How Cities Stopped Panicking About Fare Evasion and Made Transit Faster

All-door boarding could significantly speed up bus rides for millions of New Yorkers, but MTA officials have refused to endorse it as citywide practice, citing “the very real threat of fare evasion.”

Transit agencies in other cities, meanwhile, aren’t hiding behind that excuse.

Speaking at TransitCenter last night, transportation officials from Boston, San Francisco, London, and Oslo shared how their agencies put the rider experience at the center of fare modernization efforts. They see the possibilities to provide fast, convenient service, and they are seizing them.

“Fare payment isn’t the point of running a bus system, [the point] is getting people to the places they want to get to,” said David Block-Schachter, the chief technology officer at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which like the MTA is currently accepting proposals for a new fare payment system.

Unlike the MTA, however, MBTA is making sure its fare collection upgrade makes all-door boarding “inevitable,” Block-Schachter said. “Our solution is putting the technology in place to enable those policy decisions to be made further down the line.”

Over the summer, the MTA began the procurement process for its next generation fare payment system, which it hopes to roll out incrementally starting in 2018. All-door boarding has already sped up buses on the MTA’s Select Bus Service routes, but today’s MetroCard technology requires expensive machines for off-board collection. The MTA has said “operational and cost implications,” in addition to fare evasion, could prevent all-door boarding system-wide.

Cost-effectiveness is, of course, no less a concern in San Francisco, London, and Oslo — cities that have already modernized their fare collection systems. Those cities also take a very different view of fare evasion and enforcement than NYC, where subway fare evasion was the top arrest in 2015.

In London, which has done away with cash payments entirely, revenue inspection officers don’t even give out tickets, according to Transport for London Head of Business Development Matthew Hudson. If riders consistently avoid fare payment, they’ll be fined, and maybe even prosecuted, but punishing lower-level offenders is not a TfL priority.

Ultimately, Hudson said, the hands-off approach to fare evasion helps build trust in TfL as a whole, which makes riders more willing to pay fares in the first place.

“You can sit there and go through all the revenue protection measures you like, but [some] people are not going to pay,” he told Streetsblog. “Even if you, for instance, gated all the bus entries or something, they’re probably not going to travel then. Have you really missed out on revenue?”

“You do need to do enough checks that you’re keeping honest people honest,” SFMTA’s Julie Kirschbaum said, but fare enforcement training in San Francisco has focused on de-escalation and inter-cultural communication. The city also decriminalized fare-beating, putting the penalty in line with that of a parking ticket.

The MTA could stand to gain a lot from a shift in priorities, said TransitCenter’s Jon Orcutt. “When you stop worrying about fare evasion, but you focus on the convenience of the fare system — you focus on the service it provides to the rider — it opens up a lot of options for the agency, which could allow you to offer better service at lower cost.”

One of the rider-friendly fare innovations in London, for instance, automatically grants people a monthly pass if they rack up an equivalent amount in single-ride fares. TfL was also able to save £26 million annually by eliminating cash collection on buses, after cash payments dropped to 0.6 percent of all fares.

New Yorkers could have faster transit, less police harassment, and a more convenient fare system too, if the MTA follows the lead of these agencies and gets out of its own way.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The MBTA has an interesting compromise. They have much higher rates of fare evasion, and lower tax subsidies. They have simply allowed the system to collapse. Before suggesting they are a model, you should see what is going on up there.

    You can eliminate fare evasion by making the subway free, reducing fare evasion, and perhaps even putting through the 20/50 pension. And worry about it later. Seems to be consistent with all policies across the country with one exception.

    It is later.

  • bolwerk

    The MTA’s recalcitrance here is the broken windows faith put into action. Fare evasion means not controlling the populace, and we need to be in control over everything. Disorder is crime.

    Fare evasion is good. You want some fare evasion. You can monetize it. That’s what other first world cities do. But they don’t turn it into a false red flag for some deeper disorder in society.

  • jamesbeaz

    I’d add that it’s not just “perfect Norway” that uses all-door boarding on buses. Rome does this on many routes. And Bologna has beautiful buses with all-door boarding and helpful graphics on the outside to remind riders as such.

  • TomD

    London isn’t the only city that “grants people a monthly pass if they rack up an equivalent amount in single-ride fares”.

    In NY, the MTA does the same thing with reduced-fare (disabled and senior citizens) “EasyPay” MetroCards. They don’t do it for full-fare cards because full-fare cards are transferable and can be used by up to 4 people at the same time.

  • AMH

    The MTA’s own data show that fare evasion goes down when a bus route is SBS-ed, so they are contradicting themselves.

  • bolwerk

    Cite? (Just asking because I’m curious to read it, not because I don’t believe you.)

    I personally don’t give a shit for any but academic reasons. I prefer good service, first. Money/revenue is important, but in the scheme of things it should come second. We need good service, and we can only want it to be cost-effective. Of course, in the universe we live in it most of the time good service ultimately means more money anyway.

  • AMH

    I don’t have raw data, but the MTA have published several reports touting the benefits of SBS, including reduced fare evasion. See Bx12 and M15.

  • Casey Brazeal

    Guadalajara Too!

  • cc

    Was fare evasion really a criminal offense in San Francisco previously. That’s insane! I don’t know of any Canadian cities where it’s a criminal offense. It’s just a fine here. I got caught once. They checked their records, and because I hadn’t got caught previously, I wasn’t even fined. They just gave me a warning.

  • Alex

    As a Londoner I feel obliged to chime-in here. We do not have an automatic monthly pass if you spend equivalent amount in single-ride fares. We have a daily cap if you pay with Oyster (a contactless card payment system) or Contactless Bank Card, and a weekly cap for Contactless Bank Cards only. We do not have automatic monthly price capping.

    We had all-door-boarding on a particular type of bus – the Bendy Bus – and all of these buses were removed as part of Boris Johnson’s Mayoral Election Manifesto for several reasons, one of them due to massive fare-evasion on the routes that this bus was used. (there were also political motivations for the bus removal)

    Police in London periodically set-up multi-team enforcement checkpoints. Ticket inspectors board a stationary bus, anyone without a valid ticket is removed. Outside the bus we have police, immigration enforcement and portable metal detectors. They have excellent rates of arrest for wanted criminals and detection of those carrying offensive weapons.

    I am not for a moment saying that every fare evader is also likely to be an “undesirable” carrying an illegal weapon, or a person wanted by the police. However it’s interesting to note how many “undesirables” fare evade.

  • David Wright

    SF public transit is always financially short, with cutbacks in service gradually returning after each attempt to salvage the system. Since fare inspectors only seem to appear during the day, the evening buses I take seem to carry about 50% fare evaders. We really need a region-wide solution.

  • tomwest

    If all-door boarding results in faster buses, then it lowers your costs. Would love to see a comparison of that vs. fare revenue lost.