Fare Follies

Once again my obsession with reading the “web only” murmurs in Willamette Week turns up a transportation article, this time about my favorite system, Portland Streetcar.

The fare collection activity is in part a response to the coverage in the Trib a few weeks back.

So here’s the challenge: most of the Streetcar line is in fareless square, and even in the areas that are not, many riders have a TriMet transfer, monthly pass or Streetcar annual pass. Actual farebox collections are only on the order of $100K per year or so. Making an effort to inspect fares will almost certainly cost more than the incremental revenue it will generate.

But the public perception that other people are getting away with something free is a problem, and so is the perception that the public purse is being ripped off.

So, how about a little advice – what should Streetcar do?

  • Hang an ‘honor system’ sign next to the ticket machines
  • Put a permanent ‘out of order sign’ on the ticket machines
  • Hire a squad of knee-breaking fare inspectors to monitor every trip
  • Do spot checks to communicate that someone is in fact paying attention, but not so often that it breaks the budget

Better ideas?

24 responses to “Fare Follies”

  1. Make the entire line free and install donation boxes and a plea for operating money in prominent locations within the cars.
    I suspect this would net you more money than by paying for inspectors because tourists would probably also contribute within Farelees Square.

  2. I like the honor system and plea for donation ideas.

    Another idea: use some money from more metered on-street parking to cover some of the 100K/year for streetcar.

    Also related to fairs but unrelated to streetcar… I haven’t ridden MAX in a while (I bike mostly) but I noticed the fair options at the machines have changed. You can now get multiple validated tickets, but the option to get a set of 10 tickets is gone. How long has that been like that? Anyone know where sets of 10 can be purchased? thanks.

  3. You can get books of 10 tickets at the TriMet service center in Pioneer Courthouse Square and many other locations that sell TriMet tickes (I get mine at Food Front).

    The completely free option was explored, and rejected by my neighborhood in NW Portland because of the unregulated parking here. I tried to get this fixed as part of the NW Parking Plan process a few years ago, but that all went down the tubes when Council added parking structures unacceptable to the neighborhood (we’re still dealing with the litigation … sigh). Completely free also probably doesn’t work as we try to get to the eastside,

    The flat $1.00 would put us out of sync with TriMet’s system, and I think part of the success of the system is the seemless fare integration.

    Hope I’m not being a wet blanket on the creativity :-)

  4. Chris –

    I think we need more data here… when Portland Streetcar has done occasional fare inspection activities in the past, has the average # of violations or a ratio of violations been determined?

    I once wrote to Mr. Gustafson with a suggestion about using a part-time private contractor and using fines as a funding mechanism, but he wasn’t keen on the idea.

    If a fine collecting/enforcing apparatus is too complex to set up (and can’t be shared with TriMet’s existing enforcement regime), another idea would be to have a “Streetcar Ambassador” – someone who rides during peak periods and answers questions and checks fares, but does not issue citations. Basically a way of politely shaming people into paying.

    Lastly, and this would involve capital costs, how about an illuminated sign below the NextBus displays in the streetcar which would come on and say “Fare Required in this Area” as appropriate. Maybe even blink brightly at each stop. :-)

    – Bob R.

  5. Chris,
    doesn’t the fare issue become even more complicated when Streetcar opens to The Tram?…also outside of Fareless.
    I watched someone struggle with the fare machine the other day…they wanted to pay, but it wasn’t effortless.
    I’m partial to fare inspectors, but on Streetcar you don’t need four big police like types to do this, just one brave soul asking for fares, answering questions, reminding folks they need to pay, etc. They might bring in enough to pay their own way.
    Have you considered fare machines at stops with signs that they are required outside of Fareless? It is easier to buy tickets while waiting at the stop, than on the streetcar…unless you just get as it is pulling into the stop.
    re MAX tickets…most platforms have two machines, one offers the quick 1-2-3 validated ticket option, the other has the multiple unvalidated ticket options.
    When you think about how much operator time and effort goes into fares on buses, you wonder if it is worth it. We would have a lot more service from the same number of buses and operators if they could just drive and let folks on and off.

  6. Chris,

    You’re welcome to be creative (and I appreciate creativity). We need to also be realistic….how often do people voluntarily contribute to anything, let alone a project of a government? Judging by the tirades that people launch into, such as at City Hall, governments are expected to always be perfect and hand out benefits to all…

  7. Bob, I think the program mentioned in WW is very close to what you describe.

    Lenny, yes, Gibbs St. will be outside fareless square (and the Tram is also in Zone 1), so we’ll have to collect on that end as well.

    With something like 30+ stops and 10 vehicles, the economics are still way better to keep the fare machines on the vehicles.

  8. Does Portland Streetcar have the legal power to keep fines paid for fare violations? If so, the fines collected from tickets, combined with greater fare collection from riders, should pay for a couple of fare inspectors.

