Getting to work or school can be expensive for D.C. residents, and some people may dodge Metro fares because of it. Being caught evading transportation fees can come with hefty fines, but the Metro seldom enforces its penalty.
Enforcing the fine for fare evasion costs the District money, and no government agency is even monitoring whether rides are paying. Hundreds of people got away with fare evasion between October 2017 and early May even though the Metro issued fines. Policing fare evasion on individuals who cannot even pay the Metro fare does not work – especially if D.C. cannot enforce its own rule – but there might be other more effective systems.
Earlier this year the D.C. Council overrode Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto on legislation that will decriminalize fare evasion, creating a maximum fine of $50. The Council moved in the right direction by preventing fare evasion from being a criminal offense, but they could go further. The District should stop trying to enforce fines on fare evasion and instead use an honor system that encourages people to pay for the Metro.
An honor system would replace turnstiles with ticket machines or phone apps, so riders can buy Metro tickets without scanning on their way to the train. While everyone would be expected to buy a ticket, the Metro would only randomly check purchases and riders who are found to have not purchased a ticket would be fined.
Public transportation should be for everyone, not just for people who can afford it. People do not evade Metro fares because they want to steal from the city – they do it because they cannot afford to pay. Instead of wasting more money on enforcement that neither the city or rider cannot afford, D.C. should let people evade fares if they need to and instead use the honor system that trusts people will purchase a ticket.
Public transit honor systems are already in place in much of the world. In Europe, honor systems are commonplace, and the honor system results in 99 percent of riders paying in San Diego. Implementing a similar program in the District would mean spending drastically less on enforcing fare evasion and instead trusting that riders who can afford to pay will do so.
It would not be hard to do the same in the District. Other cities have shown that fewer checks on tickets does not mean more people would evade fares. The $50 fine for fare evasion would stay in place but the District would spend significantly less money on enforcement.
Removing the turnstiles would also speed up riders’ commute to the train and would be more accessible for physically disabled users. Some individuals with disabilities may struggle to get through the turnstiles because some disabilities impair motor control, so purchasing a ticket on their phone or at a ticket machine is easier than getting past a physical barrier. Everyday riders would not need to come to a halt at a turnstile on their commutes, which would mitigate the congestion at some Metro stations.
It makes sense that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the D.C. Council might be wary of a system that places more trust on the riders and could potentially cost the Metro. But public transportation is supposed to be for everyone, meaning it should be affordable for everyone too. In cities where an honor system has been successful, more riders have used the public transportation and mass transit got faster.
Riders would still be incentivized to pay for tickets, and it would cost far less to enforce. The District is not even collecting the majority of fare evasion fines but is still spending money to ensure an agency monitors fare dodgers. An honor system would save the District money by limiting the costs of enforcement and encouraging people to pay for their Metro passes instead.
The goal of the Metro system should be to provide the best possible and most accessible public transport to District residents and commuters. An honor system would accomplish both.
Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a sophomore majoring in political science and psychology, is the Hatchet opinions editor.
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