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Public transport

Feb 22, 2013

Does lousy service justify fare evasion?

Any optimist who thinks civic virtue is flourishing in our cities should have a look at the ease with which public transport fare evaders rationalise and justify their behaviour


Number of fines issued on public transport in Melbourne in January 2012 vs January 2013

I’ve written before that 13.5% of trips on Melbourne’s public transport system in the first half of 2011 weren’t paid for. The proportion on trams – where it’s easier to avoid paying – was 20%.

Last week The Age reported that 10,320 fines were issued on Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses in January (almost entirely for fare evasion). Around 7,900 of these were issued on trains, nearly double the number written in January 2012 (see exhibit).

The President of the Public Transport Users Association, Tony Morton, blames the increase on a “ticket inspector blitz on the trains”. He said:

The figures look like active targeting on the train system, which seems to be Metro’s focus….There was a period of leniency during the initial introduction of myki, but now that Metcards have been switched off, the government has taken the opportunity to clamp down on fare evasion.

While there are issues with the behaviour of some inspectors, it seems to me they shouldn’t be the main focus here – it should be travellers who don’t pay their way.

Evaders offer various justifications for their behaviour. These include the Government’s decision to turn-off Metcards at the end of December, the absence of a single trip ticket, the cost and delay associated with Myki, and dissatisfaction with late and crowded trains.

Here’s a selection of views (uncorrected) from commenters on The Age’s article, who’re all rationalising fare dodging:

  • When will a single use ticket be introduced? I forgot my myki card a few days ago and fare evaded. Why should I be expected to pay another $6 + the cost of the fare?
  • Ah those poor amateur evaders. Pick a good time to evade like peak hours where trains are packed like sardines. Always carry a Myki with credits and touch on only when you can. Survive like me.
  • Agree with above comments, my PT bill I usually around $70 odd a week. If you evade properly and opportunistically you can save much of this money. Then when karma serves you a ticket your usually way in the black so paying it is not a problem.
  • I’m with you guys. Be smart. Evade like a champ. Jump on a Pakenham line train between 5 & 6pm. Inspectors will never subject themselves to the Bangalore style of travel. Pay the odd fine if you happen to get caught, but you’ll still come out in front. 
  • The system is so ridiculously bad that my conscience has gone far beyond caring. Think of all your tax dollars that were completely wasted on Myki. Those bucks belong in your pocket.
  • This system has been nothing but trouble for me since it started. It’s just insane. I’ve been travelling free now for a month on the trams since the last problems. It’s not theft. it’s recouping my tax dollar.
  • An inefficient system is created with tax dollars (our money) then operated for profit by a private company (metro) using punitive enforcement techniques (ticket inspector goons), enabled by our legislature. What can the public do? ….. take the only course left to you and fare evade. This system is so flawed it deserves to be ignored.
  • What i am saying is that it if offensive to fine any Victorian taxpayers for ‘fare evasion’ when it has been their overwhelming generosity that has brought myki to fruition. If there is any ‘fare evasion’ going on, it’s not in the side of the passnegers.

Fortunately these don’t reflect the majority opinion, but there’s enough there to suggest civic virtue and personal morality are awfully elastic concepts so far as some Melburnians are concerned.

It’s true the system has many failings that disadvantage users and make fare dodging an easier choice. As a matter of policy, those shortcomings need to be corrected to minimise opportunistic (and strategic!) fare evasion.

But the inadequacies of the system don’t provide a moral justification for not paying. For all its shortcomings, the system offers travel way, way below the real financial cost. It’s an absolute bargain.

But even if it weren’t, it’s as unethical to shirk paying the fare as it is to shoplift or drive-off from a petrol station without paying. It’s unprincipled behaviour – it should really be called theft, not evasion.

A big part of the problem is the way the system’s designed. Like many other transit systems around the world, modern technology permits vehicles to operate without stops being staffed.

That saves money that can be applied instead to other purposes, like more frequent services and longer hours of operation. These sorts of improvements attract travellers to transit.

To work, the system has to be designed to make purchasing tickets extraordinarily easy. But it also relies on effective enforcement, primarily by inspectors.

Prospective free-riders have to calculate the risk – the probability of being caught multiplied by the size of the penalty.

A key reason to have a valid ticket is uncertainty about whether or not an inspector will materialise. We know from experience with RBT campaigns that a high probability of detection is a significant deterrent.

If Mr Morton has been quoted correctly, I’m disappointed the Public Transport Users Association has again elected to play the populist card by focussing on the inspectors rather than the evaders.

