One Tuesday in October, TTC security landed a whale. An officer doing random fare-checks on riders found one with an astonishing pattern of behaviour: the man’s Presto card, a child’s one that allows free travel, had been tapped 5,625 times in 10 months.
The Toronto Transit Commission won’t say much about the man, except that his card was used primarily to travel in Scarborough but he was busted at Spadina subway station. He pleaded guilty in court, was fined $400 and has been dubbed internally “child card user number one,” a sort of public enemy for an agency increasingly seized with combatting fare dodging.
Fare evasion became an increasingly hot-button political issue this month, starting with the release of a TTC report revealing at least $70-million in lost fares in 2019. The best way to address this has been debated vigorously at city hall, and among strap-hangers.
But any TTC response is hampered by a lack of information about who is evading fares, and how many are hard-core recidivists. The agency is also facing a wave of criticism that its policies and messaging are heavy-handed and out of step with the relative seriousness of the offence.
This week, the TTC board voted to have the agency strike a special working group to advise its strategy around revenue protection.
“We’re not unrealistic and thinking we’re going to get [fare evasion] to zero,” TTC chief executive Rick Leary said in an interview Friday. “But what is reasonable is for people that can afford to pay their fare, to pay.”
Transit fare evasion can provoke strong responses.
In 2014, when a London financier paid £43,000 (about $74,000) to settle allegations of massive fare-dodging, regulators prohibited him working in that city’s financial sector for life. One senior industry official criticized the ban as “playing to the court of mob rule,” noting it was harsher than the punishment for people who fixed the interbank lending rate, LIBOR, or peddled “toxic” financial products.
Toronto has also been criticized for the harshness of its approach. The possible fines amount to $235 or $425 out of pocket, as much as 130 times the cost of a fare. By contrast, critics point out, a parking ticket is typically $30 and people driving past the open doors of a streetcar, endangering those boarding or disembarking, run the risk of a fine of $85 or $150.
Mr. Leary said that the fare evasion penalty has to be high enough that people don’t gamble it’s cheaper not to pay and run the risk of a fine. But he conceded that the current level may not be suitable.
The appropriateness of the fines also came up during debate at this week’s TTC board meeting – leading to the call for a report back on policies around how penalties are set – a meeting that also laid bare wildly diverging views on the nature of fare evasion.
Councillor Shelley Carroll argued that the agency, though inaction, had “created a culture” of scofflaws. But deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong blamed evaders for having “stolen” from the agency.
The TTC has done nearly 13 million fare-checks since 2014, compiling a mass of data that turn up an unusual wrinkle. According to a 2019 audit by the TTC, based on random sampling and video footage, about 5.7 per cent of riders don’t pay their fare. However, when the agency’s officers check for evaders, they find far fewer.
In 2018, only 1.6 per cent of those checked were determined to warrant a verbal warning, written caution or fine. The highest proportion of fare evaders found was in 2016, when officers turned up three for every 100 people they checked. In 2019, the year of the audit, it was 2.8 per cent.
Mr. Leary argues that the presence of officers, who board vehicles sporadically or wait at stops to do checks, reduces evasion, leading to such discrepancies. The TTC is set to hire more fare enforcement officers and deploy them more widely throughout the system. If the CEO is correct, their visibility should reduce the amount of fare dodging.
But a plan to increase the use of plainclothes officers as well is raising the concerns of Toronto writer and mother Crystal Rose Madore.
The West End resident says her middle-school son uses transit with his friends and she fears her stranger danger training will leave him ill-equipped to deal with an non-uniformed person claiming to be an authority figure.
“You’re going to be putting them in this awkward situation in which this random adult is going to very aggressively demand stuff from them and they just have to go along with it,” Ms. Madore said. “They can’t tell if this is somebody who’s actually legitimate or someone who maybe just found [a badge] that looks official.”
The TTC wants to improve revenue recovery by $10.2-million this year, which translates into about 4.3 million additional paid rides. The TTC is considering as well whether to discontinue the child Presto card, which could prevent about $8-million in fares being ducked by adults illegally using the card.
The agency is also hoping to improve its understanding of just who is defrauding the system.
Michelle Jones, the agency’s head of revenue protection, said they’re hoping to gather more data on scofflaws. As it stands, they don’t have a demographic profile or even know how many are repeat offenders.
It’s a key issue. Stopping a rampant scofflaw such as “child card user number one” is more valuable to the agency than nabbing a number of people who offend rarely.
“With anything, there’s an 80/20 rule; you know, 80 per cent of the issues are with only 20 per cent of the people,” Ms. Jones said. “But again, we don’t really have the analytics behind it to say that’s true.”
Data from other agencies suggest that repeat offenders are the overwhelming majority of the problem.
In a 2013 paper, Monash University professor Graham Currie cited a study of nine cities that found up to 82 per cent of unpaid trips were committed by only 2 per cent to 11 per cent of the population. Lumping all offenders in with these people, he argued in a later paper, ignores the reality of fare evasion.
“To customers, fare evasion is a spectrum of behaviours that vary in acceptability largely based on the degree of intent,” Prof. Currie wrote in 2016.
Sean Marshall, co-founder of the group Walk Toronto, says that the TTC is missing the point with hectoring advertising messages that appear to ignore the possibility of having made a mistake.
“By slapping everybody as criminals, as stealing, it takes away the message from those who actually are stealing, or defrauding,” he said.