  9. ” If so, the fines collected from tickets, combined with greater fare collection from riders, should pay for a couple of fare inspectors.”

    So the fare cops would just have to stay outside of Fareless Square…? Could be a clever way to collect a lot of fines!!! We need the jobs!

  10. Speaking as an outside observer (who wishes that transit here in Chicago were anywhere near as efficient as transit in PDX), what about some sort of a Streetcar or joint Streetcar/Trimet “Visitors Ambassador” program. Instead of fare inspectors, there could be a modest number of such “officials” circulating among Streetcar and Max stations and on trains, both within Fareless Square and on the NW Side. They could handle visitor and first-time user questions, offer sightseeing advice, and, indeed, offer friendly reminders that fares need to be paid for trips beyond Fareless Square.

    By dint of them having a greater role than just as fare inspectors–e.g. a tourism/economic development role–Trimet and the city could feel more empowered to seek private funding beyond the employee tax (such as from local tourist attractions or downtown businesses) to pay for their activities, taking the onus off of the farebox. And it would turn the debate from something with a negative slant (“bad rider, pay your fare!”), to something with a more positive and helpful emphasis.

  11. Let’s see if I can synthesize the various thoughts that I’ve had about this:

    Paying on-board the streetcar itself doesn’t work, and never will. Period. Time between stops is quite short, and I often see one or two dozen people getting on and off at each stop. And the current system is slow and difficult to use. Even if everyone were as scrupulously honest as possible, it’s only really possible for two or three people to pay a fare before the next batch of people get onboard. So, right away, we’re losing 80%-90% of all potential fares. As ridership increases, the situation will only get worse, so that even if the fare machine were dramatically improved, a HUGE percentage of passengers would simply be unable to pay. So this option should no longer be on anybody’s table. The end.

    Okay, this means that fare collection has to happen on the platforms themselves. The Trimet fare machines are unwieldy beasts, too large and slow for this application. We need something that is small, cheap to buy (ie, probably a mass-produced item, rather than something custom-made for the streetcar), cheap to operate, easy and quick to use, takes credit cards, and, just for kicks, is solar-powered.

    Like, say, the downtown parking meters?

    Actually, Streetcar fare boxes could be a lot simpler than a parking meter. No options to fiddle with — just drop in your change and/or swipe your card (it *must* take plastic! This is *essential* in this day and age!), and it gives you a two hour pass. Total time per user: 8-10 seconds. Perhaps a modified parking meter could do this? There would need to be at least one at every platform, and more at platforms that experience the bussiest peak loads of people.

    For some reason, I’ve noticed that fareless square seems to confuse a lot more people on the streetcar than with the other transit modes. Perhaps this is because the streetcar is newer, or the ridership it attracts is less transit-acclimated (it’s pulling a lot of people out of their cars for the first time, which is great!) Perhaps people will get used to it eventually, but if not, I think that the streetcar should either be free along the whole route, or cost $0.50 along the whole route (with transfers from Trimet being valid, but not vice versa). I’m somewhat inclined towards the latter; $0.50 is small enough to be convienient, and would be a barrier to almost nobody, yet large enough to provide more revenue than the current system, assuming that the collection problems are fixed. It might even give people more of a sense of ownership in the system.

    So, those are my thoughts for now.

    (By the way… there’s another Nathan that posts regularly here — he’s not me. Just to be clear! :-) )

  12. Nathan K. –

    I think you are correct in your assessment of the on-board payment system.

    I like your idea of the modified parking meters.

    Although I also wouldn’t be opposed to the TriMet-style vending machines. They actually are stock models from a vendor (perhaps with city-specific customizations), I have seen them in other towns. Perhaps the vendor makes something smaller but which shares common parts and serviceability.

    I do not support making the streetcar entirely free or having a different fare structure. I think this would just add unnecessary confusion. In a city as compact as Portland, transit should be experienced under unified policies unless there is a clear practical differentiation that drives the policy.

    – Bob R.

  13. A few years ago I rode the Portland Streetcar(took a daytrip on Greyhound and Amtrak Cascades to see MAX and the Streetcar running in action), I noticed the small on-board farebox. It might be a good idea to go off-board.

    Also, I only boarded one of our SOUNDER trians without a valid ticket once. I was on my way to the Tualip Casino, and thought the train would be a good way to bypass traffic on I-5 at least to Everett. The conductor just told me before I boarded to buy a ticket from the TVM in Everett.(Their was a line at the machine, mainly due to the fact that their was also a train boarding for Tacoma). I bought the ticket when I got off the train from the Machine at Everett Station. (The fare was $3)

  14. Idea #159,183

    Fare Collectors. On each car. They could keep the unweildy off (and the stinky nasty transients and bums and assure that people aren’t dragging on bags of stuff leaking all over the floor).