Complaining about inspection “blitzes” shifts the argument to the means and away from the ends. It reminds me of drivers who insist the sole purpose of speed cameras is to raise revenue.

In my view, the Association should’ve loudly condemned fare evasion on the grounds that it’s inequitable and bleeds the public transport system of much-needed revenue. It should’ve supported lawful efforts to detect evaders, not quibbled about a “blitz”.

In his comments to The Age, Mr Morton also argues that putting more staff on stations would be a better solution to the problem. I don’t agree – putting staff on stations to check tickets would be expensive.

This is 2013 – the technology exists to save hundreds of millions of dollars that can be better applied to other more strategically important transit purposes. However getting that benefit relies on effective deterrents to fare-cheating.

Let me emphasise that I don’t condone the bully boy behaviour of some inspectors. I also think it’s imperative that the temptation to evade is minimised by, for example, providing readily accessible single trip tickets (or some equivalent).

But there should be no doubt that evasion is by far the bigger moral and practical problem than inspection. If they’re effective in protecting revenue, techniques like “blitzes” are appropriate in a system that relies on, and is designed around the need for, effective deterrence.

Fare evasion is theft – it should always be opposed and offenders should always be dealt with appropriately.


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35 thoughts on “Does lousy service justify fare evasion?

  1. Socrates

    When behaviour becomes habitual over time, people oftne invent rationalisations to justify it. I think there is a high degree of rationalisation going on in the “defences” of fare evasion. Overall though, Alan is right – fare evasion is not morally justified.

    Nor is poverty the main cause IMO. When you see a teenager board without validating a ticket, then start texting on their $500 iPhone, you know money is not the issue. It is even worse when it is someone in a suit who is obviously on their way to work.

    The real inequity with public transport is the whole suburbs that don’t have it, not the cost for those who do. We should issue more fines, and fewer warnings.

  2. Tom the first and best


    Electronic road tolling technology works as well as it does because of number plates. PT passengers do not have those and never will.

  3. Peter Parker

    Readers may wish to consult Metro’s ‘Customer Compensation Code’. Available in hard copy from Flinders St Station.

    ‘Other Metro Service Commitments’ (Page 5) provides for compensation if a service is not delivered under certain conditions. These are in addition to your rights if monthly performance doesn’t meet punctuality or delivery standards.

  4. Alan Davies

    The Age: Thousands escape fare evasion fines:

    Public Transport Users Association president Tony Morton said last month that much fare evasion was “opportunistic” because of the lack of customer service staff on the network.

    “There needs to be a full staff presence at every station from first to last train … it is simply penny-pinching to not provide that staff presence now,” Dr Morton said.

    “It is no doubt that some fare evasion on the train system is opportunistic evasion that might be avoided if there was a consistent staff presence on stations and people had an idea that they might get caught.”

  5. Dylan Nicholson

    (though mind you it certainly didn’t help for a certain demographic – certainly at Glenferrie station students, invariably male, frequently simply jumped over the gates, and staff did nothing to stop them)

  6. Dylan Nicholson

    hk, interesting idea – only issue is that with myki the card is actually used to open the gates at train stations (on the way in and out), which presumably does something to help prevent fare evasion. One would think that such an option had been considered before settling on a smartcard/distributed data technology.

  7. hk

    A fascinating discussion…maybe CityLink should be called in to apply their technology and experience. It works close to 100%

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    Russ, I suppose I was assuming that on touch-on, the machine would read your card ID, and do a synchronous request to the server to determine whether your last fare needed adjustment.
    A cloud-based system does seem to make a lot more sense, providing of course the network latency is low enough.

  9. Russ

    Dylan, the problem is the system doesn’t know where (or when) the next touch-on will occur, so the system would need to broadcast every transaction to every machine continuously in order to keep the transactions in order. That’s a lot of data.

    Even something as basic as online payments becomes a clunky system when the data is distributed. You can get around that by making a smart-card no more than a piece of ID that talks to the cloud – and that is the direction most all IT systems have headed for various reasons. But in that case having a smart card is massive over-kill, a bar-code would suffice.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    IkaInk I have to say though most of the station staff I’ve noticed recently don’t seem to be doing anything terribly productive, and rarely can tell you why there’s a delay or what platform I need to be on when a train is diverted etc.
    In Japan my memory was that every exit/entry gate was manned, but that was it. I never saw inspectors on the trains or anyone on the platforms etc. In Germany the only staff I saw the whole time was the on-train ticket inspector.

  11. Dylan Nicholson

    Russ, surely that’s easy to fix – the system just records the touch-off locally, uploads to the server asynchronously, then the next you touch on (which would require the full touch & wait), it can update your card appropriately.

