You wake up and check the time. It’s 7:00 AM and you have a Chemistry exam at 8:30 AM. Your school is an hour away which means it would take you half an hour to prepare and another half an hour on the Skytrain to get there. You grab everything you need for your exam and head out the door. As you’re sitting on the Skytrain, it stops at a station and in comes two officers with a giant sign on their suit, TRANSIT POLICE. Suddenly, you remember something. You left your bus pass at home. The transit officer asks you to step out. You try to reason with him but unfortunately, the officer still hands you a fine of $173. What a nice way to start off the day, eh?
But wait! Translink doesn’t have a collective agency to collect its fines. Since 2002, there have been 250,000 unpaid tickets, owing Translink more than $30 million. Last year, Translink lost about $7.4 million to Skytrain evaders and an additional $7.9 million to bus evaders (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/05/07/bc-fare-cheats-translink-fines.html). From January 2011 to February 2012, more than 52,000 fare-evasion tickets were issued but only 7,540 tickets were paid-approximately 15 per cent (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/03/27/bc-translink-fines.html).
It is no surprise that there are so many fare evaders when ticket fares are quite high. While youth are entitled to a price-attractive monthly pass, passengers who aren’t students or who are over 18 get the short end of the stick. Monthly passes for adult passengers start at $81 per month for one zone, to the maximum of $151 per month for three zones. This can be quite costly for those who have limited income. Those who live far and work far would have to purchase a three zone ticket costing them approximately $5.00, which adds up.
“It is a highly ineffective system,” says Jessica Bruhn, a veteran rider of Translink. “Instead of giving penalty fees, why not distribute discount cards for those living below the poverty-line? I’ve overheard many transit cops snicker over how 75% of those they write tickets for claim they can’t afford their fare. Instead of laughing about it, how about trying to help them by establishing a better, more affordable system? If you have limited income, make the monthly pass more affordable.”
Another rider, who wishes to remain anonymous, expressed a similar concern. “As Translink has no competition, this allows them to do whatever they want and raise prices as they see fit. The consumers have no choice but to go along with it.”
A recent example included a new legislation providing Translink the ability to go after fare evaders with unpaid fines. Taking effect in the month of July 2012, the law includes banning passengers with outstanding unpaid fines, and not renewing passenger’s driver’s license or vehicle registration with ICBC. The rule will also apply to unpaid tickets issued a decade ago. However, only a small percentage of the passengers drive, meaning this would only apply to a small percentage of the passengers.
One of the major issues passengers face is the unclear and confusing zone system. The zones are divided into three coloured sections: red for Vancouver, yellow for Burnaby/New West/Richmond/North Vancouver, and green for Surrey/Langley/Coquitlam/Delta. However, zone borders are often left unlabelled on buses and Skytrain stations, and a majority of passengers are often unaware of zones, causing them to succumb to fare-evasion tickets. On the site of Mallvibes, an internet forum community, riders were perplexed by how many zones are included while travelling from the Surrey SFU Campus to the Burnaby SFU Campus.
A SFU student and a frequent Translink passenger, J. Ma expresses a reason why there could be so many evaders. “Compared to the Skytrain service where it is very consistent, busses are not. Sometimes, they can come late or come all at once, delaying future passengers. With consideration that Skytrain stations have a lot of people and that I am a student, waiting in line and purchasing a ticket can be quite annoying frustrating as we have to be on time for classes.”
Perhaps these small little reasons are catalysts for plagues of fare evaders. From the expensive costs of tickets to delayed busses, the importance of purchasing the ticket drops in value as these small little factors creep in to consideration for passengers to intake. In addition, the lack of relevance of prescence of transit police officers on the Skytrain station only makes matters worse.
Bruhn expresses that “transit police officers are either absent at most stations, or in hoards at a couple when they are assigned to do a fare check. There have been several times I’ve encountered threatening and illegal behaviour on the Skytrain and people have had to press the silent alarm.” Cheryl K., another transit passenger, expresses that “officers rarely check the tickets. When they do check, it’s usually about a quarter of the train that gets caught, which tells me the lack of professionalism and how unequal they are to each passenger.”
As well, Translink has been criticized for high costs of overtime of its transit police. An operational review of the Metro Vancouver’s Transit Police, showed transit police making twice the overtime cost, compared to the Vancouver Police Department. In fact, transit police officers make quite a hefty salary; for those starting under a year, officers can expect up to $59,441 and on Sundays, transit police officers are paid an extra 125% of their salary. Just in 2009, Transit police officers racked up more than $1.1 million in overtime compared to the VPD Patrol Division, which is four times the size and charges half the cost.
With such factors creeping in, it only makes sense why there is such a high percentage of fare-evasion tickets left unpaid. Fining a passenger $173 for a ticket worth two dollars and fifty cents is not necessarily rational. By doing so, it alienates the passenger from using the system and most importantly, it does not tackle the source of why passengers are unwilling to pay.
“Lower the cost of fares,” said Bruhn. “If you have three kids and you are a low income family, make the monthly pass cheaper and more affordable. The U-Pass is a great example.” A user from the Buzzer suggests a softer route.
“Give the evaders a choice. If caught, buy a ticket right now and be let off with a warning. And if you won’t buy one, you will receive a fare evasion ticket. Give people the choice to be escorted to a ticket machine to pay instead of being issued a penalty fine. Translink will receive what it wants: (A) paid fares, and (B) appropriate punishment for the serial fare evaders. Transit police will be seen in a more favorable light, for being allowed the opportunity to immediately correct the customer’s mistakes instead of being indiscriminately treated like a criminal.”
Translink hopes to combat its fare evaders by installing fare gates and implanting an electronic fare card system, called the Compass. Set to be available for the public in 2013, its installations have already attracted some criticisms. The cost of the gates is estimated at $100 million with an additional $70 million for the Compass smart-card system. Translink estimates that it loses more than $7 million a year through fare evasion.
As the public continues to wait for Translink to complete its fare gates installations, the message is clear. Fining $173 to fare evaders with no collective agency support is inefficient. If Translink wants to lower its rate of missing fines and fare evasion, it must venture into a different system, hopefully a system that can be catered to all.
Featured Photo from Richmond Firsts Voters Society