Fare Evasion: Access in an Unequal System

August 14, 2017 | By Lara Fishbane

At Virginia Tech’s recent Data Science for the Public Good Symposium, I was struck by the extent of the fare evasion problem facing D.C. public transit. The poster, “WMATA: A Study on Bus Fare Evasion,” explained that the system loses between 10 and 20 million dollars per year to bus fare evasion. To conceptualize that number, that would be the equivalent of every single one of D.C.’s nearly 700,000 people fare evading between 7 and 15 times per year, given a bus fare of $2. Or perhaps a better way of conceptualizing it is to imagine between 13,698 and 27,397 people fare evading twice per day.

Given that the projected revenue from passengers on the metrobus system in 2017 is $151.62 million, fare evasion causes between a 6.2 and 11.7 percent decrease in passenger revenue. It means that fares would have to increase by anywhere from $.13 to $.26 to cover losses. Hence, according to the board presenter, the recent twenty-five cent increase in metrobus fares. One Metro spokesman explained, “When someone fare evades, it does more than deprive Metro of revenue. It puts the cost of that ride on every other fare payer and taxpayer in the region.” So then, if fare evasion is so costly for the system, why do people do it?

Perhaps the reason is that a culture of permissible fare evasion has been created. Fare evaders could have been raised in families with parents who didn’t pay, or it could have been bred into them through the Kids Ride Free Metrorail Benefit Program. If people grow up thinking that they’re entitled to free rides, lax regulation at stations only exacerbates the situation. To combat the culture of fare evasion, D.C. would have to increase regulation at entry points, have tougher consequences for violators, and work to better educate fare evading communities.

But maybe people fare evade because they can’t pay for the service. Maybe that’s why the highest instances of fare evasion occur in the poorest neighborhoods in DC. In a WAMU article, one fare evader said, “It’s not like the fare is too much. I’m just struggling right now.” Another said, “You’re broke sometimes, and you have to do what you have to do just to make it another day.”

After all, riding the bus twice per day, five days per week, fifty weeks per year to commute to and from work comes out to $1,000. Though $1,000 is a lot for anyone to bear, it is a significantly larger burden in DC’s poorer neighborhoods, where the median household income of $22,598 is just a sixth of what the wealthiest neighborhoods earn. These are also the neighborhoods that are farthest away from the city’s center, making the metro an integral transportation option. Commuting from Benning Road, where the median income is $30,900, to Metro Center at rush hour is $6.20 per day whereas commuting from Dupont, median income of $118,327, is $4.50 per day. Low-income communities are, in other words, being taxed for not being able to afford living closer to the center of the city. Being poor is already disproportionately expensive; public transportation, a system designed to increase access and affordability, should not increase the financial burden for its poorest residents.

The symposium at Virginia Tech emphasized the importance of leveraging data for evidence-driven solutions. The data seems to suggest that WMATA services are not as accessible for low-income individuals as they purport to be. A possible solution is to offer subsidized metro rides to those in poverty. Decreasing bus fares to $1 for those living in poverty would mean increasing bus fares to $2.21 for everyone else (assuming that people in poverty ride the bus in proportion to their representation in DC). However, the intention of targeted fare reduction is to create a more inclusive and sustainable payment structure that reduces incidences of fare evasion. Therefore, it’s likely that the fare increase to everyone else would either be eliminated or lower.

Given the data, though, it’s ultimately on WMATA to choose a more fair payment structure that prioritizes equity.

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