Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 23rd, 2007

Fare evasion

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Photo by Richard Eriksson

There was a piece last night on the CBC six o’clock tv news on the extension of the fare paid zone to buses on Monday. It does not seem to be on their web page so I am going to have to rely on memory.

(But, usefully, there are a few facts and figures from CKNW who ran a similar story)

The reporter, of course, started off with the usual line that SkyTrain loses millions of dollars every year to fare evasion. There was no attempt to put this into context. If you talk about fare evasion in terms of percentage loss (the way all retailers look at “shrinkage”) and compare that with the cost of increased enforcement, then you have to think about it as a business decision, not a simple “right or wrong” story. Or rather “we wuz robbed” – because of course it is the people who pay the fares and the taxes who pick up the tab for the free riders.

The library has the same magnetic tag alarm system that many shops use. And in both cases, the alarm goes off all the time and nothing happens. I have even had to take back a DVD that had been rendered completely unplayable by the library gluing metal tapes to the playing surface (it was a 2 sided DVD so you could still watch the “special features” just not the movie). Most people in the retail business recognize that they need to keep shrinkage down if they can but they do not want to upset their customers needlessly. And that is what happens when security overrides common sense. As it currently does in airline travel.

The new system on the buses is supposed to reduce the risk of drivers being assaulted. Disputes over the fare being one of the commonest triggers for an assault. And the drivers did not like the idea of reducing assaults by the use of cameras, even though that technology has eliminated assaults on taxi drivers who ran much higher risks.

At this point they trotted out spokesperson Ken Hardie, who did his best, but succeeded in explaining how not only to avoid paying the fare but also how to avoid paying the penalty as well. (Since he used to work for the Vancouver Police you would have thought he would know better.) The problem is that there is no way for the Translink Police to determine if the name and address they are being given when they hand out a ticket is genuine. So when the fine is unpaid it gets handed to a collection agency which usually gives up pretty quickly. Even when the fine is paid (which is very rare), Translink doesn’t get the money, the province does. So there really is not much incentive for them to push harder. And there are a growing number of people (Ken termed them “frequent flyers”) who have worked that out and never pay a fare or a fine.

This is not a new problem. It has been experienced elsewhere, and it is pointless looking at transit systems in Europe that use proof of payment since their legal system is quite different. Code Napoleon reverses the burden of proof and requires all citizens to carry an official identification document.

So let’s look at what happens at systems that use the British legal structure like we do. In London, no one ever paid parking tickets, because the court system was overburdened. Parking rule enforcement collapsed. Wheel clamping was introduced to make the penalty of delay bite hard and immediately on the offender. And it worked. Fare evasion on the London Underground ballooned as the automatic barriers which read the tickets were only installed in the Central Area as an economy measure. Introducing lower fares and zone fares helped a bit, but until barriers could be installed at all stations, there was a gaping hole. And even then, people worked out that all they needed was a ticket that opened the gates they would pass through, not one that necessarily allowed them to travel the entire route. We called it “dumbell fraud”. But it was the use of that second word that inspired the most effective response to the “frequent flyers”. Instead of issuing a penalty ticket, the regulars would be asked to accompany the officer to the police station. An investigation would then start to establish a pattern of activity. At which point the offender would not be issued a ticket but would be charged with a very serious offence – fraud. Because there would now be evidence that this individual rode free or at reduced fares on regular basis. And over the time of these repeated offences, a large sum had been diverted away from the transport system.

Many of the people caught in London turned out to be respectable citizens, with good jobs, often in financial institutions. One of them was even one of my bosses, who when he learned how easy it was to defraud the system, could not resist trying it himself. And the slogan that we came up with for this new enforcement program was “get a ticket, not a criminal record”. Because people who work in positions of trust have a lot more to lose than a few pounds – or dollars.

I would like to say that the program was as effective as wheel clamping, but that is not the case. It still requires regular enforcement and reminders: a few high profile cases every so often, which are given publicity, something that we had formerly been reluctant to do, since the people in the public gallery love to find out new ways to beat the system. Therefore deals for guilty pleas were quite common as it reduced the amount of evidence that had to be given out in public.

The parking problem and fare evasion problem have one feature in common. They extended the range of criminal activity from a smallish minority to a larger segment of the population. The extent to which we are honest is not absolute. Most people comply with the rules and regulations, most of the time, because we see the necessity of them. When these rules are openly flouted, and we see no penalty attaching to the offenders, our assessment of the risk of getting caught changes. And when there is a risk of getting caught but paying no penalty at all, then the percentage of people willing to try to get away with something starts to rise. The job of law enforcement is to keep that line where it is or push it back a bit. What has happened is that instead of a small percentage of generally criminal individuals ripping off the system, more people are now seeing that they can get away with not paying. And they spread that message.

As has the CBC, with this story. Thanks a lot.

Translink of course knows all about what I have written. And they will say that London is different and that wouldn’t work here. But the idea of continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome is a useful working definition of madness.

