What to do about fare evasion?

% journeys where fare is evaded (Metlink data)

Metlink released its Metropolitan Fare Evasion Survey on the weekend, which apparently shows 13.5% of trips on public transport in Melbourne in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for.

The figure for trams, where it’s easier to avoid paying, was much higher – The Age’s headline was One in five evading fares on trams (see exhibit).

Metlink’s disappointed me before with its slipshod approach to customer focus and they’ve done it again this time. The survey was released to the media, but not to public transport users, so we can’t read it (in fact the most recent media release available on Metlink’s web site as of today is 17 August!).

However fortunately The Age has cited some of the findings in this indignant editorial, Fare dodgers owe us all big time. I also stumbled across Metlink’s Network revenue protection plan 2010 which was released under FOI and made available publicly by The Age (I do like it when media use the power of the digital world to supply supporting documentation online).

Metlink’s Network Revenue Protection report provides some interesting findings based on focus group research. I found it surprising only a small proportion of travellers actually always pay the fare  – most people have not paid the fare at some time and some don’t pay frequently. The sorts of explanations offered are “because I didn’t have any change” or “because I could get away with it”.

Worryingly, the report argues that “fare evasion is seen as normative behaviour shared by the majority of the population”. Prevalent public attitudes are:

  • Even people who admit to occasional fare evasion do not see themselves as ‘fare evaders’ i.e.they don’t see what they do as wrong
  • Fare evasion is seen as socially acceptable i.e. it is perceived that everyone does it
  • Opportunistic or inadvertent fare evasion leads to more systematic fare evasion as people learn how to ‘get away with it’
  • Some customers are unwilling to pay for what they perceive as poor service delivery
  • The existing ticketing system is perceived as letting passengers down – it’s too confusing, too hard to use, etc
  • Poor value for money – despite the value provided by ‘bulk’ tickets, Melburnians are more likely than users in other Australian cities to consider public transport expensive
  • Some customers like the idea of  ‘playing the game’ and actively take on the system.

Many comments on The Age’s news report support this conclusion. Not paying fares is variously justified by difficulties with buying or validating tickets, inadequate information about ticketing requirements, poor quality of service, and expensive prices. Some suggest conductors should be restored to trams and some, with imaginative logic, say making public transport free would put paid to the problem of fare evasion (pun not intended).

Trams present a particular difficulty for protecting revenue because they’re relatively “open”. It isn’t practical to have barriers at city stops like there are at loop rail stations. Even with the best of intentions, ticket purchase and validation can be difficult on a crowded tram. Chronic evaders can “hover” near a validation point and only use it if an inspector comes aboard.

Whatever measures are adopted to increase fare compliance, there are limits. There’s always going to be a trade-off between minimising non-compliance, maintaining an attractive experience for bona fide travellers, and keeping costs within sensible bounds – this is public transport, so there’s a political constraint as well. Some lost revenue is inevitable: almost all retail businesses tolerate some degree of freeloading because beyond a certain point the cost relative to the saving in foregone revenue is too high. Read the rest of this entry »