Tag: fare evasion

Sound Transit Tickets Disproportionate Number of Black Riders, New Numbers Show

Sound Transit staffers presented new data on fare enforcement at Thursday’s Rider Experience and Operations meeting, which showed that despite the agency’s purportedly neutral fare-enforcement policy, black riders were far more likely to receive citations and warnings than white or Asian American riders. African Americans made up just 9 percent of riders on Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail and Sounder trains, but represented 21 percent of all tickets and warnings—more than double their representation among Sound Transit’s ridership. White and Asian American riders, conversely, received proportionally fewer tickets than their ridership would suggest.

The race of a rider is determined by fare enforcement officers. Sound Transit public safety director Ken Cummins told me yesterday that if a person’s race “is not obvious,” a fare enforcement officer is supposed to “tactfully” ask the person how they prefer to be identified.

The issue of fare enforcement was in the news last month, when Sound Transit officers were seen checking fares and scanning the IDs of students on their way to collect their free ORCA passes on the first day of school.

Sound Transit frequently touts its use of “equal treatment” in fare enforcement using the following slide, which shows that fare enforcement officers enter trains in a specific pattern and check fares until they come to someone who hasn’t paid:

But the glaring racial disparity in Sound Transit’s new fare enforcement stats led some public commenters to argue that  “equal” treatment doesn’t necessarily lead to equitable outcomes. Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, noted that “communities of color and low-income people have different relationships to policing and enforcement.” What may seem like a friendly interaction with a uniformed officer to a white rider may look entirely different to someone whose community has a history being targeted by police, she said.

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The current fine for failing to pay fare on Sound Transit buses and trains is $124, and failing to pay it can result in criminal charges and cascading debt. In contrast, King County Metro recently reduced fines for nonpayment, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program.

Sound Transit didn’t provide a detailed breakdown of ticketed riders by income or primary language, or detail what percentage of “ticket or warning” actions by fare enforcement were warnings vs. formal citations. However, an audit of Metro fare-evasion infractions showed that low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness were far more likely than other groups to be cited for fare evasion, and that the primary reason people failed to pay for bus rides was because they couldn’t afford the fare. Sound Transit maintains that in order to keep their fare recovery much higher than industry averages, they need to inspect about 8 percent of all riders for proof of payment—”the sweet spot” that keeps evasion below 3 percent, according to Cummins.

Sound Transit is considering a number of strategies for addressing concerns about aggressive fare enforcement and excessive punishment for unpaid fares, including providing “on-the-spot information about ORCA Lift” and allowing people to work off their fines through community service, but getting rid of fines for nonpayment isn’t amongthem. Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, who sits on the Sound Transit board, seemed to suggest Thursday that maybe it should be. She compared the cascading consequences of fare evasion fines to the city’s old policy of impounding the cars of people whose licenses had been suspended over minor infractions, such as unpaid parking tickets, which often pushed them further into poverty. “When it comes down to the ability to drive, the ability to have transportation, those are basic… rights,” Juarez said.

Sound Transit Board Members Raise Concerns About Punitive Fare Enforcement Policy

Sound Transit board members, including King County Council members Joe McDermott and Claudia Balducci, are raising questions about the agency’s fare enforcement policy, which—unlike King County Metro’s revised fare enforcement rules—can still result in a criminal record and potentially jail time for people who are unable to pay their fares.

During last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, both McDermott and Balducci pointed to Metro’s recent overhaul of its fare enforcement policy, which reduced fines for fare evasion, eliminated the possibility of criminal charges for nonpayment, and created multiple new avenues for addressing fare evasion tickets, including enrollment in the ORCA Lift low-income fare program. The last item is important because an audit of Metro fare enforcement last year concluded that the overwhelming majority of “fare evaders” on RapidRide were homeless or low-income; poverty, not disregard for the law, was causing people to attempt to ride for free.

“Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program. Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.” – Talking points developed by Sound Transit’s public safety director

The audit, released last April, found that the most common reason for fare evasion was lack of money to pay fare, and that the overwhelming majority of fines were never paid, despite the threat of criminal charges and the possibility that unpaid fines would be sent to collections. (Sound Transit still has what I dubbed the “Shoreline Rule,” which requires riders who receive tickets for fare evasion to drive or take the bus up to Shoreline if they want to contest their tickets—a significant burden for people who are transit-dependent and those who can’t take off work for several hours to contest a ticket during the work day. King County eliminated the Shoreline Rule back in 2015).

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done in King County on fare evasion, because … it’s unclear that that policy actually increases fare compliance and we know that it has some downstream negative impacts and disparate impacts,” Balducci said, adding that the point of fare enforcement should be to ensure that “people pay when they can, and that [for] people who can’t pay, who rely on our services, that we’ll find a way to address that need other than sending them to court and ultimately collections and, at some point, jail.”

Rogoff, who has argued that Sound Transit’s fare evasion rate is low precisely because people know they may incur substantial ($124) fines, said that while problems like the Shoreline Rule are “low-hanging fruit,” a complete overhaul of the agency’s fare enforcement policy would threaten the agency’s current high compliance rate. “The challenge is, I think, to have a policy that is meaningful and inclusive … but also to make sure that we [preserve] what is currently a high level of fare compliance” compared to cities with “open systems.” Rogoff also noted the current system only “criminalizes” fare evasion after the fourth offense in a calendar year.

Sound Transit’s fare enforcement talking points argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Rogoff’s statements last week are consistent with talking points developed by the agency late last year, which I obtained through a records request. The talking points, which the agency’s Director of Public Safety, Ken Cummins, provided to Rogoff in November, also explicitly connect fare enforcement, which is conducted by uniformed officers, with a sense of “safety” among light rail riders—suggesting that the presence of officers cracking down on fare evaders improves the perception of safety on trains. “Sound Transit has one of the transit industry’s lowest (if not the lowest) fare evasion rate and has since the inception of the fare enforcement program,” the talking points say. “Also, more than 93% of our riders surveyed feel safe while on our rail services. Both of these are directly attributed to our fare enforcement program.”

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Given that, according to Metro’s audit, fare evasion charges disproportionately target low-income riders and people experiencing homelessness, it’s easy to see how “safety” might be conflated with cracking down on certain categories of people. Sound Transit, and Rogoff in particular, have responded to concerns about equity in fare enforcement by pointing out that the agency’s fare enforcement officers check everybody on the train rather than singling out certain riders. This point showed up in both the talking points—which called the policy of universal checks a way to “ensure fairness and equity”—and in communications between Sound Transit’s communications staff and the fare enforcement division after the initial Metro audit was released, in anticipation of criticism or questions about fairness  The talking points, which you can read in full here, go on to argue that implementing Metro-style rules that give low-income riders alternative avenues to resolve fare enforcement charges would be a “demeaning” “form of bias and discrimination” and would force fare enforcement officers “to make a judgment call based on appearances and/or through the use of invasive questioning.”

Balducci says that Sound Transit’s go-to-talking point—”‘We enforce on the whole car; we do it to everybody—therefore you’re not going to see bias in terms of picking on certain types of people'”—misses the point. “That wasn’t entirely the issue we raised,” she says. “The issue we raised was that with the people we do find (evading fares), there could be a better approach.”