MBTA's Fare Enforcement Campaign Dead on Arrival

MBTA Fare Evasion Sign The MBTA is at it again, but this time they're not simply introducing more inspectors to roam the system with a campaign to get people to 'pay [their] fare' because '...it's only fair'. MassDOT Secretary Davey has announced he is introducing legislation next January to the legislature to make more penalties for fare evasion more severe. All that has been announced is the increase of the first time fare penalty to $100, up from $15.

According to existing legislation (MGL Ch.159 Sec.101), there is a 12 month grace period to pay the pitiful fine before they notify you of your late payment and give you an additional 90 days beyond that before they prevent you from renewing your license. That is, if you even get charged the fine by the inspector or police officer. More often, they will simply ask you to pay your fare. Furthermore, these fines are non-criminal citations that barely have the gravity to make someone think twice about evading fare.

While Secretary Davey has yet to formally introduce the legislation, I am honestly unsure how effective these big pushes will be over time if the MBTA cannot sustain the manpower for frequent and random sweeps by plainclothes Transit PD with concealed ticket readers/validators (like transit gestapo...). You should always feel pressured to pay your fare in case you get fined; the fact that people still don't feel that way today is proof this has already failed.

Further, $100 is hardly enough for a first time fine, especially when other systems, even in the US, charge considerably more. In Portland, Oregon, fare evasion will cost you $175 and in London, it is a misdemeanor for which you will receive a summons[PDF].

The most problematic behaviour induced by the current penalty for fare evasion and lax policy of enforcement is fare evasion on the Green Line. People often sneak onto trains through rear doors, especially on crowded trains. The incidence of random fare validation checks by plainclothes transit police is few and far between or at least infrequent enough to not deter even the least daring Bostonian (or exhausted commuter) from not paying their fare.

While the number of citations is up to 3,248 this past year from 818 in 2007, how effective has this really been in closing the gap? In 1984, the MBTA estimated a loss of $400,00 in fares from evasion, which adjusted for inflation would be twice that amount, not factoring in the last two decades of fare increases and record ridership (of which has been recorded through fare collection) the system has seen. The current loss could well be in the millions of dollars, enough to cover the cost of running a bus route or two, let alone the improvement of several routes as part of the MBTA's cost-effective $10 million Key Bus Routes programme.

The platform-side ticket validators should be leveraged as part of the MBTA's campaign instead of deploying personnel to simply monitor stations for a short blitz. They are at most major surface-station stops  so you can validate your card as you wait or as the train is loading and board at the rear doors. As it is, most people don't see the purpose, few know what they do, and many don't realise they even exist.

The tickets they vend are proof of payment (and a receipt if you don't have a LinkPass) and you are supposed to hold onto them, not put them into the fare box on the train; some drivers will collect it from you if you hold it up and say 'fare validation', but they're not really supposed to. If I board at the rear after validation and a driver asks me to pay up front, I politely shout back that I've validated my fare. Drivers should be reminding you to pay your fare, not commanding you to come up to validate.

The MBTA needs to stop with these high-cost, high profile efforts, properly deploy all-doors boarding, should have pushed for this legislation sooner, and should also be including into the legislation more robust provisions to ensure that tickets get paid on-time (or at all). The MBTA has botched up all-doors boarding and proof-of-payment several times; this time the MBTA has an excellent opportunity with the high-profile announcement of the upcoming legislation to really reduce fare evasion.

This legislation should have been put forward years ago as the CharlieCard was introduced and the infrastructure to support it was installed. It should not have been prompted by a severe budget shortfall, but it is possible the leadership to push such legislation may have not been at the top. Davey's predecessors, both at the DOT as Secretary and MBTA as GM, were administrative characters who sought to run their systems, but were conservative in their approach to change.

While Davey may credit them for the work that they've done, she should take the credit for pushing through the significant changes he has done in his 3-year meteoric rise to his current leadership position. So far, he is taking to heart the popular mantra in transport: organisation before electronics before concrete[PDF]. Is he the Robert Moses-like leadership Massachusetts needs for its transport network?

I challenge him to prove his leadership by presenting a unified vision of transport for Massachusetts in the next decade, because in dire times, we still need a vision to work toward and not simply a state of good repair to settle for.