Archive | Fares and Rider Policies

TriMet to study OPAL’s Campaign for a Fair Transfer

The TriMet board today, before a packed house, considered a proposal from OPAL, the “Campaign for a Fair Transfer“, which would extend the validity of single-ride tickets to address equity issues in public transit. OPAL, an advocacy group which focuses on environmental and economic justice issues, claims that the reductions in service over the past few years have made certain trips on the TriMet system impossible on a single-ride ticket under current policies–and that as these extra-long trips are generally only undertaken by the transit-dependent, this has a disparate impact on the poor. OPAL also argues that the transfer policy is unfair to bus riders. Their proposal is to make MAX tickets and bus transfers alike valid for 3 hours from the time of purchase or validation, and to make tickets purchased or validated after 7PM valid until the end of the service day.

After several hours of passionate testimony, the TriMet board voted to formally study the matter. Board president Richard Van Beveren indicated that the proposal would be likely adopted outright under better economic circumstances–“If we were in a normal environment, man, we would be all over this.” OPAL was generally satisfied with the outcome, as co-director Joseph Santos-Lyons called it “definitely a step not only in our transfer issue, but in the board opening up to public communication.”
Revenue Impact

One issue of debate would be the revenue impact of such a transition. While the financial impact of permitting long trips to be made with a single fare would probably be minimal; a three-hour transfer window would also permit many round-trips to be made with a single ticket which presently require two. There have been various estimates floated about as to how much the proposal would cost–according to Opal, a preliminary analysis of the 3 hour transfer suggests lost revenue would be between $1-$2 million dollars, offset by new revenue from additional trips projected between $500,000 to $800,000. TriMet itself claims a net cost to the agency of $1.8 million to $3.2 million (for the 3 hour transfer plus the unlimited use after 7PM fare), down from an admittedly-flawed initial estimate of over $5 million. Portland Afoot has a good summary of the various arguments concerning revenue here.

Regardless of the financial impact, the proposal has proven popular, with diverse organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and AORTA endorsing it.

Better routes to take?

Speaking personally, I think the 3-hour transfer idea is a good one, at least for an all-zone ticket. (For a 1-2 zone ticket, two hours should be sufficient, barring a few hellacious suburb-to-suburb commutes I can think of). Single journeys on the system shouldn’t require more than a single ticket to complete. The Portland metro area is small enough that any trip which requires three hours represents a failure of planning; the added time riding (and waiting at transfer points) serpentine routes confers no benefit whatsoever on the passenger.

The unlimited-use-after-seven part I have a few more issues with–mainly, this strikes me as a way to subsidize casual users of transit who ride the system to and from their evening entertainment downtown (Blazers/Timbers games, nightclubs, concert halls, etc); there is no real reason to give this demographic a break on price. (Breaks should go to frequent users and the poor; not to club-hopping yuppies). There probably are some service employees at the same venues who would benefit from this proposal, needing one ticket rather than two to get to work and back; but even there this seems overly targeted towards a specific segment of the workforce.

An alternative I would consider is a five-hour ticket; which is good for unlimited use of the system in a five hour window (or until closing if bought after seven); this should cost more than a single-ride ticket but less than two single-ride tickets (say $3.75-$4 for all-zone). It would still provide benefit to riders using transit for non-work trips (as well as some part-time employees), and have the additional advantage of reducing long queues at ticket machines after events let out, without unduly subsidizing the restaurant crowd.

One thing that strikes me about OPAL’s proposal is that many of the intended beneficiaries are commuters–people using transit to get to and from jobs. In this case, these commuters often use TriMet for journeys where transit is highly inconvenient, because they have no other choice. Most commuters who use transit regularly, rather than purchasing single-ride tickets, choose instead to buy a pass: a monthly adult all-zone pass costs $92, about the price of 38 single-ride tickets–a nearly 40% discount over single-ride tickets, assuming two trips per day. (A year pass can save you even more, but requires you spend $1k up front). 14- and 7-day passes are also available; the discount for these is slightly less. However, many people in poverty may find the cash outlay for a TriMet pass to be difficult to justify, even for a $24 7-day pass; thus may end up choosing to use single-ride tickets instead (possibly paying more in the process). It’s often been noted that it’s expensive to be poor; and one big reason is that limited cash flow limits one’s ability to buy in bulk and enjoy volume discounts on purchases.

Some transit-dependent riders also may have sufficiently irregular schedules that a buying a consecutive-days pass isn’t an economical idea. TriMet does permit ticket purchases in groups of ten, but (strangely) offers no financial discount for doing so: a book of 10 all-zone tickets costs $24, same as ten single-ride tickets. Other than the conveniences of not having to watch the MAX leave while you are waiting in line for the infernally slow ticket machines to spit out your ticket (or hoping the fare inspector buys the “sorry I forgot to validate it” line after you make journey after journey on the same unvalidated ticket), there’s presently no reason to buy MAX tickets in bulk. Given that, I think it would be a useful idea for TriMet to either a) provide discount pricing on single-ride tickets bought in bulk, such as 10 tickets for $18; or b) provided “separable” multi-day passes, good for a given number of days but not necessarily consecutive, and needing validation on the days used. Or both. A separable 5-day pass, for $18 or so, or even a 3-day pass for $12, seem like reasonable offerings.

