Diverging Approach: Molon Labe

Last fall, the Active Transportation Alliance released their Fair Fares Chicagoland report, a thorough analysis of the fare policies of our region’s three transit boards and made recommendations on how to make Chicagoland transit more accessible and equitable, with a particular focus how to improve for lower-income riders. The primary recommendations focused on reduced fares for low-income citizens; reassessing statutory farebox recovery ratios; an integrated fare system that connected the three transit boards; decriminalizing fare evasion; and free fares for area youth.

That report apparently landed with a loud “thud” on the desks in Metra’s front office, and the recommendations were not only ignored but promptly dismissed, as we’ve seen from last week’s heavy-handed new initiative to crack down on fare evasion, including the aggressive step of using Metra’s police officers to assist conductors onboard with fare enforcement. Coupled with the recent decision to pursue going cashless onboard trains and suspend reduced fare student tickets during high ridership events, this feels like the agency is trending the wrong way for riders who aren’t their core demographic of middle- to upper-class suburbanites.

Fares are a necessary evil for transit riders (or not), and on the surface cracking down on scofflaws to try to boost revenue rather than approving another fare increase seems like a logical step to take to remain accountable to regional taxpayers. However, there are a few ominous signs that this is focusing more on punishing riders than actually boosting the bottom line, considering how much money Metra’s throwing at this enforcement push. Metra readily admits they have no idea how much fare evasion actually costs the railroad (which means they have no idea what to expect in terms of increased revenues), and they decided the best way to inform riders of the change was through mass printings — branded with the Metra Police badge — distributed on ALL the trains throughout the system Friday morning.

But most egregiously, Metra believes the best way to crack down on enforcement is not only by using police to do ticket spot checks (great timing announcing a bolstered police presence to enforce fares right before Martin Luther King Day weekend, by the way), but also by adding even more conductors to trains. From the Trib:

Metra also reminded riders that if a customer does not produce a paper or mobile ticket or refuses to pay the fare on board with cash or via the Ventra app, “Metra may remove that customer from the train and police may issue citations for state and/or county offenses,” the leaflet said.

The railroad said Metra police will be complementing the efforts of conductors to validate fare collection. Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said the railroad has added more conductors to help with the collection effort. Metra also will be posting signs throughout the system about fare compliance and potential penalties.

Each Metra train has no fewer than three employees onboard (an engineer and two on-board personnel including conductors); this is a Metra policy that is not necessarily required by any federal or state regulations. From a railroading perspective, conductors have an important role in operating the train: they assist the engineer, perform safety inspections at the beginning and end of each trip, operate the lifts for disabled riders, and so on. However, most riders know the conductors for checking — or not checking — tickets. Metra claims the latest fare enforcement push is partially based on complaints from riders “that when trains are crowded, not all fares are collected, which is unfair to those who pay,” according to the Trib article. (Of course, when someone says something along the lines of “why the hell am I paying $200 a month for a ticket they don’t always check?”, that’s a comment on the fare cost, not fare enforcement.)

Just about anyone who has ever ridden Metra with any frequency almost certainly has plenty of anecdotal tales of free rides, where they simply never saw a conductor during their entire trip and therefore never bought a ticket. Fare overriding, where riders will buy a ticket for a shorter zone pair than where they’re actually heading, is a little more difficult to track and enforce. No one has ever really dug into fare compliance on Metra trains, and the railroad claims this new enforcement push is part of an effort to squeeze out some data they can present to the Board of Directors as part of ongoing conversations about modernizing the overall fare structure. (Still waiting on those Day Passes that were promised in 2018, by the way.)

The data that does exist, however, suggests that “fare evasion” — in this case, where riders are actively trying to avoid fare collection efforts — isn’t really that much of a significant issue on Metra. Julia Gerasimenko, the Active Transportation Alliance’s Advocacy Manager, noted in a terrific letter to the editor today that there have only been a total of 43 arrests on Metra between 2016 and 2018 for fare enforcement.

What is more of a problem, however, is fare collection, which shouldn’t be confused with fare evasion. Since Metra does not operate on a proof-of-payment system (which, spoiler alert, is probably where Metra should be heading), there’s a reasonable expectation by riders that the point-of-sale for the ticket transaction will be handled onboard the train, whether that’s launching the Ventra app or handing cash to a conductor. Metra’s own fare policy describes it as such:

Riders must present a valid ticket to onboard personnel or law enforcement on request or be prepared to purchase a ticket with cash or through the Ventra App.