    Part two of fare collectors, put them on the entire line and make it a buck.

    #1 Fare Collectors/Conductors when polite and knowledgeable (re: historical streetcars) are entertaining and helpful to customers.

    #2 Right now one of the things that really bothers me is the streetcar is not personable. Because the driver sits behind the door with it closed, or at the least has the door open but is still very cut off. In New Orleans people regularly converse and ask questions to the streetcar drivers. It is a very common thing. So with Fare Collectors they could act as this “knowledge point” within the car.

    #3 No one is going to skip out on fare with a fare collector.

    #4 If people get out of line, are dragging around trash (happens EVERY day on the streetcar), are being aggressive and or offensive to riders, or any of the other multitudes of annoying and troublesome habits can be removed from the car. These events have occured and occur almost daily with the current design. If someone is bothering customers usually the driver simply shuts there door completely and ignores the situation. This is horrible screwed up.

    #5 A fare collector and a simple dollar fare will make more than enough to pay for the collectors AND probably make something to pay toward actual operations. Being that operations aren’t covered now wouldn’t fare inspectors being covered by fares be worth the cost?

    #6 The increased crew could also work toward keeping the cars clean and solid looking.

    Just imagine…

    Getting a shiny street car that is well maintained, with a smiling face to greet you. With a toss of a dollar your boarded with your ticket and ready to go. You sit down with a curteous ridership and knowing that you won’t be acosted by transients today, because the streetcar fare collector is on the job.

    I don’t know about everybody else, but this is one of the things I really liked about New Orleans Streetcars. It’s something that is definately worth emulating.

  15. A Two-Man Crew might be a good idea. Our Waterfront Line had a conductor who collected the fares, and also signalled by radio to the driver that he was ready to go. This often led to some people thinking the cars were voice activated, but sometimes the driver left the cab door open anyway.(Sorry about the past tense, the line is currently not operating due to the need to build a new barn for the cars). I am not sure about other cities in the US that operate W-Class trams from Melbourne, such as Memphis and San Francisco, but Seattle may have been the last city operating W-Class Trams to use it two-person. Melbourne has about 50 still running, and to simplify operations, they did some things to make them run like the old ones, such as switching out trolley poles for pantographs, and converting them to one-person operation.

  16. Would having on-board conductors really be cost-effective?

    The streetcar currently runs on an 18-hour service day and will soon have 8 cars (right, Chris?).

    Unless you have a backup method of fare collection for when there is no conductor on the train (which would be confusing, but perhaps sometimes necessary), you could cover about 16 service hours with two full-time shifts per vehicle. That’s 16 full-time employees plus one or two for management and backup, so we’ll say 18 employees.

    It’s probably safe to assume that these employees would be transit union members. Let’s assume that total compensation package including benefits, training, administrative costs and insurance runs conservatively $50,000 annually per employee.

    That’s an expenditure of $900,000 per year in operating costs. These conductors, by preventing fare evasion, would have to collect at least $900,000 over and above current streetcar revenues.

    With approx 9,000 daily boardings, there are 3.2 million boardings per year. At a fare of $1.65, if it can be shown that roughly 545,000 (17%) of these boardings are currently fare evaders riding outside of Fareless Square who would continue to ride if they had to pay, then having the conductors may be justifiable.

    However, having a smaller number of fare inspectors hitting perhaps 20% of the vehicles during a service day, may cause a similar amount of fare compliance with far fewer employees. If a fare evader knew that there was a 20% chance of being caught (likely being caught once per week if they persisted), they probably would either pay or stop riding. Same goes for troublemakers. A little intervention goes a long way.

    That being said, a fare inspection program should have greater frequency than what TriMet uses on MAX… I rarely see inspectors and if they were more likely to show up, a lot of the negative behavior problems on MAX might be dramatically reduced.

    Bad behavior in public is part of the nature of public space. However, too much of it unchecked is like graffiti and broken windows – it has a chilling effect on the perception of the safety of a neighborhood.

    – Bob R.

  17. Today coming home from school, the streetcar filled up again – 35 standees instead of 21, like in the morning!

    I, along with everyone else, watched as two people tried to buy tickets. By the time we went 6 stops, they had given up, since the machine was broken and not accepting money.

    All the other passengers were chuckling to themselves that someone was actually buying a ticket – must be an out-of-towner!

    Thank god for 3 month student passes.

  18. Adron:

    #4 – they aren’t dragging around Trash. For homeless people, they can either beg, steal, or collect recycleable cans to trade in for money. Unfortunately, beer and pop cans stink.

