Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is once again considering ending the honor system on its rail system.
Later this month, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board is expected to vote on whether to make sure people are paying to ride its growing network of light rail and subway lines. Technically, Metro charges riders a regular fare of $1.50 for each trip on the rails, but without turnstiles at most stations, the rail system relies on an honor system that expects passengers pay for a ticket that pretty much no one will ever ask to see, or risk a $250 fine.
It's a question that's come up several times since Metro's modern-day rail system began rolling on and under L.A.'s streets in the early 1990s. Most recently, Metro completed installation of turnstiles in a handful of the underground stations on its Red Line subway about a year ago – a trial intended both to test out the utility of the security barriers and capture some data on the ticket revenue currently being lost to free riders. More than 300 fare gates have been added to select rail stations along various lines of the growing system, according to Metro spokesperson Rick Jager.
Those 300 gates are standing open for the time being, but could start to be locked beginning in July. Jager says that depending on how the Metro board decides to move ahead, all 300 gates could be locked by the end of the year, making it more implicit that riders also be ticket buyers. Jager says the system currently sees an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent fare evasion rate.
"But with these gates," Jager says, "it may paint a different picture in terms of the revenue that’s generated from ticket vending machines."
Indeed, a gate-locking test last year resulted in a reported 68 percent increase in tickets sales at a handful of stations.
And while it might seem odd for a transit system to take more than 20 years to try to patch up a steady leak in one of its only sources of revenue, L.A.'s not alone. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 13 other North American light rail systems – including Sacramento, Portland, and Charlotte – have similar proof-of-payment systems that essentially rely on the honesty of riders.
One such system is Denver's 36-mile FasTracks light rail, operated by the Regional Transportation District. The system has been operating with a proof-of-payment fare system since the first trains began service through downtown Denver in 2004. The reasons are purely logistical.
"Our station platforms are located on city sidewalks, so there's no possibility of physically putting up a barrier-separated system in those locations," says Scott Reed of the RTD's communications office. He says the honor system was the logical move, but also cost-effective.
"We've done a cost-benefit analysis and looked at the tens of millions of dollars it would cost us to install, after-the-fact, a barrier separated system where it's possible, which is a very limited amount of stations, and it just does not make sense," Reed says.
RTD believes the threat of people skipping out on the ticket-buying portion of their trips hasn't been a big enough problem — they've counted an estimated 5 percent fare evasion rate — to change the boarding process. And Reed says that most of the system's riders are using pre-paid tickets or passes anyway.
RTD does employ patrols to check for proof of purchase on FasTracks, but Reed says the associated costs are not extreme. And he points out that other cities' systems that have paid turnstiles require both station agents watching the gates and patrols on trains. "Our patrols do double duty," he says.
But he also concedes that some of those larger cities, like Los Angeles or New York, have significantly higher ridership. L.A., for example, sees more than 300,000 rail boardings on an average weekday. In Denver, that number is about 60,000.
"That amount is manageable for the system that we have," Reed says. FasTracks is expanding, with about 19 additional miles of track opening next year, and Reed says that if the system does get to a significantly higher ridership it would likely consider turnstiles or security barriers where feasible. For now, the honor system will suffice.
"At this point in time it works very well for us," Reed says.
How much longer it will work for Los Angeles is still uncertain. Metro's board is expected to bring the topic up for a vote at their next meeting, on May 24.
Photo credit: Flicrk/Tony Fischer Photography