“Ticket Validation,” Metra Fare Policies, Page 7.

Furthermore, Metra’s (non-criminal) penalties for fare noncompliance are slaps on the wrist: a $5 surcharge if you pay cash onboard the train when you boarded from a station that had a ticket agent on duty (which can easily be circumvented by purchasing your ticket on the Ventra smartphone app onboard, which is yet another way that the system punishes the poor), and the same $5 charge is also the penalty for overriding a ticket. Overriding also requires the purchase of an incremental ticket, which costs $1 for the first zone and 50 cents for every zone thereafter. In other words, the most egregious overriding scenario possible — let’s say you’re doing your best Snidely Whiplash impression and buying an Ogilvie-Clybourn UP-NW Zone A-A ticket to ride all the way out to Harvard — comes with a punishing fine of $10: $5 penalty + $1 for the first extra zone, Zone B + $4 for eight 50-cent additional Zones C-J, which would make your total trip cost $14 (since a Zone A-A ticket is $4). Now, if you were a functioning member of society and simply paid the correct fare from the get-go, the fare costs $9.50, which somehow is only $4.50 cheaper even though the fare evader got “punished” with a $5 fine.

This gap between the penalty and the ticket cost is because incremental fares haven’t caught up with the more recent fare raises elsewhere in the system, which due to rounding have inconsistent increases between zones: it’s officially cheaper to buy a Zone A-B ticket ($4.25) and buy an incremental ticket onboard to go to Zone C (+$1.00) than it is to buy a Zone A-C ticket ($5.50).) In fact, the fare system has atrophied to the point where it’s always cheaper to get a one-way Zone A-B ticket and a second incremental ticket to your final destination rather than buying a direct ticket. It’s really stupid, and we don’t recommend it because it’s a hassle for conductors and requires paying in cash, but it’s totally legal. But don’t do it, because Metra needs the cash.

Zone PairOne-Way Ticket PriceOne-Way Zone A-B + Incremental
A ten-ride Zone A-B ticket costs $40.50. Just saying. But don’t do it, it’s stupid.

Gaming this math out further, let’s say you’re a chronic fare evader: you live along the MD-W in Elmwood Park (Zone C), but you know there’s only two minutes between Elmwood Park and Mont Clare (Zone B), so you decide to get a $123.25 Zone B monthly instead of the $159.50 Zone C monthly and lie your pants off, telling the conductor you got on at Mont Clare every day. If the conductor gets wise, they’ll slap you with the overriding penalty of $6 ($5 penalty + $1 one-zone incremental). If you’re a gambler, you can wager that you can get caught up to six times in a month and still come out financially ahead. (Editor’s note: The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago obviously do not encourage fare evasion. Do not try this.)

In both of these nefarious cases, the solution remains simple: if conductors make several passes through the train at strategic locations, the fare evaders should be caught pretty simply, with no need to get law enforcement involved unless a passenger gets unruly after getting called out on the evasion. At the high end of the spectrum, the best way to fight fare evasion in a conductor-based system is to dramatically increase staff so each car has at least one conductor who would theoretically check every ticket between every station; however, that would undoubtedly be prohibitively expensive, which means some level of fare evasion has to be tolerated. Labor remains the largest expense for most transit agencies, and conductors aren’t cheap: I pulled the salaries of the conductors from RTAMS, crunched a few numbers, and estimated that the average hourly wage for a conductor is $47.05, taking the annual salaries of conductors who worked for the full year and assuming they worked 2,080 hours (40 hours/week x 52 weeks/year), although Metra’s onboard staff is historically known for working plenty of overtime. In other words, for Metra to break even on their increased staffing for the fare enforcement push, each added conductor needs to bring in at least $50 of additional, previously-uncollected fares each hour of their shift to financially justify the additional staffing. Considering the downtime conductors have between runs or on deadheads during rush hour, when they obviously can’t be collecting new fares, it’s likely that breakeven figure is even higher when only considering time in revenue service.

Metra’s official fare policy — published and adopted in November 2019 — gives onboard personnel discretion significant latitude in how to handle fare evasions: conductors are permitted to offer an “onboard fare collection envelope” to someone who is unable to pay a fare “as a one-time courtesy” (which could end up with a collections agency coming after the offender). Or conductors can kick the person off the train at the next stop and are required to immediately notify law enforcement for arrest and prosecution. That kind of discretion is almost guaranteed to result in inequitable outcomes.