And of course, all of this assumes the current system of paper tickets and passes is continued, along with the current zone system. Switching to a modern electronic fare-collection system would enable many other possibilities above and beyond the simplistic ideas contained herein.

But regardless of the specific mechanisms employed, it would be beneficial to all involved were the agency to find better ways to make the system accessible to and affordable by its most vulnerable and dependent customers. The poor have borne the brunt of the recent service cuts and price increases; the rest of us can more easily avoid the former and afford the latter. Demand for transit is generally highly elastic; it’s a common mistake to assume a fixed pool of trips and that lowering prices won’t produce an increase in demand. It’s easy for transit agencies to be caught up in the dreaded death spiral; but reversing such spirals and driving demand often requires investments to be made. TriMet is willing to make such investments for expansion of its rail system. It should be equally willing, and not so quick to plead poverty, to keep the core of its customer base happy–and to treat them like customers instead of like hostages.

How TriMet loses over $85k/year to credit card thieves.

Credit card thieves are buying TriMet passes with stolen credit cards and reselling them to transit users for cash (at a discount), costing the agency $85k per year.
The Oregonian‘s Joseph Rose has the story.

Apparently, credit card thieves have figured out a good way to quickly turn stolen plastic into cash before the theft is discovered and the card is cancelled: Use them at TriMet ticket machines to buy monthly TriMet passes ($88), a transaction which does not require any identification, PIN number, or signature, and then sell them for cash (often $20) to transit passengers.

What happens when this occurs? The thieves, assuming they are not caught, get the $20. Whoever buys these passes gets a good deal on the pass–as TriMet passes are non-electronic and non-personalized, there is no way for the agency to revoke the pass. The person whose card it is, assuming the theft is properly recorded, gets their money back. The loser? TriMet, who has to eat the chargeback. According to Rose, TriMet lost over $85k last year to this scam.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that no ID, PIN number, or other form of security, other than a credit card, is needed to purchase monthly passes at vending machines. TriMet could upgrade the security of its ticketing machines (bank ATMs require PINs and frequently come with cameras, if nothing else to snap pictures of fraudsters that could assist the police in catching them). But according to spokesperson Mary Fetsch, upgrading the ticketing machines to deter this sort of fraud would cost more than what TriMet loses each year. As she put it, “its the cost of doing business”.

A better way to put a stop to this, and provide lots of other advantages to passengers–electronic ticketing. If nothing else, it would permit TriMet to revoke fraudulently-purchased passes, so it isn’t providing free bus rides–and were TriMet to crack down in this fashion, word would probably get out and there would no longer be a market for stolen passes in the first place.

TriMet’s bizarro fare enforcement policy

TriMet’s broken fare enforcement policy for its busses.
I mentioned it in the open thread, but I will repeat it here. Before you go read the rest of this article, go read Michael Anderson’s excellent report on fare enforcement on TriMet. Go read it now, and come back and click through when you are done.
As Michael notes, TriMet let go of nearly 3/4 of its fare enforcement staff last September. And as expected, fare evasion has shot up considerably. What the optimum number of fare inspectors is, I don’t know–but as indicated in the report, TriMet has seven full-time inspectors covering 1500 miles of lines (bus and MAX; WES has onboard conductors so in theory does not need separate fare enforcement).

The need for fare inspectors on MAX, a service which openly operates on the proof-of-payment system, is obvious. But there’s only 50-odd miles of MAX tracks, not 1500. So what gives?

Types of fare enforcement

Ignoring systems which don’t have fares, there are essentially three types of fare enforcement systems:

  • Secure platform: In a secure platform system, all places at which one can board a transit system are secured–entry into stations or platforms requires proof of payment of fare. Such systems are commonly referred to as “turnstiles” or “fare gates” in the trade, and many such systems also require proof of payment on exiting, to support enforcement of variable fare policies. There are a few MAX stations secured in this manner, but in general, TriMet doesn’t operate on this principle. This is generally found with grade-separated metros where access to stations can be easily controlled; surface light rail and local bus service is incompatible with this.
  • Secure vehicle: In a secure vehicle system, often called “pay the driver” or “pay as you board”, proof of payment must be presented in order to board a vehicle. Generally, technical barriers like turnstiles are not possible on board, so enforcement is by humans–the driver or an onboard conductor.
  • Neither. The third choice is to secure neither vehicles nor platforms. When doing this, either fare enforcement is not done (“the honor system”) or random inspection of passengers is done, who must possess proof of payment and show it to inspectors on demand (thus, “proof of payment”). This is the least intrusive and most flexible system, as it permits things like all-door boarding, street-level boarding, and other niceties. The problem, though, is it is the easiest system for scofflaws to abuse.

