Fare Evasion is Down as Muni Steps Up Collection Effort

popcops.jpgTransit fare inspectors on the F-line -- looking awfully similiar to police. Image: SFMTA

After months of non-stop bad news, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs Muni, announced something positive for a change: Fare evasion is way down from a year ago.

That's thanks to some major changes in the agency's fare inspection program, as well as the decriminalization of fare evasion, which greatly reduced the overhead cost of citations.

Before February 2008, a fare evasion citation meant a trip to court for the violator, and a lot of extra hassle for the SFMTA. That netted just $909,135 in court revenue for the agency from 2000 to 2009.

Between February 2008, when the SFMTA began handling citations in-house through its customer service center, and December 2009, the agency collected $1.7 million in citations, almost double the amount it collected in a decade through the court system.

Muni also expanded its transit fare inspection program, from 35 inspectors in 2007 to 55 in 2008, with a dip down to 46 in 2009 and 2010. While the program used to focus exclusively on trains, inspectors now spend 60 percent of their time on buses.

The result has been a drop in the system-wide fare evasion rate from 9.5 percent from April through July 2009, to 2.6 percent from July 2009 through March 2010.

The SFMTA used the results of its proof-of-payment study conducted last year and Transit Effectiveness Project ridership data to focus fare inspection efforts. Between July 2009 and March 2010, the agency conducted 326,293 inspections during 130 sting operations, and 1,276,593 inspections during regular inspections. In total, 28,169 citations were issued to people who didn't have valid proof of payment.

pop.jpgClick to enlarge. Invalid proof-of-payment rate by location. X's indicate "saturation" locations. Image: SFMTA.

About 96 percent of citations were issued to adults, the agency reported, and roughly 60 percent of all citation fines were actually paid.

While the program -- which also attempts to educate riders about the need to carry valid transfers with them -- has been effective in reducing fare evasion, it has also been a source of controversy among people who feel the SFMTA has unfairly targeted some neighborhoods and demographics.

"People are genuinely scared this is more than just a fare inspection process," said SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford during a presentation of the report to the agency's Board. According to Ford, police chief George Gascón and Supervisor David Campos have met with the SFMTA to discuss concerns about the program.

Out of 46 inspectors, eight are fluent in Spanish, five are fluent in Cantonese, three in Tagalog, and one each in Arabic, Hindi, Samoan, Nigerian and Vietnamese.

Most fare inspections don't involve the police, but a series of stings that have included police presence have been especially controversial. Some riders have reported being harassed and intimidated by police. Even the fare inspector uniforms are easily mistaken for law enforcement uniforms, said SFMTA Board member Jerry Lee. "Lots of fare inspectors coming at you does look intimidating," he said.

As part of Muni's efforts to refine the program, SFMTA Director of Transit John Haley said he's reviewing the 90-minute transfer policy that's been in place since 1982. Fare inspectors are advised to use discretion about when to give a warning and when to actually issue a citation, looking at factors such as how recently a transfer has expired.

On top of the citation revenue, Muni has brought in $3.6 million more in fare revenue this fiscal year than expected, which it attributes in part to the fare enforcement program.

No word from the agency, however, on whether this means all-door boarding could be rolled out sooner.