Friday, March 9, 2012

Counting noses

Two recent MBTA stories collided in my head: one story about MBTA bus drivers frequently not bothering to have passholders actually scan their passes on the bus, and another story about the MBTA doing yet another desultory crackdown on fare evaders.

The first problem isn’t directly a revenue issue for the MBTA, but it does lead to systematically undercounting ridership. That makes it hard to know how many people will actually be impacted by service cuts, hard to know where to add service, and harder to make the argument that the MBTA is worth funding because it serves a lot of people. When the MBTA says that they want to eliminate Lisa’s bus route because not enough people ride it, it’s frustrating to see the bus driver wave people onto the bus without scanning their passes.

A solution to the first problem is to count monthly passholders as a certain minimum number of rides each month. If the scanned rides on a pass are under the monthly minimum, then add the remaining rides to the ridership numbers. You can allow monthly passholders to choose a few routes and stops that they want their rides to be counted towards, and balance that with the actual pattern of scanned rides.
The second problem is a revenue issue, particularly when the fine for fare evasion is a tiny percentage of the evader’s fare savings multiplied by the evader’s chance of being caught. If adding up the occasional ticket is far less than regularly paying the fare, then fare evasion is not a surprising problem.

A couple of obvious solutions are to increase the fine for fare evasion and to increase enforcement. That way you capture both sides of the probability multiplication. But whatever level of fine and enforcement we decide on, I’d like to see one more item added to the equation: add the cost of two monthly passes and give the fare evader a pass from that date until the end of the following month. An important goal should be to change the fare evader’s habit of bypassing the fare collection system. By giving (selling) the fare evader a pass for the next 5-8 weeks, they have no excuse not to scan their pass for a while. Perhaps that will be enough to change a few habits.

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