Understanding Fare Evasion: Is It Inevitable?

Understanding Fare Evasion: Is It Inevitable?

Fare evasion is a problem that has existed since the inception of public transportation and will probably continue to exist long after the humble author of this article has passed. As ubiquitous and unsolvable as it is, there certainly must be ways to tackle it so that both riders and agencies have their best interests protected. Various efforts around the globe have shown us one thing – there is no silver bullet. So, what can we do to improve fare collection, improve fare equity and make sure that the service does not suffer? Let’s take a look at some modern measures that can help us navigate the controversial topic of fare evasion more eloquently. 

What is fare evasion? 

Fare evasion generally refers to situations in which a rider can buy a ticket for the public transit system but chooses (or is forced by circumstances) not to. An important nuance that we will talk about later in the article is when riders simply cannot afford to buy a ticket, or when they are prevented from doing so by faulty equipment. Fare evasion has a long history and is present in any public transit system. Each country has a different approach to penalizing fare evasion and in some countries, it counts as a crime under the penal code. In other countries, it is only a minor offense and does not have serious consequences for the fare evader. 

Why does fare evasion occur? 

If you go and ask a random person in the street why they would consider jumping the fare gates, they will probably answer that they will not even consider it. As things currently stand, most people pay their share to keep the public transit system working. But why not everyone?  

There are many reasons why fare evasion occurs – some are connected to the socioeconomic status of specific groups; others are connected to a badly designed customer experience. Different cities have different sets of problems leading to fare evasion, and there is not a single unified solution to all of them. As much as we want to, we simply cannot put each occurrence of fare evasion in the same bag.  

According to the TCRP Research Report 234: Measuring and Managing Fare Evasion (2022), there are three main factors that can influence fare evaders, and three main types of fare evaders.  

Factors that influence fare evasion  

Psychological factors:  

  • Satisfaction with service  
  • Perceived likelihood of being inspected  
  • Individual passenger’s norms and values 

Structural factors: 

  • Vehicle design  
  • Operating characteristics  
  • Infrastructure design  
  • Fare policy 

Demographic factors: 

  • Education  
  • Employment  
  • Income  
  • Gender  
  • (Dis)ability  
  • Race/ethnicity 

This classification offers agencies a chance to address their fare evaders with a more structured approach. Psychological factors can be addressed by improvement of service, increased awareness about inspections and increased presence of enforcement personnel, and improvement of the overall marketing communication with riders. The heightened presence of personnel has a deterring effect even if said personnel is not strictly of the enforcement type. This effect can even be achieved by the higher visibility of marketing campaigns promoting upcoming or running enforcement campaigns. 

Structural factors can also affect fare evasion. It has been noted in several studies that systems that use front-door-only boarding have higher rates of fare compliance than those who have riders board from rear doors, too – the further away from the operator the door is, the more likely fare evasion is to occur. Gating has been proven to be largely effective against fare evasion, but it is still not bulletproof. Crowded stations are also a weak point in a transit system, as riders who face long queues at TVMs or service desks are more likely to skip paying for fares. Last but not least, complicated fare policies can become stoppers, too. They increase the chance for riders who are unfamiliar with the system to pay for the wrong fare or not pay at all. In this case, providing adequate education about the system at critical points (service desks, TVMs, inside buses, etc.) is crucial. Providing riders with different fare media to choose from is also a step in the right direction, helping them pick the one they are most familiar with.  

With regards to demographic factors, studies have shown a correlation between income and a predisposition to evade fares (with income factors acting as under- or over-deterrent in deciding whether to pay or not). Age and gender have also been found to play a role – men, and younger populations are more likely to evade paying for fares. In terms of race/ethnicity, little data is available to draw any important conclusions. In terms of solutions for demographic factors, understanding the underlying issues is the critical first step to be taken, followed by tailored education and effective communication with affected groups.  

Passenger types 

  • The Honest Passenger will never consider fare evasion. 
  • The Chronic Evader will deliberately avoid paying for fares and might even take pride in doing so.
  • The Calculator Passenger assesses the situation and based on the assessment decides whether to evade the fare. This type of passenger will, for example, weigh the risk of being caught against the reward they will get from not paying. 
  • The Accidental Evader is most likely to be of the Honest Passenger type but for some reason commits to fare evasion – be it because they boarded a vehicle without realizing they do not have sufficient funds to pay for their fare, because the equipment malfunctions or because they do not understand how the fare collection system works. For the agency, this is still a fare evader. 

Based on this classification, it becomes clear that the range of the “why” behind fare evasion is quite broad. From those who will commit it only unknowingly to those who will protest a poorly set up fare collection system by not buying a ticket and those who simply have no other choice – riders are different and so is their reasoning. As mentioned, different transit systems suffer from different types of evaders, and just like the factors classification, this one gives us a chance to pin down solutions for each type. 

Why is fare evasion such a problem? 

In the case of fare evasion, there are two sides that suffer – the transit authority on the one hand, and the public in general on the other. 