  12. IkaInk

    @Alan – The PTUA’s position has long been to have additional staff at stations; all he’s said is that this would be a better way to stop fare evasion. I don’t doubt that it would be, you would greatly reduce opportunistic evasion. Whether it would end up costing more than it returns is another matter, but given that the PTUA have long argued for staff presence for a myriad of reasons the additional costs would be justified under their reasoning. I tend to agree with them on this point.

    The existing ticketing system is certainly flawed, but to say it is so bad that “plenty of evasion is perfectly justifiable” is hysterical nonsense.. – Without a short term ticketing option I’m simply going to disagree. There are numerous scenarios where it is simply absurd to expect people to pay $6 on top of a fare.

  13. Russ

    Dylan, a pair of scanners aren’t sufficient with a smart-card system because the transaction needs to be stored on the card. The card therefore needs sufficient proximity and time to generate the current to write the data. It isn’t clear why Myki specifically is so slow at this, but I suspect (have heard) it is because it contacts the central network as part of each transaction. Thus negating the main benefit of a stored-value card.

  14. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #21:

    Like many projects, they probably suffered from optimism bias, sunk cost fallacy, etc etc.

    4-5 seconds touch off! It’s bad enough it’s not instant, but I’ve never had that experience with Myki.

    Sydney starts the roll-out of the Opal card to trains and buses this year.

    Anything that makes life harder for even a “tiny minority” can be an insuperable problem with PT ticketing.

  15. Dylan Nicholson

    AD, they mightn’t have known a priori, but at least some reasonably early on during the development phase I bet became fairly obvious that it was going to cost far more than the initial estimate. As a very regular user with no physical disabilities etc. I find Myki a very workable system, and a vast improvement over MetCard, and I’m glad we have it. But there’s no excuse for how much it cost, and I do understand that it’s not the greatest system for irregular users and especially those with any sort of physical or mental handicaps.

    Tom, I gather Sydney’s system is a mess largely because there’s no smart-cards. It seems simple in principle to reprogram the myki system to switch over to an “approximate distance travelled” system. Keep the ‘don’t touch off on trams’ rule, but charge a fair based on the average distance travelled on a tram. Though I’m curious…are there are other smart-card systems anywhere else in the world that don’t require such a “fussy” touch-off, i.e. where you have to hold your card right next to the reader for a good 4-5 seconds? If there were simply a pair of scanners either side of each door that could automatically instantly detect everyone passing between them you’d eliminate the a lot of the hassle with the current system (though it would cause me a very slight issue personally as I often carry around my son’s myki even when he’s not travelling with me, but that’s easy to avoid and affects a tiny minority of passengers).

  16. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #19:

    I hope your interpretation of Tony Morton’s position is correct. But why The Age would give him three paras to explain the inspector’s reasoning if the PTUA has no issue with it – and why he would even bother – when there’s a PTV spokesperson who’s also quoted to explain why the spike occurred, is a puzzle.

    Still, here’s the possibility Mr Morton has been misquoted by The Age, so I’ve added in the qualifier “If Mr Morton has been quoted correctly”.

    That Myki ultimately cost $1.5 billion is unfortunate and a monumental stuff-up, but at the time the original decision was taken I’m confident they thought it would cost a lot less and save money compared to options like staffing stations. It’s not valid logic to use what it actually ended up costing as the basis for argument (unless you know they were actually aware apriori that it would cost circa $1.5 billion).

    The existing ticketing system is certainly flawed, but to say it is so bad that “plenty of evasion is perfectly justifiable” is hysterical nonsense.

  17. IkaInk

    Firstly, I think you’re misreading Tony Morton’s words, at least how I would have read them. He’s explaining the spike in fare evasion, not arguing against the blitz. One year myki users were essentially given a free pass, the next they were targeted; it’s not hard to see that there would be a “spike” in the figures even without any increase in actual evasion. The quote is probably out of context, but even as it is that is how I read it.

    Secondly, yes we probably could have saved money by introducing a cheap and efficient ticketing system that didn’t rely on lots of stations to be staffed, however we’ve likely reduced the overall usability of the system, and haven’t actually achieved the savings. $1.5billion (ten year expenditure on myki) could have paid about 1,800 wages at $55,000 over the same period. That would have more than adequately staffed every train station on the network. It would have also provided a bucket load of jobs.

    Finally, I agree, opportunistic fare evasion shouldn’t be morally justified; but plenty of fare evasion is perfectly justifiable with the system the way it is. The ticketing system we’ve got is rubbish and makes it bloody hard work for a fair portion of users.

