Ongoing updates: More US transit agencies that offer free monthly-or-longer passes for riders experiencing homelessness have been added to the post since publication. More will be added as they are found.
On Wednesday, King County Metro General Manager Rob Gannon announced some changes to its fare enforcement practices, as a result of an audit.
The audit made five recommendations:
- Transit should establish a performance management system for fare enforcement, including establishing baselines, setting targets, and developing measures for outputs and outcomes.
- Transit should conduct a rigorous fare evasion study to understand the level of fare evasion on RapidRide at least every two years.
- Transit should review its fare enforcement model for alignment with county and agency goals and equity principles (emphasis added) and use the results to update its model and the fare enforcement contract.
- Transit should work with the fare enforcement team to develop and implement a system for gathering data necessary to monitor for the equity impacts of fare enforcement.
- Transit should prioritize implementation of its stalled technology project to ensure that fare enforcement is conducted in the most efficient manner possible.
King County spokesperson Scott Gutierrez pointed out a couple key differences between Metro’s and Sound Transit’s enforcement policies:
- While Metro gives each rider a warning the first time they are caught not paying on RapidRide, that warning never “falls off”, the way it does after one year on Sound Transit.
- Youth riders get two warnings before a citation is given the third time the rider is caught. This has the side effect of providing better proportionality between the fare and the $124 citation that is set by the state. But, again, the warnings don’t “fall off”.
Per the announcement by Gannon, Metro just started giving the second warning for youth riders. Per Gutierrez, Metro is also reviewing the policy of not having warnings fall off a passenger’s record.
A combination of more warnings, having them fall off after a shorter period of time than for regular full-fare payers, and having the fine be higher for full-fare payers than the minimum allowed by the state, could be key to solving the proportionality gap between the discount fares and the huge fine. The trick is to come up with a formula that will make a typical frequent rider end up losing the bet if he decides to never pay and just pay citations when he is caught. However, higher fines mean transit agencies have to spend less on fare enforcement to achieve the same deterrent effect — a point that was, unfortunately, not brought out in the audit.
Fare enforcement and riders experiencing homelessness
A chunk of Metro riders have no money to pay fare, and are at the mercy of availability of free tickets from human service agencies. This is the demographic most clearly negatively impacted by fare collection and enforcement policies.
- Riders experiencing homelessness get 11% of the warnings, 24% of the citations, and 31% of the misdemeanors for riding while having unpaid citations.
- Only 3% of citations get paid, costing Metro $340,000 a year in court costs that aren’t covered by uncollectible citations.
- When fines go unpaid, they go into collections, which can then impact a person’s ability to obtain housing.
Some continue to call for the elimination of fares altogether. Fare collection comes with huge costs, in administration of the ORCA program, cash handling, and lots of dwell time added to routes due to collecting fares at the front door. The dwell-time problem creates a vicious cycle of discouraging ridership due to longer bus trip time. The failure to point out that Metro doesn’t use net fare recovery instead of gross fare recovery as an important metric was probably the most major miss in the audit.
Since no reliable replacement revenue source (including enough to handle increased service demand if public transit were to be free) has been offered to make elimination of fares feasible, the most obvious measure to deal with the audit’s call for giving those experiencing homelessness a break is to provide free passes that last much longer than one day.
There are a few transit agencies around the country that have programs not limited by age to give monthly or longer free passes to homeless riders:
- Santa Clara County’s (CA) Valley Transportation Authority has the United Pass for Life Improvement Through Transportation (UPLIFT) program.
- Capital Metro (Austin, TX) has the Transit Empowerment Fund.
- Valley Transit (Phoenix, AZ) has the Homeless Service Provider Program.
- Miami / Dade County has the Transportation Disadvantaged Program.
- Gainesville (FL) also offers free monthly bus passes through homeless services providers.
- Charlotte (NC) also has a program via discounts to human service agencies.
- The Fort Worth Transportation Authority (TX) had the Fare Aid program, which was discontinued in 2015.
- Los Angeles Metro may soon provide pre-loaded Transit Access Passes to riders experiencing homelessness and victims of domestic abuse.
Sadly, these programs are far outnumbered by cities that offer those experiencing homelessness free one-way tickets out of town.
Correction to previous post and previous correction: In a previous post, I asserted, partially incorrectly, that Sound Transit collects a fare when a passenger taps on for a train ride, but then changes her/his mind and catches a bus, but forgets to cancel the train ride tap. Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray offered a partially-correct correction.
Sound Transit Spokesperson Kimberly Reason provided a more precise correction:
If a card is tapped a second time [for a Link or Sounder ride, and then for a bus ride] within a 5 minute window [at the same station], the transaction gets reversed and the tap is cancelled (fare charge is reversed).
Beyond that, Sound Transit gets at least some revenue for a trip, rather taken or not.
Regardless, full monthly passholders get charged for a full pass each month, and the revenue apportionment among the agencies is invisible to the passholder. We just, on rare occasions when we mess up taps, can get incorrectly — and publicly — accused of “fare evasion” by the fare enforcement officers (and that has, thankfully, only happened to me once), and be subject to a $124 citation if we mess up again within one year, making frequent riders think twice about continuing to buy monthly passes or ride the train. It still isn’t clear how wrongful public shamings and citations helps Sound Transit improve fare revenue better than gentle reminders to please remember to tap, and collecting data about how often it happens, so that a statistical extrapolation can apportion fare revenue more accurately, without costing the good will of Sound Transit’s most frequent riders and ardent advocates.
The auditor’s recommendation that someone go along with the Metro fare enforcement team to get a reality check at least every two years should apply equally to Sound Transit’s fare enforcement team. They don’t really have the independence to question whether their orders make sense. But when an auditor sees someone who simply mis-tapped get accused of — or fined for — “fare evasion”, that should set off a red light that Sound Transit is doing something terribly wrong, both for the innocent rider who made her/his best-faith effort to pay, and has successfully done so many times, and for Sound Transit, who could lose a customer for no good reason.
Speaking to point 5 in the Metro audit, wasting time on people who did not actually evade fare payment is also an inefficient use of the FEO’s time. While an FEO is giving the wrongfully-accused rider the speech, a real fare evader — who knows to sit in the mid-section of the vehicle — is slipping out the door.
One could write the problem off by othering the victims as “techbros”. However, with all Seattle Public Schools high school students getting a year-round full pass, high school students are going to start being caught in the net, and subjected to public humiliation and possible $124 citations, even though they thought they had a pass that pays for all transit trips on nearly every public transit service except Washington State Ferries, Kitsap fast ferries, Amtrak, and the monorail. If the County starts giving out free monthly passes to the homeless, then some of them, too, will get caught in this net.