A Sudden Surge of Fare Evasion?

To everyone’s great surprise, the TTC recently discovered that fare evasion is a rising problem on the transit system, according to reports in the Globe and the Star.  Is Toronto becoming a city of transit cheaters, or is something more subtle at work here?

Over many years, when the subject of fare evasion came up at Commission meetings, the standard line from management was that Toronto has a very low evasion rate compared to other cities.  Indeed, a 2007 report on the “Business Case” for Smartcards talks about Toronto’s low fare evasion rate and the role new fare technologies might play.  Counterfeit media are considered to be more of a problem than evasion, and the TTC worries that Smartcards for concession fares may be abused at automatic entrances.

The low evasion rate was routinely cited as a reason that the TTC did not aggressively pursue fare inspections because the cost was greater than the potential revenue gain.

Times have changed.  Finding “waste” is the flavour of the day.  Moreover, as the stories linked here make clear, this debate is in the larger context of the TTC’s Special Constable force.  In 2010, the City Budget Committee and Council directed the TTC to reduce this force, and the Toronto Police Service has taken over their function for Criminal Code and other aspects of policing.  This issue came up again in the 2011 Budget, and a City report gives the background information.

It is quite clear that TTC fare inspectors do not require the full powers formerly accorded to Special Constables, but TTC management is exploiting the current financial situation and calls for crackdowns on freeloaders as a wedge to reopen the question of having their own, dedicated force.

Strangely, we find that fare evasion, long considered a non-issue in Toronto, is suddenly a problem.  Have the numbers really changed, or is the jump from past results simply the effect of better enforcement?

Recently, I was riding the Queen car and was asked to show my pass.  This is the first time in over a decade that this has happened.  All door loading is regularly used on Queen, and the occasional freeloader will hop on for a short trip — after all, with almost no inspection, the odds of getting caught riding for five minutes is quite small.

According to the Star’s article, transfer fraud has jumped.  TTC transfer enforcement was simplified some years back by the inclusion of a prominent day number on all transfers, and different colours for each day.  However, a parallel evolution was for operators to avoid confrontation with passengers over fares.  Indeed, even with polite riders, when 30 people all board in a crowd, checking all of their fares is not easy.

For those who do pay fares, we know that over half of all adult trips are done using a Metropass, and there tend to be more passes used on frequent downtown routes because the population of heavy transit users is greatest there.  This begs the question of what the evasion rate is among those passengers who don’t have a pass, those for whom there is an incentive to cheat.

The Queen car’s 50,000 daily riders represent annual revenue of about $30-million, but over half of this will be from passes and various forms of discount media.  If the TTC is really losing $1.2m annually from transfer fraud, this is a large proportion of the riders using transfers.  Catching them should be like the proverbial fish in a barrel, but two fare inspectors working the entire line won’t bring in a big haul.

The move to any new fare system with any kind of self-service validation (e.g. Presto) requires that the system be enforced, and even the TTC acknowledges that it should start more aggressive fare inspection on the streetcar routes, at least, as a prelude to the introduction of the new fleet where all-door loading will be standard.

Oddly enough, the TTC still wants to keep its Special Constables (or whatever they are to be called) deployed on the subway system, with a few left to handle the Queen car on weekdays.  That’s not a scheme designed to catch fare cheats, but simply a continuation of the way the Special Constables have been used since their inception.  If the TTC really wants to improve their haul of fares, then Special Constables should actually spend more time on this activity.

Otherwise, it’s hard to believe that “fare evasion” is anything more than the latest excuse to perpetuate the TTC’s own security service.