Oh, one other thing I meant to mention. The CBC also dug out Rom Stromberg. He used to work for Transit, and told them what would happen if they went for proof payment on SkyTrain. But of course, as usual, they were trying to save money on the stations, and if they had had barriers, they would have had to have much bigger entrances and exits to allow for emergency evacuations. While the barriers are not cheap, it was the cost of these additional exits that killed the idea of barriers. Plus the fact that they would need to be manned all the time at every station in case they stopped working or someone with a pram or a wheelchair needed to be let through. Like I said, fare enforcement is not about morality, it is about economics. And the people who do not pay their fares are behaving with perfect economic rationality.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 23, 2007 at 3:28 pm

Mayor seeks to trademark ‘EcoDensity’ for himself

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Vanvouver Sun – front page – June 23

But the mayor says he has no intention of taking control of the rights to EcoDensity and that he was just trying to protect the brand name for the city.

Sullivan and his chief of staff, Daniel Fontaine, were scrambling last June to find a name for a city-planning initiative the mayor wanted to launch at the beginning of the World Urban Forum. They were going to use the term One Planet Vancouver, but discovered at the last minute that it was trademarked by an existing One Planet organization.

So Fontaine came up with the term EcoDensity and the mayor suggested that it should be trademark protected immediately.

But it couldn’t be registered in the City’s name becuase Council had yet to vote on it. So since it was Fontaine’s idea, why did he not get the credit?

It is also significant that it is not the idea we are discussing, but it’s branding. As though that were important. It reminded me of my recent gaffe with “Location Efficient Mortgages” which I thought were a neat idea but was told that one organization in Chicago had bungled the application process, so now we all know that LEM’s “don’t work”. This is simply intellectual laziness of the highest order. What is important about the blue box is not its colour or its name, but the fact that it is not a dustbin!

Actually I think the name itself is pretty silly. Ecology is something to do with natural biological interdependency. Yeah, you get greenie points for building that association into people’s minds – for a very long time you could not say the word “density” in some parts of the city since it was treated as code for “subisidized public housing”. The same way that the word “project” means something quite differetn in London and Chicago. So use of the term ecodensity may be more acceptable for the NPA and its supporters.  I cannot see the Mayor benefitting personally from this. Unless he tries to make the City pay him a license fee to use the term. Which is a stretch even for the Sullivan haters.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 23, 2007 at 2:28 pm

Minister inches towards regional road tolls

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Surrey Leader

By Jeff Nagel

“Before I say to people south of the Fraser or in the northeast sector that we’re going to start penalizing you by having you pay a congestion fee for trying to get to their jobs, I want to be able to at least look them in the eye and say ‘You’ve actually got realistic, viable alternatives that you’re not utilizing,” Falcon told The Leader.

He stressed he doesn’t see it as a short- or medium-term answer to traffic woes, but said it could be considered after new transit lines are built to the northeast sector and across the Port Mann Bridge and up the Fraser Valley.

“Then I believe we have the ability to say we’ve now got this range of public transit options out there, therefore we can now take a hard look at things like congestion tolling.”

In other words it is about as encouraging as the election promises being made in Ontario to invest billions in rapid transit. I do not see this as ” a possible shift from the minister’s firm stance against regional tolling” because it is conditional on a number of things happening first that there is absolutely no commitment to. Kevin will not have to deliver on his undertaking because by then he won’t be Minister of Transport (oh happy day) and cannot bind his successors.

… he does want to go to London to see first hand how a congestion charge works there …

Of course. Nothing like a free trip to London to raise your spirits and make you feel important.

[Critics] also say it threatens to warp traffic patterns as motorists seek untolled bridges, including the dangerously narrow Pattullo.

It is not the width of the lanes that makes the Patullo dangerous. It is the idiot drivers who ignore the speed limit: sadly it is not only themselves they endanger. And, of course the province has refused  to anything effective about speeding on the Patullo – or anywhere else.

Falcon also confirmed the province will examine the idea of selling drivers “green licence plates” that would let them use HOV lanes even when they’re not carrying enough passengers.

Well naturally. Take a good idea (variable fee HOT lanes) and screw it up so it confers the right for all the rich Beemer drivers to get access to any and all HOV lanes whenever they like whatever the impact on HOVs and transit. The only reason HOT lanes work, stupid, is because the fee varies in relation to the congestion in the other lanes.

The advantage of green licence plates is that they are easier to enforce and cheaper to implement than transponders and don’t have that nasty association with cameras that number plate recognition software would give.

My advice would be to go for the cameras and really use them to enforce all traffic laws. The roads of this region are becoming an unlawful wild west. Every day I see the rules being flagrantly disregarded – agressive driving, speeding, illegal turns (just today in the two and half miles between here and the library I saw an illegal u-turn at a traffic light, a right turn from the left lane and the use of a turn lane to overtake a car driving at the speed limit – so the overtaker was both speeding and using the lane illegally). You can use the data from the cameras to identify those who flout the law – and what you will almost certainly discover is that 80% of the offences are committed by 20% of the drivers. Deal with these “scofflaws” effectively (just as wheel clamping got rid of illegal parkers in London) and you make the roads a better place for everyone. Because the worst of them will have no licence – or one that has been suspended – and no insurance. And the rest of time the cameras can collect tolls as well as speeding tickets.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 23, 2007 at 2:13 pm