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.