The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has suggested that more people are piggy-backing or tailgating since the D.C. Council decriminalized fare evasion in July 2019. (It should be noted that transit police can still issue civil citations.) WMATA estimates a revenue loss of $40 million to fare evasions for 2019, $29 million for buses and $11 million for the rail system.
But a new study by the D.C. Policy Center casts doubt on whether fare evasion is actually increasing as WMATA suggests.
The study points out that the way WMATA tracks fare evasion is questionable because it doesn’t have a complete tally of paid and unpaid total ridership. While WMATA systematically tracks ridership on Metrobus, it lacks the tools to do the same for Metrorail.
The way WMATA calculates Metrobus fare evasion is also subject to human error. Estimates on the number of unpaid fares generally come from bus operators, who are required to record these instances by pressing a key. Apparently, this system was first introduced in 2016, so it’s unclear if the increase in reported fare evasion over time reflects training and comfortability with the key press. Meanwhile, estimates for Metrorail fare evasion are based on reports and data from other transit systems because WMATA does not currently have a way to mark unpaid ridership on trains. Although, WMATA is trying to pilot a program now.
Transit police chief Ronald Pavlik also told the Council estimates on fare evasion include the rides of 15,000 students who haven’t received their Kids Ride Free cards.
The study concludes: “Without a clear understanding of the relative share of total fare evasion attributable to these various causes, it is extremely difficult to estimate how much revenue is actually being ‘lost’ under present conditions, and how much additional revenue could be recaptured. But while more comprehensive data collection and improved collection methods will help form a clearer picture of ridership patterns in D.C. and the metropolitan area, increased farebox collection does not need to be the prevailing policy goal, and increased enforcement does not need to be the main response—particularly if that enforcement would continue to be targeted predominately at D.C.’s young Black residents.”