Fare evasion is a global problem that manifests in the US as much as it does in other parts of the world.
The capital Washington D.C. ranks third in the country for the financial impact caused by fare evasion, after Massachusetts’ Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
In 2019, losses on buses amounted to $29 million and on subway to $11 million, bringing the tally to a total of $40 million.
By contrast, MBTA lost $42 million, and MTA lost $215 million to fare evasion.
WMATA considers fare evasion not only the intent to not pay the fare. It also counts in incidents when students or adults do not tap their cards for any reason, incidents from people that have not received cards or that have malfunctioning cards, and instances when riders can not pay because of broken fareboxes or malfunctioning card validation machines.
Compared to 2018, ridership increased on the subway by 4% to 182 million trips in 2019, and decreased on busses by 3.5% to 289.000 trips.
Fare evasion rates have increased over the past years, most notably on busses as shown in the graphs below released by WMATA:
WMATA reports passenger and fare evasion numbers differently on buses and on the subway.
On busses it uses Fare Box Keypads and Automatic Passenger Counter electronic systems to keep count of riders and fare evasion. These are not always accurate and are prone to both human and computer errors.
On the subway it did not have a system in place to count passengers or fare evasion rates until last year. According to an article by the D.C. Policy Center, estimates were made according to industry averages on similar transit systems.
In the past year the agency started testing new systems to count ridership using sensors installed at the fare gates, and video analytics from surveillance cameras.
According to the agency, the data from these systems will be used to compare the difference between passengers counted and collected revenue to better estimate fare evasion rates, to discourage crime, and to provide data for organising deployment strategies by the Metro Police force.
Unlike other states in the U.S., Washington D.C. has decriminalised fare evasion, on the argument of racial bias.
Offence rates linked to counting errors and young Black riders
So who are the people not paying on Washington’s public transport?
A large portion of the unaccounted ridership and fare evasion in the past few years might come from students who qualified for free trips through the Kids Ride Free program but did not tap their cards, as reported by a WTOP investigation from November 2018.
A public oversight roundtable in November 2019 confirmed that amid multiple changes made to the card system by the WMATA, the students were not able to tap their cards or were told that it was not necessary to do so, leading to an increase in reported fare evasion incidents.
Next to this, a 2018 report issued by the Washington’s Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Human Affairs found that 91% of all citations and summons for fare evasion were issued to Black riders, and 46% of these were issued to Black young adults and youth under the age of 25.
In the report, WMATA states that around 10.000 persons were stopped for fare evasion in 2018. It does not mention how many people received warnings or summons, or were arrested, but the Metro Transit Police Department stated that about 8% of the stops led to arrests.