  18. Russ

    Smith John, my problem is that per-trip fare collection is a grossly inefficient means of revenue collection. Transport isn’t the only industry afflicted by micro-payment and exclusion problems. But given that
    1) It is a publicly run service where fares cover less than half of revenue.
    2) The fares themselves are inefficiently allocated and don’t reflect either the marginal cost, or the marginal value of the services run

    We are essentially spending tens of millions a year to find out where people travel.

    Smart-cards. Meh. I use P/T less than 50 times per year. It has a relatively large up-front cost given that scenario. It is a dated technology too. There is a reason ticketing companies haven’t transitioned to use smart-cards to distribute tickets: the cards are expensive relative to value and an ID of the user/entry can be established by a printable/replacable paper bar-code. A distributed system of smart cards made a lot of sense when data storage and bandwidth was expensive, but we are well advanced from the mid-90s.

  19. Smith John

    What everyone else said about making it as easy as possible to pay. There should of course be plenty of touch points. I sympathise with people who don’t like having to queue up to get out of a station that used to have unrestricted exit.

  20. Smith John

    Russ @10 ‘micropayments are hard’

    I don’t understand your problem. Smartcards are brilliant. Buy card, set up auto debit, and you never have to think about buying a ticket again. Admittedly you pay a little for this convenience by having to touch off, but I think it’s well worth it.

    What everyone else said about making it as easy

  21. SBH

    Alan , a substantial causal factor in the increase in fines issues is that last year, authorised officers were not using hand held devices to check the validity of mykis. If you had a myki there was no way to check whether or not you had a valid ticket. AO’s are now using the devices and as a direct result the number of tickets being checked has increased as have the number of fines.

    For all you civil disobedients, rabble rousers, miscreants and for those just seeking to get some entertainment value out of their fare, just ask the AO to show you their signed authority (front and back. You’d be surprised how many times they don’t have one and are thereby probably committing an offence.

  22. Tom the first and best


    For a successful distance based fare system, it would have to be multi-modal and without change of vehicle charges. If not you would end up line Sydney`s fare system mess. It would also require touch off on trams which would cause mess.

  23. Tom the first and best


    The only lines that are zone 1 only are the Williamstown and Alamein lines. Where there are island or single platforms, there is no way myki can see which direction you are going and the city-bound passengers could be changing to other lines (or in the case of the Williamstown line on weekdays, just staying on the through-routed train past Bentleigh) and going to zone 2.

    Thus the only stations you can get on at that myki could reasonably determine to be zone 1 trips without touching off are North Williamstown, Williamstown Beach, Riversdale, Wilson and Burwood. Creating a separate fare rule for this miniscule number of passengers would be very expensive for little gain for anyone and could even cost the few who gain by getting them out of the habit of touching off.

    There is also nothing to stop people getting on at these stations and getting the train to a station further down the line and then getting on a train to the in the opposite direction and then going to zone 2.

  24. Dylan Nicholson

    (Or better still, scrap zones altogether, and simply charge by distance travelled).

  25. Dylan Nicholson

    Or cbp, better than that – the Myki system can just not charge you if the train is more than 5 minutes late to its destination.

    Alan, many PT users barely ever drive cars, so we subsidize those who do often, and as you say, are typically higher income earners, so pay a larger absolute amount towards supporting the system. Re my not touching off incident, the only way I could have got to Zone 2 is to board another vehicle without touching on, which is clearly fare evasion.
    Trains that terminate on Zone 1 lines should be treated the same way as trams (no need to touch off to avoid being charged for Zone 2).

  26. Russ

    Alan, I disagree that we have the technology to save hundreds of millions of dollars in fare collection (not least because the cost of this technology was many times that). If we did then fare collection would be simple, seamless and intuitive. What we have is the technology to force users to collect their own fare, and legislative protection that allows the business to fine users up to 50 times the value of that service for a failure to navigate the fare collection system – whether deliberately, accidentally or because of an absence of available payment options. It is a morally objectionable interaction between payer and payee that would not be tolerated by users of say, a sporting event, or a phone company.

    I realise micro-payments are hard. Fares are a grossly inefficient method of revenue collection, based around a model that worked when labour was cheap relative to fares. But the changes to fare collection are not transformative technology that makes our lives better. It is technology coupled with legislative protection that allows PT to burden the user with their own inefficiencies. It doesn’t justify fare evasion, but it does make me want to avoid PT unless I have no other option.

  27. cbp

    Alan Davies #3:

    >> So if your train is 15 minutes late but still gets
    >> you from Wynyard to Pymble, how much discount
    >> should you get? 100%? 1%?

