Saturday, July 20, 2013

Is fare evasion really a problem?

(continued from previous post)

Something that caught my eye in the MBTA ROC report was that it was the first time that I've seen anyone take a real crack at estimating fare evasion. Usually the T just makes up numbers. In this case, it was CTPS that supplied the data, which is found in Appendix D. The ROC is proposing that the student pass program would eliminate the "need" for the "front door-only policy" that is currently in effect. I don't think that the "front door-only policy" was ever a good idea at all, student passes or not, but let's take a look at the data that we finally get to see.

A few notes: This table claims that FY12 trips on Light Rail were at 52,418,000 and Heavy Rail 128,803,000 which, if true, represents a decline of over 20,000,000 trips in each mode, down from what's shown in FY11 NTD data. That seems strange, even considering the fare hike. On the other hand, Bus and Trackless Trolley ridership is up by a million or so.

The table at the bottom shows "Non-AFC" Light Rail trips as being about 12% of all Light Rail trips, but there's no rationale given for that 12%. It's hard to reconstruct this number without knowing how many of the trips counted came through fare-gates and how many were surface-originating.

There's a similar problem when comparing the Total "Evasion" count to Non-AFC Trips, which is about 32% but I have no idea where that proportion is sourced from either.

The average fare is scaled by a factor of 1.25 -- presumably due to the fare hike of last year, and because the average fare is otherwise being determined from FY11 data.

The top table seems to indicate that the rate of people using the rear door is about 9% of riders. Caveat: this doesn't mean they were not paying, it just means nobody checked -- the MBTA's old "Show'n'Go" policy encouraged folks to use the rear door but they would be counted as "DNP" under this category.

At the bottom, there is a handwritten note that $912,000 was lost "from rear door" and this is quoted in the report as "lost approximately one million dollars per year." Putting aside all the other concerns from above, let's assume this is true. The lost million dollars sounds pretty significant, but let's put it in context. The table claims that there were 52.4 million trips on Light Rail at an average fare of $1.21 per trip. That means a total revenue of $63.4 million. If one million in revenue was lost, then that means a loss rate of 1.5% which is significantly lower than 9%, and even lower than past estimates of 2-4%.

In pretty much any system, a 1.5% fare evasion rate would be regarded as a resounding success. Nothing is perfect, and fare collection has very significant costs. Trying to pursue the last 1% could easily cost more than it's worth. And that's assuming that the revenue was "lost" which is not necessarily true. It could be mostly people with passes.

If these numbers are actually correct (admittedly, I am starting to doubt) then there is no reason to pursue fare evasion as an issue. It's a total waste of time and money that will actually cost more than it will collect. And it also harms the riding public, by slowing down trains, bunching them up, dragging down performance and schedules. And that costs real money: if extra trains are needed then you're talking over $200/vehicle hour just to keep on schedule. And that doesn't count the time-cost to passengers on board, something which T management never seems to think about, because they treats their customers like their time is worthless. Likely a holdover attitude from the bad old days of "managed decline": when the T was supposed to die in favor of universal car ownership.

Even if the fare evasion rate was doubled to 3%, that would still not be significant enough to worry about. When should it be worried about? That's easy: when the cost of enforcement is lower than the cost of loss. And the first step towards understanding that is getting real data.

Moral grandstanding about fare evasion is selfish and foolish. Show me the numbers, show me the money, don't waste my time.

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