Here’s an example of an ineffective tactic for tackling fare evasion.
A marketing campaign run by a despised company, trying to get fare evaders to feel guilty about not paying for a crappy service? A service which they actually pay for, through their taxes, apparently without getting value-for-money?
The Age this week reported a Metlink study showing that one in five people on Melbourne trams didn’t have a valid ticket, with trains at 9.8% and buses at 9.2%. (As is typical, the original report wasn’t made available online by The Age, Metlink or the government, which is annoying for nerdy people like me).
The Victorian government responded by criticising the previous government for its soft approach to enforcement. ‘We need to get tough with fare evaders because we need every cent available to go into improvements across the network for the benefit of all passengers,’ they said turgidly. The Age seems to advocate a similarly punitive approach. In an editorial called ’Fare dodgers owe us all, big time‘, they blamed fare evaders for their abdication of social responsibility, and suggested the government should increase fines as London did.
Sure, it’s a shitty thing to do, not buying a ticket. But with a recently released study showing that ticket inspectors are particularly loathed (again, study not easily available), a hardline approach will compound negative perceptions of public transport, perhaps even encouraging disgruntled passengers to take on the system. And don’t we want people to feel proud of the city and its assets, not fearful and resentful?
Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to find figures on the rates of ticket inspectors letting passengers off fines, but I’ve heard that it’s hard to talk yourself out of the fine. Most of the apparently ‘softness’ of enforcement seems to be inspectors not having time to check everyone’s tickets So the government’s suggestion of inspectors finally ‘cracking down’ on fare evasion seems a bit lame.
Metlink’s 2009 Revenue Protection Plan outlines the main reasons for fare evasion: inadvertent fare evasion, opportunism, ‘game theory’ (a simple calculation that savings of fare evasion will outweigh the costs of a possible fine) and service dissatisfaction. So while, increase in fines might have some impact on the game theorists, given that fines are already quite high, any benefit would be outweighed by its negative impact on attitudes to using public transport.
The best way to tackle fare evasion is to make it easier for people to buy a ticket, and more difficult for them not to. It’s likely that a significant portion of the reported fare evaders do so inadvertently: passengers may have bought a ticket but not validated, or been thwarted by overcrowding, faulty cards, broken ticketing machines that don’t accept notes, a confusing fare system, or the lack of note accepters on trams. Inadvertent fare evasion would be reduced by making the ticketing system more reliable and comprehensible, as well as reducing overcrowding.
As for deliberate fare evasion, opportunism is obviously a basic prerequisite—if you knew you’d be checked you’d buy a ticket. This is why the rate of fare evasion for trams is lowest—you have to pass the driver to get on. Having more staff on trams, trains, and train stations would practically eliminate opportunistic fare evasion. But not more ticket inspectors. If public transport is to be a relaxing and enjoyable experience, we need staff on trams, train stations, and trains to help out not just by checking tickets but by giving us information, as well as looking after public safety and helping the less-abled where necessary.
Service dissatisfaction also contributes to the decision to fare evade. Given the often appalling service people receive on trains (late, overcrowded, don’t arrive at all), or trams (packed in like sardines), they’re less likely to feel guilty about fare evading. Why should they, when their pride and trust in the public transport system is at rock bottom? So another way of reducing fare evasion would be to actually get serious about improving the system. Similarly, some people taking short trips feel that their tickets are overpriced; a way to tackle this would be to reintroduce short trip fares (the previous state government got rid of the city saver), or create a more incremental pricing system.
The government’s statement that they need to get tough on fare evaders so they can throw the money back into the system for our benefit is laughable. The way the system is set up now is far from efficient and mainly serves the interest of private operators. Their monthly fines for poor performance are capped and consistently less than their profits; therefore there is little incentive for improvement.
The operators also know that once they’ve won the franchise, they’ve pretty much got the government under their thumb, because no matter how bad they are, there are severe political costs attached to terminating the contract and risking disruption of an essential public service.
What’s more, under privatisation, separate operators have little stake in coordinating the system so it works better over all. The result is a limited span of hours, and transport ‘black holes’ in outer suburban areas, which also tend also to be less well-off, creating a self-perpetuating circle of transport disadvantage. When a public authority, on the other hand, manages public transport, less profitable routes are able to be subsidised by profits from the popular routes, so the overall system is better networked with more equitable coverage.
The state government’s promised central public transport authority is a start, and may improve planning and coordination. However, without getting rid of privatisation, it’s difficult to imagine a future in which people can go anywhere they want, easily, without using a car.