Fare Evasion - A Primer
Put simply, a transit passenger engages in fare evasion whenever they travel on a transit vehicle without paying the appropriate fare. While for most people the concept of fare evasion brings up an image of a New York youth hopping a subway turnstile, people other than the buyer who use non-transferable monthly passes (fortunately, non-transferable monthly passes, which usually have a photo to accompany the pass, are on their way out), people paying a senior fare when they are under the senior age, and even people in Los Angeles who do not "tap" their cards when transferring from one rail line to another are all guilty of fare evasion.
In addition to hopping turnstiles, common methods of fare evasion including entering or exiting stations via emergency exits and by entering the back door of a bus. A few years ago San Francisco in a sense gave up on fare evasion and began allowing people with valid fares to board via the rear doors.
Who Enforces Fares?
Contrary to popular opinion, the bus or train operator is not responsible for enforcing fares. In most transit agencies, union rules dictate that when a driver is confronted with a potential fare evader, the only thing the driver must do is simply state the fare once and then let the evader walk to the back of the bus. The reason for this policy is for the protection of the driver, as disputes over fares are the number one cause of assaults against transit coach operators. In fact, interactions with passengers are one of the five top employment issues for bus drivers . For a similar reason agents stationed in fare collection booths at subway stations are usually told not to leave their booths, including to chase after fare dodgers.
If operators do not enforce fares, then who does? Fare enforcement is usually conducted by transit police or security agents, though in most cases transit riders would be hard-pressed to remember the last time they actually had a police officer check their fare (commuter trains are a notable exception to the general rule of non-existent fare checkers). After having my fare checked soon after I arrived in Los Angeles in 2006, I have seen fare enforcement on only one occasion since then, and that fare enforcement was easy to avoid - since officers where checking fares on the station platform and not the train, anyone who did not pay the fare merely had to stay on the train and alight at the next station to avoid them.
What Are the Rates of Fare Evasion and How Much Does It Cost Transit Agencies?
The advent of new light-rail systems with barrier-free entry to station platforms has brought fare evasion into a never-before seen prominence. While initially there was apprehension over whether the cost of installing and maintaining fare gates at formerly barrier-free rapid transit systems in places such as Los Angeles and Vancouver would be greater than the additional fare revenue collected, initial results show that the increase in fare revenue may indeed offset the costs.
While traditionally the rate of fare evasion has been generally viewed as about 3 - 6%, in the past few years it has been more like 1%. For example, Washington D.C. estimates that on any given day about 1% of passengers on its subway system do not pay - perhaps 7,000 out of 750,000 riders on a typical weekday.
In terms of losses, New York estimates bus fare evasion alone as costing the system $50 million in lost fare revenue . Los Angeles Metro estimates an eventual increase in fare revenue on the subway of about $6 million per year and initial results showed that transactions at ticket vending machines increased 18-22% after gates were installed at subway stations.
An analysis of the effect on fare evasion after the installation of automatic fare gates at sixty-three London Underground stations in 1989 showed a reduction in fare evasion of 67% and that the additional revenue had paid for the costs of installing the gates.
What Are the Penalties for Fare Evasion?
In most cases fare evasion is considered an infraction similar to a parking ticket, but some agencies consider it a civil offense similar to jaywalking or speeding, and some can even charge fare evasion, especially repeat offenders, as a misdemeanor. Of course, the people who make counterfeit tokens are committing felonies.
Fare evasion penalties vary by property, but in my opinion most are not high enough to truly dissuade fare evasion, especially when considered with the low likelihood of apprehension. Even the low fare evasion fine may be considered too high a price to pay for some Parisian transit deadbeats, who for a while had put together a fare evasion insurance policy that would pay out claims if they had to pay such a fine.
In Washington, D.C., penalties for fare evasion range only from $50 - $300, so even though Washington Metro's stepped-up enforcement has resulted in a 20% increase in citations in 2013, not paying still seems like a good value. In New York, penalties are $100, while in Boston they range from $15 - $200 and in Atlanta from $85 - $300. Some agencies allow scofflaws to pay a penalty fare instead of going through the usual law enforcement process.