There was furious action on the War on Public Transit this week, as our local Libertarian hypocrite from the misnamed Canadian Taxpayers Federation again got unexplained media saturation by suggesting that fare evasion on lower mainland transit is some sort of a scandal, or worse – proof of incompetence at TransLink. It sounds compelling, but it is just predictable CTF misinformation.
Allow me to explain.
The latest CTF anti-transit rhetorical volley is based on data released on the “no fare paid” button on TransLink buses. This is the process through with bus drivers account for improperly paid fares (fare evaders, those paying too much, those crossing a zone boundary without paying the premium, etc). Drivers counted 2.76 Million incorrect fares in 2013, which is an increase of 250,000 over 2011. This, in the rhetorical world of the CTF, proves that TransLink is irresponsible, inefficient, and cannot be trusted with the public’s purse. It is further implied that if they could only solve this simple problem, TransLink may not need those new funds being requested through the upcoming referendum.
There are several problems with this narrative, and I might be accused of senseless idealism when I expect our “liberal media” to point them out instead of just parroting Bateman talking points.
For example, the media could put the numbers in perspective. 10 seconds on Google, and one can find TransLink’s financial disclosures, and find that there were 355 Million boardings in the TransLink system in 2013. That means 2.76 Million “non-fares” represent 0.8% of the boardings. In a rational world, an organization as worried about the public purse as the CTF would be touting TransLink’s phenomenal record of collecting fares from 99.2% of passengers on a crowded, chaotic, distributed system with literally thousands of moving fare collection stations comprising what is, essentially, an honour system*.
The CTF makes further hay out of the trend. A 10% increase in “fare evasion” since 2011 sure sounds like a trend should be worried about. Except again, no. TransLink collected $433Million in fare revenue in 2011 and $481 Million in 2013. Over those two years, ridership basically flatlined (356M boardings to 355M boardings, thanks to “rationalization” of routes) but fare revenue went up by 11%. Again, the CTF fails to tout that TransLink is doing an 11% better job squeezing users for revenue, reducing the burden on the poor taxpayer the only way they can without senior government approval.
What about the lost money though? Surely this means TransLink is hemorrhaging money due to scofflaws and lazy drivers? Again, the data says something different. Assuming those fare evaders would have paid if forced to (instead of just walking or hitchhiking or dying where they stood, whatever) that would have resulted in about $7 Million more revenue. Compare that to the $481 Million in fare revenue collected in 2013, and it represents a 1.4% revenue bleed, which is not unsubstantial, but hardly breaks the bank. In comparison, the Congestion Improvement Tax (ugh, still hate that stupid moniker) will raise about $250 Million per year, all of which will go to Capital Projects, not operations.
When Bateman says “TransLink can’t properly manage the system they already have – they certainly can’t be trusted with another $7.5 billion of our money,” he is suggesting not just that this fare evasion is a huge problem, but that TransLink is incompetent at stopping it. What he doesn’t suggest is a way to close that gap, and there is a good reason for that: diminishing returns.
Yes, we could put an armed guard on every bus enforcing payment and issuing receipts, and fare evasion would approach zero, but it would be prohibitively expensive, and the return on revenue would not cover the cost. This has been the central story all along on the Falcon Gate fiasco – TransLink was forced by the Former Minister of Transportation to install an expensive faregate system that TransLink knew would never cover the cost of the fares evasion it was meant to prevent. (Oh, and it is just a coincidence that that the guy who tried to get that same Minister of Transportation made into the Premier is now going to lead the NO campaign for the CTF, but I digress).
Any rational person has to understand that fare-evasion-zero is not possible (just like Zero Tolerance on parking meter violations or speeding or drugs is impossible). A rational person with any business sense at all says that reasonable effort should be made to push that evasion towards zero, up until the point where the cost of those efforts exceeds the money saved through enforcement. Pushing past that point makes no monetary sense if the goal of fares is to earn revenue. I frankly don’t know what that magic point is – at what point further enforcement costs more than it is worth – but if I was a betting man, I would put my money on something around 1%, because that is a common number the tolerance TransLink and other transit systems gravitate towards. Bateman thinks it is a different number (closer to zero), but I’d like to see him (a person with no experience running a multi-modal transit system) demonstrate what that number is, and explain his rationale.**
But he won’t, because he is not interested in public policy or rational discussion. He is interested in getting headlines by making irrational arguments that clip well in order to get donations for his organization. And our media provide him that free advertising every day.
If you think I am being mean to Jordan Bateman, you are right, because he used to be someone I respected. As a City Councillor in Langley, he was a voice of reason and an excellent communicator. I didn’t often agree with his politics, but always liked the way he tried to explain his thought process through contentious issues. I know people who worked for him, and he had a reputation as a Councillor who did his homework, collected the data he needed to understand issues, and defended his decisions based on that knowledge. He knew that there was an objective truth and that good governance required it. He was the kind of City Councillor I want to be. This makes him a disappointment whenever I see him acting like a clown for the TV cameras.
Back then, Bateman not only had a much more rational approach to taxation, he was a supporter of increased capital funding to TransLink to provide improved light rail and transit service, specifically so his children would not be cursed with another generation of entrenched motordom. Unfortunately, he is now the one person in the province most interested in leading the campaign against exactly what he called for 7 years ago. And he has yet to provide any meaningful reason why he changed his mind.
And that is a shame. For him, for his kids, and for all of us who want to improve our region.
And I know just by responding to him, I am falling for some sort of Streisand Effect trap he is setting. The result? Just watch, 4 months from now, when the referendum campaigns are in full swing, scofflaw fare evaders and TransLink’s refusal to address this issue are going to be major points repeated uncritically in the media, as Bateman and his ilk keep hitting that drum while providing no actual context to the discussion, until it becomes just another part of the “common sense” that no-one can deny. The lie will become truth, thanks to a guy who used to know the difference.
*Actually, the ever succinct Canspice points out bus boardings in 2013 were actually 228 Million, my number includes SkyTrain boardings. I’m not sure which number is better to use, but I guess whether you are trying to make the point that Bus Drivers are useless or that TransLink is incompetent. As noted by Canspice, if your argument is simply the CTF’s standard “ALL TAXES BAD!”, then I guess it doesn’t matter.
** In looking for this number, I found two fascinating research papers, one using Game Theory to determine if Fare Gates make sense for a public transit system (Optimal choices of fare collection systems for public transportation: barrier versus barrier free: Yasuo Sasaki, Transportation Research Part B: Methodological Volume 60, February 2014, Pages 107–114) and another using multi-variable calculus and economic modelling to determine what the optimum fare inspection rate is for a proof-of-fare transit system like SkyTrain (Fare evasion in proof-of-payment transit systems; Deriving the optimum inspection level: Benedetto Barabino, Sara Salis, and Bruno Useli, Transportation Research Part B: Methodological, Volume 70, December 2014, Pages 1–17).