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.