Fare is fair: Muni's crackdown on freeriders
If you take the bus or train in San Francisco, you know that there are a lot of riders who don’t pay. Paying the fare is almost seen as a voluntary act, a donation made by those feeling generous. Does that sound extreme? It's not. A Muni study last year found that freeriders cost the transit system $19 million in lost revenue. After that study came out, we heard Muni was going to step up enforcement. So what ever came of that? We sent our transportation reporter Nathanael Johnson to find out.
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NATHANAEL JOHNSON: When I asked Muni what was happening with fare evasion, they invited me to come take a look for myself.
On the way over, on the 14-Mission, half a dozen people got on through the rear doors without so much as a glance at the fare box. A girl sitting in back kept shouting. Loudly. Like drunk-Red-Sox-fan loud. The words she was shouting were, ironically, "Shut up." Then the guy sitting across from me casually rolled a joint. It’s this kind of thing that has some Muni riders begging for more law and order.
The fare inspectors had set up at 4th and Berry, the T-line stop just south of AT&T Park. When I showed up, an inspector was giving a passer-by directions.
JOHNSON: Can you just introduce yourself?
LARRY NICHOL: Yeah, Larry Nichol. I’m an inspector with the MTA.
JOHNSON: So how does this work?
NICHOL: We’ll set up with 10, 15 inspectors and maybe a handful of SFPD, and as the trains pull in, we’ll check everyone for their fare coming off. And then we’ll board the trains and check everyone on the trains, and depending on the reason they don’t have their fare media, they will probably be cited.
There are 14 inspectors and one policeman on the platform, which seems like overkill. But then the first train pulls in.
Five of the people come out the back door without tickets. Inspectors flush a couple more from the seats. It takes at least one inspector to deal with each potential fare jumper – to hear them out, take down their information, and keep them from slipping off. The people receiving citations react with self-righteous outrage:
WOMAN: I told them my ticket expired and they wrote me a ticket! And I tore it up, so they’re writing me a littering ticket because I refused to sign. That’s what happened.
In the middle of this, another train arrives from the other direction. It’s clear that if there were fewer inspectors, the scene would become chaotic. Even the people who aren’t getting tickets seem angry. It gets a little ugly. A man in an expensive suit starts yelling, and so one of the inspectors suggests they have a quieter conversation over a drink.
INSPECTOR: Why don’t you buy me a cup of coffee?
MAN: Am I talking to you, pig? I don’t think I’m talking to you. You better back off. Why don’t I buy you a cup of coffee? Why don’t you suck - Why don’t you get and deploy these guys throughout the city for efficiency, safety and fare enforcement, instead of putting 15 people on one platform that serves one line that has one train at a time. It’s inefficient! Goddamn!
He’s actually wrong about that. Robert Wolfgang, who supervises the inspectors, says when they send out one person at a time, fare evaders just get off through the opposite door. They can walk away, feeling even more license to take advantage of the system.
ROBERT WOLFGANG: The reason we have so many folks at one time is we can do 100% saturation and have enough people to cover both sides of the ramp and also handle the citations while still checking other trains.
Wolfgang says they pick strategic spots throughout the city – there are just 30 inspectors in all, so they can only do so much. And even though the average rider may not be able to see it, he says things are improving.
WOLFGANG: The behavior has changed a little bit since we started last July.
JOHNSON: How can you tell?
WOLFGANG: Well, by the saturations, the numbers go down pretty steadily. And we’ve just noticed by how people react when they see us. And we’ve had some folks in regular clothes and watched the behavior change a lot when the uniforms aren’t being seen.
But even here, in this sea of uniforms, there are some people who thumb their noses at the rules. Like this young man who had just gotten a citation. His name is Michael, but he doesn't want to give his last name.
MICHAEL: It’s $75. I probably won’t pay it.
JOHNSON: How do you get away with that?
MICHAEL: You know there are ways – possibly this information isn’t accurate.
JOHNSON: Oh, okay.
MICHAEL: You know for a little thing, I’ve actually run away from these guys three times before, but this time they had police officers so I wasn’t gonna run. When it’s just the guys without the guns, I run. This is my little private rebellion, not paying the street bus fare.
JOHNSON: How can you – do you have a fake ID, or what?
MICHAEL: Today I actually don’t have any ID on me so that made it a little easier.
This sort of thing puts inspectors in a difficult situation. They could have the police arrest everyone who refuses to show ID, but they say that’s pretty harsh. Instead, they say they just watch for the repeat offenders. They only go for the handcuffs when they start to recognize the fare jumpers. All in all, I tell Inspector Larry Nichol, it seems like a pretty thankless job.
NICHOL: I tell you what, when we’re not on the radio, I actually keep a little journal of the things people call me, which kind of strike me as being funny or unique. I don’t think you can read most of them on the radio.
He takes out a little Moleskin notebook. It has pages filled with epithets. He’s right -- I can’t repeat any of them on the radio.
NICHOL: But there are a handful of people who do like our presence and do thank us and when we run into those people. It kind of makes everything worthwhile.
As they are wrapping up, one of the inspectors takes an elderly woman’s arm and makes a great show of leading her to a seat. With grandiloquent flourish, he delivers her fare to the driver and returns with her proof of payment.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Nathanael Johnson.
A follow-up note to that story: Muni has just announced it's temporarily halting its saturation enforcement campaign, after immigrant rights groups said some riders had mistaken the operations for immigration raids.