Public Transit

The So-Called Thrill of Fare Evasion

In “The Seduction of Crime” by Jack Katz, the author asks what committing a crime feels, sounds, tastes and looks like. He names the pleasure of consuming a crime a “sneaky thrill,” or the “seductive qualities of crimes: those aspects in the foreground of criminality that make its various forms sensible, even sensually compelling, ways of being.”


Does the high of chasing a small ‘sneaky thrill’ contribute to public transit fare evasion? Does intercepting fare evaders catch public offenders early, before their moral thresholds are lowered for future rule breaking endeavors? Or do most people not pay their fare for a myriad of reasons born out of diverse circumstances?




The debate around criminalizing transit fare evasion has picked up steam over the last decade. With renewed public attention on the excessive criminalization of poor people and people of color, some transit agencies and law enforcement officials are reevaluating their fare evasion policies.


Many are asking if the decriminalization of fare evasion would reduce the overall cost on society? This cost includes enforcement, prosecution and maybe most significantly the criminalized mindset given to small time offender. Are there programs which could cost less at the end of the day? And if evasion was communicated as a crime against the public, where the overall price of purchasing a ticket compensated for those who stole, would the general public be more supportive of different types of programs?


Why Do People Not Pay Their Fare?

Like any other behavioral choice, people create belief systems that amount to rational intentions in the decision of their actions, for example, the decision to fare evade.


Fare evaders can be grouped into four different categories. In order to develop programs and process to counter fare evasion, agencies must understand the different types of fare evasion:

1. The “Accidental Evader”: believes fare evasion is wrong, but due to misunderstanding the fare policy, accident or negligence evades the fare


2. The “Not My Fault Evader”: wants to purchase the fare, but sometimes fails to pay due to payment barriers


3. The “Calculated Risk-Taker”: believes the reward outweighs the risk of fare evasion and so deliberately skirts the fare when they think risk of getting caught is low


4. The “Career Evaders”: always fare evades


shutterstock_360313850 (2)


I’ve talked with a young man who frequently hangs out at my station asking for help buying a ticket. He’s not exactly the type you’d want to sit next to on a train, but he understands his circumstances. He’s been caught as a fare evader multiple times and recently received a letter saying he’d be arrested and prosecuted in court if he was caught evading a fare again. In the traditional citation system, a citation can appear on his record, inhibiting future employment or housing. This has generated enough fear in him that the risk of fare evasion outweighs the benefit.


As he faces a criminal penalty, I’ve asked myself, is he more of a weight on the public good because he has to rely on the individual generosity of riders to purchase his fare? Is his denial of public transportation damaging to his ability to survive and get ahead in life? Will this impact his future ability to give back to society?


Experimenting with Alternative Solutions

A new Oregon State law gave TriMet the authority to decriminalize fare evasion starting on January 1, 2018. The current system levies a $175 fine on fare evaders, a dollar value many cannot afford to pay. Instead, the new citation could come with a smaller fine if paid within a certain time period. Those cited could ask to perform community service instead of paying the fine if they cannot afford to pay it. If neither the lower fine or community service is performed within a 90 day period, the citation would follow the traditional criminalization route.




Other agencies have led the way with this sort of methodology. For example:

– Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) levies a $50 administrative fee which if paid within 30 days clears the evader’s record


– San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) decriminalized fare evasion by levying a $112 administrative fee on perpetrators


– Utah Transit Authority (UTA) reduced fare-evasion fines to $100


In addition to decriminalizing fare evasions, some agencies are tackling the problem by making boarding easier and removing gated infrastructure.

– Oslo’s Ruter buses has four entry points, which make for easier and faster onboarding and disembarking. Passengers have several ways to pay: ticket machines at major tram and bus stations, refillable plastic cards, or paying through an app on their phone.

The Ruter system is built on an honor system. To deter fare evasion, Oslo transit authorities do occasional spot checks — when passengers are asked for proof of payment, they have to show paper receipt or a blinking confirmation on their phone. In conjunction with easy onboarding was the support of easy to use mobile and card based fare media. By making it easier to pay for fares, Oslo halved their fare evasion rates to five percent.


– San Francisco’s Muni became the first big U.S. transit agency to implement all-door boarding across its entire bus system in 2012. Many cities had avoided all-door boarding policies for fear of inviting fare evasion- a concern that did not materialize. Pre-implementation studies had found MUNI fare evasion as high as 9.5 percent; after all-door boarding was implement, evasion was at 8 percent. Another positive metric was impacted: all-door boarding reduced the average entry and exit dwell time per passenger from nearly 4 seconds to 2.5 seconds at each bus stop—a dip of 38 percent. More than half of all passengers used the rear door to enter, and time-consuming fare payments at the front door declined by 4 percent. As a result, overall bus speeds improved.


By removing barriers to entry at Oslo stations and allowing all-door boarding on MUNI buses, riders have enjoyed faster vehicles, less crowding and in turn hopefully more frequent service. A public transit system where there are multiple payment options to match quick entry and exit operations may help curb the number of “Accidental” and “Not My Fault” evaders. I’d also speculate that by creating a strong sense of public ownership through an honor based system, the “sneaky thrill” is diminished.

Let the Cheater’s Cheat

In order to effectively decrease fare evasion, communities must examine the unique behavioral and circumstantial motivators that drive people to do it. This matrix would help identify tangible gaps where areas for improvement, such as contactless smartphone payments and all door boarding, could target the system and not individual people. At the same time, communities can build creative solutions for supporting riders who cannot afford to pay but still need access to transportation to participate in society.


With better ways to ensure payment from those without criminal intent, the overall cost of capturing fare evasion by Career Evaders may not be as urgent. Because in the case of Oslo, “It makes more financial sense to let the cheaters cheat.”



Cited Articles:

The Sneaky Thrill of Breaking the Law

Seductions of Crime

From Intentions to Actions: A Theory of Planned Behavior

Four types of fare evasion: A qualitative study from Melbourne, Australia

TriMet to decriminalize fare evasion

New law lets TriMet handle fare evasion citations in-house, avoiding courts

SFMTA All-Door Boarding Evaluation Final Report

Ignoring Fare Evaders can make Mass Transit Faster – and Richer