Drivers v. Robots, Part 8: Collecting the Fares, Skimming the Passengers

Robots have replaced transportation management for decades. They are now replacing drivers. And they are betraying top agency and company officials (see Drivers v. Robots, Part 7: Betrayal by Robots, NATIONAL BUS TRADER, February, 2020). Facilitated by more and more robots, decades of failure in fare collection have contributed to the need for more subsidies and a noticeably-lesser quality of service. The lesser quality of service has translated into reduced ridership. APTA recently announced the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2019 as the first consecutive quarters of ridership increase since 2014 (Passenger Transport, January 13, 2020). Public transportation is eating itself alive. 

Passengers are just now responding to these realities. Most troubling, ridership is decreasing alongside stifling increases in traffic, poverty and homelessness, despite fewer choices for affordable transportation. Service is so poor that even the “transit dependent” are riding less often. At the same time, the transit sector is overflowing with braggadocio about the marvels of technology. Much of this technology is worthwhile and meaningful, even while more costly than efficient.  

These realities provide important lessons for the motorcoach industry, where a level of genuine service still exists.

Operating Costs and Subsidies

One relationship often misunderstood or ignored involves the difference between operating costs and subsidies. Operating costs include drivers, management, benefits, fuel, maintenance, depreciation, marketing, advertising, damage awards and settlements, among others. Subsidies cover the portion of operating costs not obtained from the passengers – referred to as “farebox revenue.” 

Many decisionmakers understand subsidies. But they care little about operating costs. As long as they come largely from taxpayers elsewhere, subsidy funds are treated like money from Mars. This attitude has its consequences. Both subsidies and operating costs can spiral out of control. By 1977 – only a decade after the introduction of operating subsidies – transit fares covered only 50% of operating costs. A 1983 study found one major city’s commuter/express service to exceed $300/hour per route. 

System efficiency must be viewed in context. Some service understandably costs more per passenger trip than others, irrespective of how it is provided. Otherwise, subsidies effectively reward transit systems for their failure. Failure in fare collection compounds this failure.

Fare Collection and Fare Con

In the old days, schedules were less tight and drivers were paid better. Transit drivers collected cash fares and made change. In lower-density areas, they still do.  Old-fashioned cannisters ostensibly kept drivers from pocketing the fares. But these devices accomplished little else. Particularly in urban areas, where passengers were more anonymous, many tossed in whatever they pleased. Drivers accepting any fares (sometimes none) further confounded system officials because passenger-counting was manual (drivers depressed a tab for each boarding passenger). Between iffy fare collection and manual passenger-counting, ridership and revenue could not be reconciled. This problem was further compounded by (a) discount fares, (b) daily, weekly and monthly passes and, often, (c) both combined.

As schedules became tighter, drivers had less and less time to make change. Compounded by shrinking management, enforcing fare payment became even less common. But live staff still had to spend time counting whatever money was collected.

Fareboxes gradually became more sophisticated, accepting both bills and coins. But they did not make change: Drivers dispensed quarters, dimes and nickels from coin belts. Where change could not be made, passengers without exact change either did not ride or did not pay the full fare. Plus making change increased boarding time.

Some systems addressed this problem by selling metal tokens. But it cost real money to stamp, distribute, collect and count them, and reconcile them with ridership (if and when counted, as noted). Plus, these intermediate efforts required still more staff. Eventually token kiosks were replaced by machines. But only live staff could sell tokens at a discount (e.g., for disabled and elderly riders). Tokens could obviously not reflect passes: Those eligible to ride at discounts or who rode more frequently were simply defrauded. Further, tokens were easier to counterfeit (called “slugs”) than coins. Many riders eligible for discount tokens either had no interest in traveling or needed the money for other things. So they resold their tokens at a lesser discount to full-fare passengers. Tokens were often sold to middlemen who took another “cut” before reselling them to full-fare passengers. Farebox revenue was hemorrhaging. 

