcement than the MTA can ever hope to extract.

The American moral panic about fare evasion regrettably goes far beyond New York. Two years ago, BART announced that it would supplement its fare barriers with proof-of-payment inspections, done by armed cops, and lied to the public about the prevalence of such a belts-and-suspenders system. More recently, it tried out a new turnstile design that would hit passengers in the face, but thankfully scrapped it after public outcry. Boston, too, has its moral panic about fare evasion, in the form of campaigns like the Keolis Ring of Steel on commuter rail or Fare is Fair.

There is another way

In talking to Americans about fare evasion, I have found that they are generally receptive to the idea of minimizing revenue loss net of collection costs. However, I’ve encountered more resistance about the idea that people should just be able to walk onto a bus or train.

In the urban German-speaking world, everyone with a valid fare can walk onto a bus, tram, or train without crossing fare barriers or having to pay a driver. This system has been copied to American light rail networks, but implementation on buses and subways lags (except on San Francisco buses). In New York, the SBS system uses proof of payment, but passengers still have to validate fares at bus stops, even if they already have paid, for example if they have a valid monthly pass.

In the vast majority of cities, no excuse exists to have any kind of overt fare control. Tear down these faregates. They are hostile to passengers with disabilities, they cost money to maintain, they constrain passenger flow at busy times, and they don’t really save money — evidently, New York’s subway fare evasion rate is within the range of Berlin, Munich, and Zurich. Fare enforcement should be done with proof of payment alone, by unarmed civilian inspectors, as in Berlin. Some people will learn to dodge the inspectors, as is the case in Berlin, and that’s fine; the point is not to get fare evasion to 0 percent, but to the minimum level net of enforcement costs.

New York itself may have an excuse to keep the faregates: its trains are very crowded, so peak-hour inspections may not be feasible. The question boils down to how New York crowding levels compare with those on the busiest urban proof-of-payment line, the Munich S-Bahn trunk. But no other American city has that excuse. Tear down these faregates.

What’s more, the fare inspection should be a low-key affair. The fine in Berlin is €60. Inspectors who can’t make a citation without using physical violence should not work as inspectors.

Make it easy to follow the law

The most important maxim when addressing a low-level crime is to make it easy to follow the law. Mistakes happen; I’ve accidentally fare-dodged in Berlin twice, only realizing the error at the end of the trip. This is much more like parking violations or routine mistakes in tax filing.

The turnstile acts as a reminder to everyone to pay their fare, since it’s not possible to fare-dodge without actively jumping it. However, turnstiles are not necessary for this. A better method is to ensure most passengers have prepaid already, by offering generous monthly discounts. My fare dodges in Berlin happened once before I got monthlies and once on my way to the airport on my current trip, in a month when I didn’t get a monthly since I was only in Berlin six days.

New York does poorly on the metric of encouraging monthlies. Passengers need to swipe 46 times in a 30-day period to justify getting a monthly pass rather than a pay-per-ride. This is bad practice, especially for passengers who prefer to refill at a ticketing machine rather than at home or on their phone with an app, since it means passengers visit the ticketing machines more often, requiring the agency to buy more to avoid long lines. In Berlin, the break-even point is 36 trips. In Zurich, it’s 20 trips; ZVV does whatever it can to discourage people from buying single tickets. In both cities, there are further discounts for annual tickets.

Unfortunately, the problem of indifference to monthlies on urban rail is common around the Anglosphere. Singapore has no season passes at all. In Vancouver, Cubic lobbying and a New Right campaign about fare evasion forced TransLink to install faregates on SkyTrain, and when the faregate project had predictable cost overruns, the campaigners took that as evidence the agency shouldn’t get further funding. London’s fare capping system is weekly rather than monthly – there are no monthly passes, and all fares are set at very high levels. Britain generally overuses faregates, for example on the commuter trains in London. London generally gives off an impression of treating everyone who is not a Daily Mail manager as a criminal. Paris is better, but not by much. The German-speaking world, as irrational as Britain and France about urban crime rates that are far lower than they were a generation ago, still treats the train and bus rider as a law-abiding customer unless proven otherwise.

Social fares

American transit agencies and activists resist calls for large monthly discounts, on a variety of excuses. The most common excuse is revenue loss, which is weird since realistically New York would transition to a large discount through holding the monthly fare constant and hiking the single-ride fare. It’s the second most common excuse that I wish to deal with here: social fares, namely the fact that many low-income riders don’t have the savings to prepay for an entire month.

On social fares, as on many other socioeconomic issues, it is useful for Americans to see how things work in countries with high income compression and low inequality under the aegis of center-left governments. In Paris, various classes of low-income riders, such as the unemployed, benefit from a solidarity fare discount of 50-75 percent. In both Paris and Stockholm, the monthly pass is flat regionwide, an intentional program of subsidizing regular riders in the suburbs, which are on average poorer than the city.

The flat fare is not really applicable to American cities, except possibly the Bay Area on BART. However, the large fare reductions to qualifying low-income riders are: a number of cities have used the same definition, namely Medicaid eligibility, and give steep discounts for bikeshare systems. On the same principle, cities and states can discount fares on buses and trains.

The right way to view fares

Fares are an important component of public transport revenue; the taxes required to eliminate fares are significant enough that there are probably better uses for the money. By the same token, the issue of fare evasion should be viewed from the lens of revenue loss, rather than that of crime and disorder. The transit agency is not an individual who is broken by being mugged of $100; it should think in terms of its own finances, not in terms of deterrence.

Nor is making it easier to follow the law going to encourage more crime — to the contrary. Transit agencies should aim at a fare system, including enforcement, that allows passengers to get on and off trains quickly, with minimum friction. Turnstiles do not belong in any city smaller than about 10 million people. The fare structure should then encourage long-term season passes, including annual passes, so that nearly all residents who take public transport have already paid. Random inspections with moderate fines are the layer of enforcement, but the point is to make enforcement largely unneeded.

And tear down the faregates.

Alon Levy started his career solely as a mathematician, but his side interest in urbanism and mass transit has led to a career entirely writing about public transit full-time. He lives in Paris, but has lived all over the world.

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