MAX, as mentioned above, uses proof-of-payment, with a few secure platforms located in neighborhoods where fare-jumpers are known to originate. The Portland Streetcar uses proof-of-payment as well. WES, with onboard conductors, is essentially secure-vehicle.

But what about the busses?

The dirty little secret

A not-very-well-kept-secret about the busses is that they essentially operate on proof-of-payment as well. But many people think that busses operate on the pay-as-you-board principle.

And it sure looks like it.

When you step on a TriMet bus, the driver generally asks to see proof of payment–either a pass, or a valid transfer or rail ticket, or two-bucks-and-change dropped into the hopper. And you only get to board at the front door–the back door is for egress only. But a subtle thing happens if you pay cash, that ought to tip you off: the driver hands you a transfer slip, whether you ask or not.

Normally, transit agencies which operate on pay-the-driver only issue transfer slips to those passengers who request one–typically, those passengers who actually have to transfer to another vehicle to complete a journey. After all, transfer slips can be used by scofflaws to avoid fares on subsequent trips–even if drivers are thorough about ensuring they are unexpired, they can be passed from one passenger to another. And once a passenger has got past the driver, she’s presumed to be on board lawfully, so no reason to hand her a piece of litter.

But on TriMet, everyone who doesn’t already have a fare instrument in their possession when they hop on the bus, gets handed a transfer slip. And what’s more, as Michael notes–passengers who refuse to either pay or show a valid pass, are still let on board–fare enforcement isn’t really part of the driver’s job. You’re handed that transfer for a reason–a fare inspector just might ask to see it.

The worst of both worlds

What is the point of this bizarro fare enforcement policy? Were I to hazard a guess, it’s that TriMet wants the flexibility of proof-of-payment without the enforcement cost. Proof-of-payment has numerous advantages over pay-as-you-board: Transfers are easier to deal with, it’s easier to implement such things as zone-based systems and time-based ticketing, and fare enforcement is a pain for drivers–especially when it involves dealing with irate or uncooperative passengers. But for it to work, you need to have a corps of fare inspectors to keep things honest. TriMet has demonstrated that this is not a budget priority, even before the recent cutbacks–so many of the trappings of pay-as-you-board are in places, in order to convince the deadbeats out there that drivers were guarding their busses. It appears that the drivers are the gatekeepers to the busses, but in reality, that’s not true. Fareless Square was a big gaping hole in this arrangement–people knew that they could board a bus downtown, say “fareless”, and chances are nobody would bother them as they rode out to Gresham, which is one reason I suspect it was moved to rail-only–but the system is there nonetheless.

But it sounds like word may well be getting out (and I realize that this article may advance this knowledge–it’s not my job to keep TriMet’s secrets secret), that drivers don’t enforce fares at all. And given the present labor dispute, it’s unlikely this will change.

But here’s the problem. This system gives us the worst of both worlds as far as the fare policies are concerned. Fare evasion is still a big problem. But the need to file past the driver increases dwell time at stops, especially for cash passengers trying to jam wrinkled bills into the bill-acceptor. And the driver still has to check passes and transfers, and issue transfers to cash passengers, many of who wonder why TriMet is wasting money handing them litter in a budget crisis.

So why not simply bite the bullet and switch to explicit proof of payment?

Staging the transition

The transition could be staged, of course–the lines on which proof of payment is most likely to be useful are the busiest and most frequent ones. The designated (and future) frequent service lines would be excellent places to start–on these lines, make it known to the public that boarding through any door is permitted (cash fares can still board at the front and receive a transfer), and that fares will be enforced by random inspection. The hard part, of course, is actually doing the enforcement–TriMet seems to have trouble policing the lines as it is; could it handle an open PoP strategy on a larger part of its network?

A second possibility would be to switch to real pay-the-driver on the less-used “social service” routes–the ones that frequently run empty and seldom run full, and which could be replaced with minibusses were TriMet to decide to do so. On a service with few passengers boarding, drivers could check for fares more reliably and without causing service delays–particularly for those routes that don’t cross fare zone boundaries. Differences in nomenclature or livery could be used to tell the two types of busses apart if some bus lines are PoP and others are pay-the-driver. And of course, if a line has true pay-the-driver fare policy, it need not be subjected to random fare inspection–the inspectors could be sent to those parts of the system where they are really needed.

KATU Covers MAX Ticket Machine Issue

KATU’s Brian Barker did a two-part story, last night and today, regarding the high percentage of broken MAX ticket machines, and the problems faced by responsible riders.

Setting aside for a moment the surely-coincidental but very obvious similarities in format and style to the “Fair is Fair?” MAX ticket machine documentary I did with Matt Davis of the Mercury last summer, it is good to see this issue getting some mainstream press attention.

Last night’s broadcast contained an error regarding the validation times stamped by validators, but that has been removed from today’s broadcast and the KATU web version does not contain the error.