This set of problems was seemingly addressed by digital fare cards. But this technology alienated many passengers in return for minimizing system losses. With the reduction of transit jobs, and kiosks defaulting to vending machines, passengers experienced multiple steps in fare payment. Machines were often out of cash (and unable to make change) and malfunctioned regularly. Delayed by these puzzles and dysfunctions, I missed multiple trains. A the shortage of technicians delayed repairs and/or restocking the kiosks with cash. 

More problematic was institutional theft: Machines were often programmed to embezzle fares. During the decade when my fares were $2.00, and one typically purchased farecards in $20 increments, I estimate that my city’s transit system embezzled about $1000 from my farecards. Evidence was hardly discrete: One could not have $1.35 left in a $20 farecard.

With long lines to “replenish” cards with less than one ride remaining, few passengers bothered. Instead, they simply discarded them. Another trick of farebox machines was tendering change in dollar coins, which no other vendor would accept as legal currency. Passengers may as well have been given change in slugs. 

It was also hard for discount riders to replace lost farecards. They only received discount farecards with identification – which could only be shown to live staff. Without their farecards, discount-eligible passenger could only purchase tickets for single rides at those kiosks staffed by humans, as identification could not be shown to robots. With their trips recorded by the system, discount riders could technically get their lost farecards replaced, with the remaining value intact. But the nation’s largest city had only a single replacement center. No one answered the phones. Processing by mail involved multiple steps and could take weeks, when the replacement card arrived at all. With these scams, the system’s poorest (and most reliable) riders suffered the greatest hardships.

Fugue and Subterfuge

Numerous interim experiments ensued. In one recent pilot project, turnstiles offered passengers the option of scanning their farecards instead of the otherwise single-second swipe. Many passengers ignore this ruse and still swipe – although I expect this option to disappear at some point. Otherwise, the illusion is clever. The bottleneck is not the second it takes to swipe a farecard. The bottlenecks are the long headways and insufficient system capacity. Turnstiles are simply a jobs-elimination ruse disguised as a fare collection expediency – like EZPass. 

As a footnote for motorcoach providers and passengers, toll booths were never a bottleneck. The bottlenecks are the lack of bridge and tunnel capacity and the failure of transit systems to reduce the need for it. EZPass makes travel EZ for no one. Unless they wish to ignore this technology and wait in longer lines to pay cash, travelers waste time replenishing their card’s value online. Those who replenish their credit by telephone or mail squander exponentially more time. EZPass does nothing for motorcoaches: It would seem easy to program the sensors to afford priority to motorcoaches and buses, as do signal preemption devices on many transit buses. Instead, this technology simply camouflages fare policy failures which lead directly to increased traffic.

A more recent annoying time-drain is the installation of sidewalk-mounted ticket machines. To eliminate farecard-swiping while boarding, passengers must now swipe their cards into the vending machines, receive a receipt and, upon boarding, hand it to the driver, who must then stash it. Later, presumably, additional staff must count the receipts and allegedly reconcile them with fares collected by the sidewalk machines – an impossible task since the machines churn out receipts for multiple routes. This practice clearly reduces no boarding time and saves the system no money. But it clearly wastes the passengers’ time. And just as drivers can ignore riders flashing discount passes, they can avoid collecting receipts. 

To not bother with these things, speed up boarding and survive their tight schedules, many drivers simply let passengers board through the rear doors, where there are no fare collection machines. In response, with still more robots, some systems are now processing rear-door boarding. Of course, this approach could have been employed all along. It was not because transit systems will do almost anything but hire human beings.

Passengers and taxpayers alike are deceived by such technology. New York City recently closed  traffic on busy 14th St. to all vehicles other than buses. 14th Street now resembles a post-nuclear movie set. Running time for buses sped up considerably. But the City deceived the Press by claiming that bus ridership increased. It did so largely because the otherwise flood of taxicabs was prohibited – short rides which would have cost little more than bus rides, with vacant taxis often appearing every few seconds compared to buses, whose numbers were not increased to respond to the increased demand. What most increased was the percentage of standees. This masquerade was part ruse, part fugue, part illusion. We already knew that sardines travel faster.  