Many transit agencies depend on fare collection to support their operations beyond the funding they receive from the government. In some cities, this funding may amount to 90% of the total agency budget, leaving only 10% to fare collection. But in others – like New York, for example, fare collection amounts to nearly 40% of the total agency budget. It is easy to see why fare evasion might be considered a bigger problem by some transit authorities than others. 

In the eyes of the public in general, fare evaders are not a simple nuisance. When witnessing fare evasion, an honest passenger might feel ‘foolish’ for paying their fare when it is so easy to evade. Many riders realize that fare evaders harm the system but are not willing to address the situation personally as some fare evaders can be aggressive.  

But, as some industry experts point out, most paying riders don’t pay as much attention to fare evaders as to other system problems.  

Another dimension of fare evasion is the decreased security in vehicles, especially in cases where drivers sell fares. Most of the assaults on operators are indeed caused by situations in which fare evaders show aggressive behavior. To improve safety and take this burden off drivers, automated fare collection systems can be used along with pre-paid options. 

What has been done to alleviate the problems with fare evasion? 

Since the inception of public transportation networks, fare enforcement has been part of the system. Different methods have been tried and tested, and the best ones replicated around the world. As there is no one solution that fits all, many transit authorities have tried different solutions at different times and nowadays, many rely on a mix of different approaches. 

Fare enforcement strategies 

Every fare enforcement strategy must begin with a clear understanding of the factors that contribute to fare evasion in a specific case (city). For this to happen, data is of utmost importance. Gathering transit data to understand and measure the problem will lead to better resource allocation and setting up healthy targets.   

There are two main ways to deploy fare enforcement: 

  • Personnel: fare enforcement officers, drivers, inspectors 
  • Technical: fare gates, turnstiles and other physical barriers 

Both have their shortcomings, unfortunately. Every transit agency is familiar with the balancing act of providing enough workforce to curb fare evasion and the cost associated with it. In addition to that, there will always be the infamous group of riders that present false personal details and can never be forced to pay their fines. Strategic positioning of fare enforcement personnel can work as a dissuasion measure only if riders regularly witness and undergo fare inspections. An instance of creativity in this regard is the Trok’It scheme that was deployed in Dijon, France. Under the scheme, riders who were caught without travel documentation were presented with the option to buy a pass instead of paying a fine, thus converting them to paying customers. 

With technical measures, agencies have managed to remove the human element but are still facing problems. Gate jumpers are a regular sight at bigger stations, and this is the most annoying type of fare evasion in the eyes of honest passengers. Not all gate jumpers are the same, though – this behavior can be dictated by a complex set of assumptions, as well as simple technical glitches.  

Fare compliance strategies 

Improving fare compliance with dissuasion and prevention measures is an intrinsic part of every strategy that aims to curb fare evasion. There are numerous ways to improve compliance: 

  • Marketing and education materials 
  • CCTV (has a deterring effect) 
  • Improvements in service and fleets 
  • Improvements in fare policies and available fare media/payment methods 

A valuable way to improve fare evasion statistics is to provide an adequate education. This includes materials based on all rider types – from those with lower education (in the form of videos or better visual representations on print materials) to those who speak different languages (translations can be provided both in print and in video materials). This will help reach riders who are unaware of how to use the system, which also includes tourists. 

The presence of CCTV cameras in prominent and visible positions has a powerful deterring effect. This is especially true for stations with the highest fare evasion rates. Knowing how to determine these hotspots can help an agency better allocate its resources and invest in more cameras. 

And the easiest way to improve fare collection? Provide good service and a variety of payment and validation options. Clean vehicles, timely schedules, routes created with riders in mind and a system that is easy to use will make people confident that they are paying for a service they like.  

What modern solutions do we have at our disposal today? 

Today, we have a variety of digital tools at our disposal to add to the already existing ones. With the advent of account-based fare collection, riders have much more choice which lowers the barrier to purchase making it easier to have access to whatever fare medium they prefer. By providing riders with more options to purchase and validate their fares, agencies proactively make it easier for their customers to become honest passengers.  

For example, unbanked people are not left behind – they can still use cash to purchase tickets or even top-up their accounts connected to a smart card provided by the agency. What’s more, creating a more robust reseller network with the help of digital customer service desks will help cover more remote areas; for example, any convenience store, pharmacy, or grocery now has the potential to sell tickets and recharge rider accounts. Another quite common scenario is for people who cannot afford to pay for a discounted pass upfront – they will benefit from a fare capping scheme which is possible under an account-based system or with open-loop payments. And with mobile ticketing, it becomes more difficult to ‘forget’ to pay for a fare.  

Apart from the variety of payment and validation options, agencies can use technology to better educate their customers. Mobile ticketing apps can act as hubs for trip planning and real-time information, as well as ways to initiate communication with the agency. This has the potential to improve the levels of satisfaction of riders which, as we have already seen, can be a major drive for reducing fare evasion. 

Last but not least, providing increasingly accessible fare media, as well as broadening the distribution network to include more physical and digital channels will help reach rider groups that are generally more susceptible to fare evasion, converting them into paying customers. Isn’t it surprising that digital solutions might be able to show the more humane side of transit agencies?