    Well as you say, the ticket does not cover the full cost of the train system. A large portion of the cost is paid for by the taxes that we all pay. Therefore a refund on the ticket is not a 100% refund.

    The average punter is not going to nitpick about exact figures though. The justification in the fare evaders mind is – “I paid for my ticket last time and the train was late and I was massively inconvenienced. Rather than fill in a bunch of refund forms, I’ll just save everyone some hassle and jump the turnstile this time.”

    Perhaps fare evasion would be much less if the transport company said – “If your train is late, bring your ticket to the counter and we’ll give you a 50% refund”.

  28. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #6:

    PT accounts for only 10% of motorised travel in our capital cities – the rest is by car, van, motorcycle. So the massive difference between the average PT user’s fare and the real cost of providing the service is mostly paid by the taxes of non-users (in reality, many of the latter are occasional users). Then there are the equity implications of those over-represented higher income users…… For those who use it, public transport is a bargain and fare evasion is unjustified.

  29. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #4:

    It definitely needs to be easier to get a ticket (as I argued above). However, so long as the probability of detection is very low, there’ll always be a significant % who’ll “forget to pay”. Just observe the number of drivers on local streets who fail to observe the road rules at all times as they’re obliged to do.

    So far as your unfortunate experience is concerned, isn’t the key point that you didn’t touch-off? That’s part and parcel of the way Myki works on trains, just like touching on. You couldn’t have taken that train into Zone 2, but you have at least 2 hrs travelling time (more at night). Could you have gone on to zone 2 by transferring to another mode/service?

  30. Dylan Nicholson

    Alan, you missed cbp’s point that it’s not really a bargain because it still has to be subsidised through general tax revenue. Certainly if you’re an above-average earner (as probably most posters here would be), you’re doing your fair share of paying to keep the system running. On that basis I don’t really consider it a bargain either.

  31. Dylan Nicholson

    It’s a simple problem to solve – make it easier to pay than to evade. I’d be surprised if more than a small percentage of fare evaders were deliberately trying to avoid paying.
    Just yesterday I got charged almost double because I forgot to touch off when I got off on a Zone 1 station on a line that *terminates* in Zone 1, then got back on at the same station to travel home – in other worse there was no possible way I could have gone into Zone 2, and yet that’s what I was charged for. As such, I have minimum compunction about forgetting to touch on for at least one future journey. I’ve also had no success trying to get a refund for being unduly affected by delays.

  32. Alan Davies

    cbp #2:

    If the desserts inedible, the restaurant will still require you to pay for the entree, main course and coffee that were acceptable. Fare evasion OTOH is a walk-out on the price of the whole meal.

    So if your train is 15 minutes late but still gets you from Wynyard to Pymble, how much discount should you get? 100%? 1%?

    The implied contract with the restaurant is that you’re paying the full cost of providing the meal. Public transport is a bargain because the average fare covers none of the capital cost and circa a third of operating costs (see here).

  33. cbp

    Here’s the moral justification:

    If you have a lousy meal in a restaurant, many people deam it morally accetable to demand your money back.

    According to ACCC you can ask for a refund if services “are not delivered with adequate care and skill”, or “do not fit the purpose or give the results that you and the business had agreed to” etc. Society sees this as a moral right.

    Certainly from my experience on the trains in Melbourne, the above cases would apply to about 50% of train rides. However Metro’s customer service is so poor, that many people find getting a refund more hassle than it is worth.

    Selling poor quality products at a price cheap enough to make getting a refund more trouble than it is worth is a well known scam – recall the dildo scam outlined in ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ for instance.

    Once people feel that they have tried to do the right thing but that they were scammed and abused, they subsequently discard any further feeling of moral responsibility towards the transport company.

    I would also disagree that the system is ‘a bargain’. We all pay taxes.

  34. hk

    Fare evasion is opportunist theft, which is a criminal act, albeit minor, and normal people would find even minor criminal behaviour difficult to justify. But there are some people in our community who have a predisposition to criminal behaviour when they can get away with it. Our jails are occupied by people who get caught for more serious offences.
    However there is another side to the issue, which is the contract between the passenger with a prepaid ticket and the service provider to fulfil the contract of supply. When the PT arrives very late, if at all; is one still obligated to pay for a service not provided?
    I once had a survey job inspecting the quality of ticket inspections, and can say that poor behaviour by inspectors is an extreme rarity. The reported incidents are generally only an over dramatization in the media.
    Btw, the young fare evaders I know treat fare evasion as a dare or a game. Maybe all PT should be totally free for under eighteens and fulltime students?

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