These scams occasionally translated into short-term savings for transit agencies. But in the long run, they alienated the passengers. This alienation no doubt contributed to recent shifts to far-more-costly and far-less-efficient modes of travel like Uber and Lyft, whose vehicles or drivers do not accept cash in any form, and with whom the passengers must make travel arrangements  — of course, through robots. Uber’s and Lyft’s robots’ skim 20% of the fares for doing nothing. Curiously, and inexplicably, Uber is losing money. But so too are transit systems. They are simply losing more and more money as ridership declines, costs skyrocket and one ruse replaces another. One wonders what will come next: Auto-deduction based on facial recognition?

Costs and Fares

Lost along the boulevard of scams was the comparison of fares to the cost of collecting them. This disparity was first evident in paratransit service, where high costs, high fare-collection costs and poor efficiency translated into extremely low farebox recovery ratios. Often, it cost more to collect the fares than they yielded. But transit agencies continued to collect them nevertheless, if only to deter ridership, if only in theory. Since disabled riders rarely travel frivolously, paratransit fares create nothing but hardship.

More recently, fixed route systems have been covering only a tiny percentage of their costs from the farebox. In response, free-fare transit programs have begun to emerge. This past year, several transit systems did away with fares on fixed route systems altogether.  

Service or Subterfuge

The motorcoach industry could learn much from these experiences. At least motorcoach passengers pay for only the trips they take. And they are not inconvenienced by paying for them. 

Some transit officials are drowning in malarkey. About its recent adoption of TouchPass, one transit official claimed:

“Gone are the days of fumbling around for exact change on a crowded bus with a line of anxious passengers behind you. The TouchPass system makes boarding stress free. The ability to prepay for fare makes budgeting simple.” 

What would make boarding stress-free would be enough buses, realistic schedules, seating capacity, drivers paid living wages, securing wheelchairs, and buses not pulling away before passengers can reach a seat or a stanchion. It is impossible that robotic fare payment by a percentage of passengers could “make budgeting simple.” The riders who drop out now will be those who can’t master the prepayment mechanics.  If such nonsense and delusion continue, bus travel will soon be only for IT professionals and computer geeks. Such riders may soon be needed: One of TouchPass’ features is that passenger data is stored in secure servers rather than in fare cards. Passengers may soon need to protect their bank accounts during the boarding process. 

Some claims are too stupid to believe: “Once purchased, fares can be used instantly.” What? Are coins no longer instant? Are flashing passes no longer instant? Transit has become instant tea. One excellent transit magazine cited, among the most important topics for 2020, “increased gamification features and improved customer communication.” Must transit become a game to restore ridership? It is already a game. Only bn is a game where both the dealers and the players lose. Otherwise, how can communications improve if no one gets the phone? 

Frankly, the more mechanized service becomes, the more it costs. The less convenient it is. The less-used. And the greater the subsidies needed. A vicious circle. Yet these variables ignore passenger costs which do not even accrue to the system, which system officials seem to not care about. To the contrary, increasing claims of “seamless fare payment” is a ruse. For decades, fare collection has been an annoyance and a scam. 

Perhaps it is a mistake to continue to characterize transit as a service. Passengers are likely to know what service actually is. Passengers are clearly being misled. Decreased ridership suggests that they do not appreciate being regularly lied to and cheated. Decreased ridership suggests that they suspect service is being paid for largely through corruption, incompetence and disregard for their safety and convenience. And decreased ridership suggests that passengers do not like their time wasted by illusions like faster boarding time, of trivial importance even if true. 

Unsubsidized motorcoach service has a chance to avoid the casualties of the transit industry’s folly and disregard. It can still provide genuine service. It can show respect for passengers’ time. And it can not insult their intelligence.

Public transportation history suggests that robots only make things worse. Glimpsing into the not-too-distant future, robots may soon provide the thinking, such that it is. Yet if they do, and if they figure things out, will they conclude that the answer is replacing themselves? If they do, can we honestly expect them to implement such solutions?