If a passenger fails to provide a ticket for travel and is unable to purchase a paper or mobile ticket, onboard personnel may issue an onboard fare collection envelope as a one‐time courtesy to the passenger, with instructions for sending payment to Metra. Riders who receive an onboard fare collection envelope for failure to pay a fare must remit the applicable one‐way fare for the transportation provided, plus a $5 service charge or present a valid Monthly Pass to a ticket agent to void the fare payment envelope. Passengers who fail to send in the required fare payment may be subject to additional claims action.

Onboard personnel are authorized to remove any passenger from a train at the next scheduled stop for fare evasion, including refusal to provide a valid ticket or purchase a ticket on board and/or refusal to accept an onboard fare collection envelope to remit a fare later, or use of a counterfeit or altered ticket, including refusal to demonstrate mobile ticket security features when requested. Metra personnel must turn over any passenger removed from a train for refusal to pay a fare or for use of a counterfeit or altered ticket to the Metra Police Department or local law enforcement officials for prosecution.

“Failure to Pay Fare,” Metra Fare Policies, Page 9

It’s discouraging that, at a time when national trends are pointing towards more fair fares and decriminalizing fare evasion, Metra is going the opposite direction. It bears noting that some of these national trends are controversial, especially for law-and-order small-government conservatives. However, in this case, even the good government types will likely see the problem in Metra’s new strategy: it’s entirely possible — possibly even probable — that all this effort in combating fare evasion will end up costing the railroad more than simply allowing whatever fare evasion exists to simply go on existing. But bringing cops onboard to hassle people who can’t afford a $5 penalty and spending more money than what’s getting brought in to do so is bad for everyone.

To be clear, this blog does not intend to demonize conductors (or cops, for that matter), nor do we advocate for a widespread staffing reductions that lead to job losses. Even in a shift to proof-of-payment, we would advocate for a hiring freeze and transitioning some onboard staff from conductors to non-police fare inspectors to protect current staff from any change in employment. But while there is no official data regarding the issue (at least publicly; there may be some internal studies, but that’s unknown), we do have a dataset that can be useful: the Diverging Approach Metra Trip Log, our ongoing database of hundreds of rides on Metra over the last year and a half. Most of the rides are likely my own, but the link is public and we do get entries from other riders throughout the region. (Please keep logging your trips, or if you haven’t started, take the 30 seconds to complete an entry next time you ride the train and help us build a more robust database.) While it’s not terribly rigorous from a statistical standpoint since it’s entirely opt-in, it still provides us with a good baseline to use for some of these discussions.

Forms response chart. Question title: Did conductors check fares while you were onboard?. Number of responses: 637 responses.

While we don’t have any data on actual fare evasion, we do have data on fare collection. As of this writing, our log suggests that fare collection rates on Metra are decent, with room to improve: 92.9% of trips made that got logged included a conductor collecting a fare for the trip. Digging into the crosstabs however, there are definite trends based on time of day: conductors are most strict on weekday afternoon outbound trains, with 99% of trips having a conductor check tickets, while off-peak trains see fare collection rates drop off, bottoming out at about 84% for weekday midday and weekend trips.

Time of DayMissed Fares ReportedTotal Trips LoggedCollection Rate
Peak – Inbound1223895.0%
Peak – Outbound219899.0%
Reverse – Inbound211**
Reverse – Outbound05**
Weekday – Midday53083.3%
Weekday – Evening54488.6%
All Peak1433696.8%
All Off-Peak2919685.2%
Due to a low number of respondents, collection rates for reverse commuters are not calculated.

The results are pretty clear: Metra has a fare collection issue on off-peak trains, or at least if fare collection is an issue, it’s a bigger issue on off-peak trains than peak period trains. To Metra’s credit, I did notice on the two weekend trains I rode this week that conductors were more prompt than usual collecting my fares, so maybe the fare enforcement push is working. However, the data suggests one simple idea: maybe we aren’t at the “add cops to trains” level of a fare evasion crisis here, and the “problem” such that one exists is a larger structrual issue with Metra’s entire fare model, from conductor collection to zone pairs.

But in the meantime, it’s important to remember that not all fare evasion is “evasion”. Plenty of the fares are there. Either come and take them, or go to proof-of-payment.

The Diverging Approach Metra Trip Log is intended to be an open source of data. Please add to it, and feel free to use the data as you’d like! If you do go on some deep dives and publish anything, please attribute it to Star:Line Chicago. If you’d like to copy over the spreadsheet to run your own analyses, send me a DM on Twitter.