    However, I have lugged entire pieces of furniture – couches, armchairs, and shelving units on the streetcar with (or without) those wheel casters on. Pretty handy to have around, and it was nice not having a far collector tell us that we couldn’t do it. Not that there are any posted rules as to what you can’t load on the streetcar…

    Unlike the max, which apparently bans even roll on luggage containers and the collapsable carts that elderly use to carry groceries. I was on the MAX once when they forced off an 80 year old woman because she had a sack of groceries in tow.

  19. Unlike the max, which apparently bans even roll on luggage containers and the collapsable carts that elderly use to carry groceries. I was on the MAX once when they forced off an 80 year old woman because she had a sack of groceries in tow.

    From the TriMet code, Chapter 28:

    (5) No Shopping Carts and No Unfolded Carriages or Strollers:

    • (a) Except while boarding a District Vehicle, no person shall carry an unfolded or occupied carriage or stroller aboard any type of District Vehicle other than a low-floor light rail vehicle. Carriages or strollers must remain folded while aboard a District Vehicle except for a low-floor light rail vehicle.
    • (b) No person shall bring or carry a commercial shopping cart aboard any type of District Vehicle.
    • (c) No person shall abandon commercial shopping cart upon a District Station or District Parking Facility.

    And also:

    (8) No Oversized Packages: No person shall bring or carry aboard a District Vehicle any package or article of a size which will block any aisle or stairway on the vehicle.

    I don’t see anything in there that would prohibit small luggage carts or grocery carts, so long as they did not block the aisle or stairs, at least on the low-floor cars.

    Can you confirm that the woman you saw was not blocking an aisle or using a commercial shopping cart, and that she wasn’t being evicted for some other reason?

    Regarding taking large pieces of furniture on the Streetcar, if the regulations are similar to TriMet’s, it would likely be prohibited. Large, heavy objects can easily become deadly projectiles in a collision. That’s one reason why bicycles are only allowed at the bulkhead-ends of cars and by using racks. Objects like armchairs can block an exit during an emergency.

    – Bob R.

  20. I’ve been observing this topic the last few weeks. I am first and formost a fan of the Streetcar. I think with a few small changes it can achieve a good desired goal as pointed out by others. 1. A better fare machine. (Knowing that the installation of these was an after thought because the NW Business Association didn’t want to support a fareless zone into NW Portland is a core problem, there concern was increased parking problems but the fact is most the ridership on the Streetcar is from either NW area residence or tourists, thus only a small % of parking would really be eaten up by increased parking so the NW Busness Assoc should jump on the bandwagon).
    Ok, fare collections…this is needed people ingeneral aren’t as honest as they claim to be. An I know I’ll get flamed for saying so. But really people are funny if they think they can get something free they will try. I’ve watched as the current fare survey people ask for proof of fare and hear all manner of people come up with the most assinigned excuses why they don’t have a valid bus ticket or pass or fare. You know your going to take a mass trasit then take or get fare as you go, how hard is it. It’s obviouse that a lot of people really just don’t want to pay. But have to be coaxed into it.
    But overall the the true numbers of people not paying there fare to ride the streetcar seems to be far lower than one might think. Thus it wouldn’t take much to really make things better. So as mentioned in the begining better fare machines is pretty obvious. Perhaps more direct signage that there is a line were you leave the fareless area. (Another humors comment I’ve overheard people say to the fare survey people. “I thought this was all fareless” Bottom line is if you live in the city you know where it is and isn’t. Give me a break. It really proves my point some people are just willing to be completely dishonest. But I can understand about the PSU students who doge the fare PSU discontinues selling the redueced monthly pass a real mistake in my opinion most students live month to month. Not term to term as the powers who be think. Lastly, (yes I’m getting to th end finally). The most annoying thing I’ve seen is the obviously wealthy people who dodge paying they wearing there $700 suits and or Rolex watches or the woman wearing there $200 sunglasses but don’t have money to pay their fare. Funny thing is they live in the neighborhood that choose not to support a fareless system yet they still want a free ride in life. Well as my Grandpa always said “There’s no free lunch in this world”. I just wish some people get with it.
    P.S. the intigent people who often ride whiel during the winter ride it to stay warm. Really need a better place to be. Also, when they ride it to the NW neighborhood why are they going there “Good Sam Hospital?” I think so thus the hospital needs to aid in pressuring the NW Business Association to support not dis-support. I hope there something useful in my observations.

  21. Just to clarify, it was the neighborhood association (whose transportation committee yours truly chaired at the time), NOT the business association that vetoed fareless operation without parking controls.

    The three years of my life I spent trying to get those parking controls are another story :-)

  22. Yea, you have to buy the PSU pass within like 2 weeks of when school starts, otherwise you have to wait 3 months until the next term starts.

    It’s a nice buy, tho: $125 for about 11 weeks. I just got my new one. =)

    Unfortunately, most of my fellow classmates can’t afford them, as you need to buy 3 per year. Still, cheaper than a car, which is also why I only know a few students with cars.

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