Bus drivers pushed their fare-not-paid buttons 2.5 million times last year to record passengers who boarded without paying the full transit fare.
While that amounts to barely one per cent of the 230 million bus trips in the region in 2011, the real number is believed to be higher because some drivers, frustrated by lax enforcement, have given up pushing the button.
“They’ve done it diligently and nothing’s happened,” said Don MacLeod, president of the union representing bus drivers.
He estimates the lost fares add up to at least $5 million a year from buses alone.
The recent provincial audit of TransLink found fare evasion across the entire system rose 120 per cent from an estimated $6.6 million in losses in 2001 to $14.5 million last year.
That’s less dramatic than it sounds – factor in a 21 per cent increase in ridership and a 65 per cent fare price increase since 2001 and losses should account for more than $13 million by now if the same proportion of riders cheat.
MacLeod said the problem is most prevalent on Vancouver routes.
Drivers are told not to risk a beating by arguing with fare cheats or delaying other passengers but 165 drivers a year are still assaulted each year, often due to fare payment disputes.
MacLeod said Transit Police have stepped up patrols on buses and are committing to do more yet, particularly after SkyTrain fare gates and smart cards are introduced next year.
TransLink has also been given new collection tools to enforce payment of fare evasion fines using ICBC and bill collectors.
It claims early signs of progress, with markedly fewer people caught without the correct fare in September fare checks.
The government audit gave no clear prescription to combat fare evasion, predicting SkyTrain fare gates will “dramatically reduce” the problem, allowing TransLink to thin the ranks of Transit Police, who cost $27 million a year.
That was the last of 27 recommendations that focused on making transit more efficient to cut costs, even if it means cutting service frequency on some routes.
The report listed five likely factors behind the increase in fare evasion:
– The 11 per cent fare increase in 2010 that made transit less affordable to some people.
– Expansion of the U-Pass program, making it more profitable to make and sell illegal counterfeits.
– Increased ridership due to the Canada Line’s launch.
– Media reports that fare evasion goes unpunished.
– More chronic fare evaders due to the economic downturn.
Coast Mountain Bus Co. spokesman Derek Zabel estimated fare evasion runs at 4.5 to six per cent overall and accounts for $6.2 million in lost fare box revenue on buses.
“It’s a problem across North America,” he said.
The Toronto Transit Commission estimates fare evasion at about two per cent, or $20 million a year.
Zabel said fare-not-paid button presses by drivers are used to track which routes have higher evasion routes – down to specific stops and times of day – for potential enforcement.
Talk of TransLink collecting new taxes or road tolls to expand the transit system has fueled a backlash on talk radio and letters to the editor, with many people insisting fare evasion be fixed first.
Some observers say the issue is being used to derail a serious discussion of how to pay for improved transit.
“The agenda is don’t give TransLink any more money,” said SFU City Program director Gordon Price.
Transit advocate and former Vancouver Coun. Peter Ladner said fare evasion should be fought, but it shouldn’t overshadow the big picture of providing adequate service as Metro Vancouver’s population climbs.
“To think we shouldn’t go ahead with transit improvements until we fix that – it’s a distraction,” Ladner said. “It’s not a reason to walk way from the funding discussion.”
While MacLeod would like more done to crack down on scofflaws who pose a threat to drivers, he also agrees fare evasion is insignificant compared to TransLink’s $1.4-billion annual budget, never mind the additional hundreds of millions of dollars he and others argue is needed.
“It really is a drop in the bucket,” MacLeod said. “If everybody paid their fare it wouldn’t get us close to the service and the uplift that’s needed out there.”
Turnstiles won’t stop all cheating
The provincial audit counts on a big drop in fare evasion once TransLink activates its $171-million system of fare gates and Compass smart cards.
But officials say some cheating will still continue.
As with other jurisdictions, dishonest passengers will find ways crawl under or over the paddle-style gates or go through two at a time.
Transit Police plan continued fare checks within fare-paid zones to catch those cheats.
But the audit also warns other transit authorities that have introduced smart card payment have run into significant levels of fraud.
“It is similar to credit care fraud and will exist regardless of the security features in place,” the audit said, adding Transit Police will need to develop more sophisticated investigative techniques to pursue smart card fraudsters.
TransLink officials expect smart cards will reduce much existing fraud, such as the counterfeiting of monthly passes and U-Passes.
The net savings from the gates and cards project is estimated at $22 million over 15 years. Part of that is through less fare evasion, but also reduced ticket printing costs, faster bus loading and increased ridership due to an improved perception of safety.