TriMet study: Fare evasion, disproportional citations still problems
Fare evasion increased slightly on MAX trains since 2016, with TriMet minority riders being cited at a higher rate than two years ago, according to a new Portland State University study.
But the study found the disproportionate citation rate corresponds to a higher percent of minority riders not payng their required fares, not systemic racial bias. A small group of repeat offenders helped skew the findings, according to the study.
TriMet says it is trying to equitably reduce evasion level without forcing offenders into the criminal justice system.
"Equity and transparency in fare enforcement are a priority for TriMet, and will remain so as we increase our enforcement efforts," TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey. said in a prepared statement. "Fare is fair. While we remain challenged with a small number of people who repeatedly do not pay, we hope our reduced fare program and less punitive options to resolving fare citations will give people the opportunity to break the cycle of fare evasion."
The issue was first documented in a independent 2016 study by Dr. Brian Renauer, who is with PSU's Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute. His followup study was presented to the TriMet Board of Directors at its Aug. 8 meeting. The latest analysis examined just over 48,000 fare enforcement incidents on the MAX Light Rail System from March 2016 to March 2018.
"Comparing the racial/ethnic breakdown of fare evaders in the 2016-2018 fare evasion surveys to the racial/ethnic disparity in actual fare evasion outcomes reveals little to no disparity," said Renauer.
Both studies included onboard surveys to determine the demographics of riders, as well as a fare evasion study to understand who is riding without paying, how often and why. The 2016 survey showed an overall 14.5% fare evasion rate, which includes those without fare, expired transfers or inappropriate fare. That increased to 16.6% in 2018.
In 2016, repeat violations comprised 25.5% of all enforcement incidents and 36% of African American incidents. By 2016, those figures had increased to 34% of all incidents and 46% involving African Americans.
Renauer found that a small group of riders who continually engage in fare evasion helped lead to the elevated rate for exclusions — not the racial or ethnic biases. According to the research, 56 people accounted for about 25% of the 732 exclusions given to African Americans during the past two years. If those 56 persons had only one exclusion, instead of three or more, the exclusion rate would have been 4% lower.
"The results of this effort (a more in-depth examination) illustrated the presence of a small group of chronic fare evaders and persons receiving repeated exclusions," Renauer said.
According to Renauer, this poses a special problem for TriMet.
"The question of how to address the population of chronic fare evaders and exclusion recipients, particularly those that become known 'regulars', forms an important policy discussion. Continued citations and exclusions alone does not appear to address the issue," the study says.
During the same period, overall fare enforcement incidents on the MAX declined by 9.3%, including a 20% reduction in exclusions given. Renauer says that is notable to report, given its more serious nature.
Increased enforcement, fare options
TriMet is working to increase fare enforcement on the system. Among other things, the agency signed a contract with Portland Patrol Inc. for a new type of contract security officer to patrol the transit system. Within a year's time, up to 30 personnel with a peace officer background will be providing a security presence while conducting TriMet Code enforcement, including checking fares.
TriMet also recently took steps to decriminalize fare enforcement and bring greater equity to the process. The agency believes these efforts will help reduce fare evasion, and may stop some people from continually evading fare.
Two of the biggest recent changes are:
• Reduced fares for those on a low income riders. TriMet expanded the Honored Citizen fare program so adults who earn less than double the federal poverty level qualify for discounted fare. The discount is half the price of a single ride or day pass, and 72 percent less than the cost of an adult month pass. Around 1,500 people had enrolled expanded discount by Aug. 7.
• New penalties for adult fare evasion. TriMet now provides adults caught without a valid fare new options to the citations without entering into the court system. The person may qualify for a reduced fine or community service. Those who qualify for our Honored Citizen program, based on age, disability or low-income level, will have their fine voided if they successfully enroll in the program. In the first five weeks since the options went into effect, 39 people had their citations waived by entering the program by Aug. 7.
According to TriMet, there are several differentces between the data used in the two studies.
Fare enforcement incidents declined by 9.3% or 6,534 for the 2018 report period. One reason is because the agency had a number of events in 2016 and 2017 that led staff to focus on customer service rather than fare checks. Among other things, TriMet performed major improvements projects that disrupted MAX service for two weeks at a time in 2016, and three weeks in 2017.
TriMet staff also concentrated on helping customers, and providing a safety presence in the weeks following the deadly May 26, 2017 attack. In addition, in July 2017, TriMet launched Hop Fastpass, which required educating riders about how to use the new fare system.
Despite the drop in incidents, Renauer found, "Declines in fare evasion incidents and types occurred roughly equally for all racial/ethnic groups."
There was also an increase in the number of riders whose race was perceived as "unknown" in the recent data, TriMet says. Totals rose from 970 incidents in the 2016 report period to 2,706 in 2018 report period. The agency has provided additional training for employees who conduct fare enforcement to educate them on the need to document a person's race when issuing a warning, citation or exclusion.
To read a previous story by the Portland Tribune and InvestigateWest on the issue, go to tinyurl.com/ycw6quje.
You can read the new PSU study here.