Fare Collection Folly, Waste and Stupidity

In the March, 2020 installment of National Bus Trader, I penned a scathing article about fare collection (see https://transalt.com/article/drivers-v-robots-part-8-collecting-the-fares-skimming-the-passengers/). But like many things in transit, things only and always get worse and worse. It is hardly surprising that ridership continues to decline, placing the future of transit at risk of soon disappearing in many part of the country. But my most recent experience with the New York City subway system was so exasperating that I felt it worth summarizing the key benchmarks in the history of fare collection.

The Good Old Days

When the introduction of buses began, car owners were not rare. Women drivers were. (Keep in mind that American women could not even vote until 1919.) But car owners hardly saturated the population. Few people were rich, and most were poor. The “middle class” was not even a concept, much less the major force it became for a few decades later in the mid 20th Century. Otherwise except for a few years near and after the end of the Roaring Twenties, there was little unemployment, no border crisis, and rent was a pittance. So buses were not only necessities in our slowly booming cities, but bus fares were trivial and affordable. And coverage was extensive enough to make fixed route transit not only attractive, but profitable. (It still is in Japan, where fares cover 160% of operating costs.)

Do any readers remember this thing we still use occasionally, for certain things, called cash? As even the general public knows, the opportunities to pay cash for many modes of service are gradually disappearing. You can’t pay cash to fly. Uber or Lyft certainly will not take cash, since much of their profit is derived from stealing and selling the personal information of their passengers and those individuals in their passengers’ social media networks. One clearly cannot reserve any mode of transportation in advance with cash. And its getting impossible to even use the NYC subway with cash, since the farebox machines rarely take cash in any form, and most of the live kiosks that did were closed at least a decade ago. (And even when you pay with a credit card, you get change in bronze dollar coins – which almost no merchant of any kind will accept as legitimate currency.)

But long before the U.S. Jobs Elimination Program (the JEP) got underway, cash was used for everything. We had plenty of staff to monitor drivers and conductors collecting it (to see that they did not steal it). Our lives were not overwhelmed with zillions of digital tasks, and most of us had plenty of free time. And schedules were not tight. So drivers of all modes (and trainmen and conductors on passenger rail) were happy to accept cash, and take their time making change. (Drivers had to exchange lots of dimes for quarters when the fares were 15 cents.) And we had plenty of staff to collect, count and process these payments. Easier than pie, to twist a cliché. After the fares were collected, drivers often placed them in wooden boxes with a slit for the coin, and a simple lock for a supervisor to open at the end of each driver’s operating shift; the drivers simply carried their fareboxes inside.

Jingle, Jangle, Jingle

At some point, some clever transit nudnick dreamt up a farebox. For a long while, these were not automatic, or even semi-automatic: Drivers accepted cash, made change, and tossed the money into the farebox. All or most fares were less than $1.00, so making change was infrequent, and passengers simply threw their coins into the box. With fareboxes made mostly of glass, drivers could see the fares, and practically count them, if and when they were interested or cared. In those days, there were few or no discounts of any kind, for almost anyone, on most systems. But the fares were so moderate, and the extremes of rich and poor far less than today, and operating costs so low, that this was not an issue.

This approach worked better in some parts of the country than others. In the neighborhoods of the working poor surrounding the small enclaves of urban cake eaters, fare collection was not problematic. The pace of life was slow, and the widespread degree of honesty would be shocking, if not inconceivable, in Today’s times. This began to change slowly as a small middle class began to grow, and the disparity between income began to widen. In some parts of the country, fare collection by farebox was more challenging. In a few places, it was daunting. During my first year in Washington, D.C., where almost all drivers and most passengers were Afro-American, drivers often let Afro-American passengers (and anyone else) put whatever they wanted into the farebox. The most typical set of coins tossed into the farebox, from my watching it – mesmerized — was a nickel and two pennies (the nickel made a louder sound – like a quarter). Frankly, this was a trivial reparation for 250 years of slavery and Jim Crow, and I realized this even back then as a 22-year-old. (I usually smiled whenever I noticed this happening.) But many riders, rich or poor, of all races, paid the full fare without a question or a thought.

I seem to recall fares being 50 or 75 cents (kind of steep since one could take a taxi from Georgetown to the Capitol Building for 90 cents in the District’s long-since-abandoned “zonal fare structure.” Just the same, I watched numerous passenger toss a nickel and a few pennies into the farebox, and never once observed a driver challenge this. This was a time just after President Johnson rescued fixed route transit from a diminishing skeleton of the few fat routes with capital assistance (1964) and operating assistance (1967). Not in the transportation business at the time, I did not know about such things. Thinking about it now, transit agencies were verily swimming in money in 1967. So they likely didn’t care about the fare-skimming I observed in 1969 (during the only semester of law school I attended, that I could stand). Most states and cities treated Federal funds like money from Mars.

Of course, with these fare-skimming problems, and the bloated costs that these subsidies created (mostly through an explosion of overpaid management), operating assistance didn’t do much for long: By 1977, a mere decade after the introduction of operating assistance, fares covered only about 50 percent of operating costs, nationally. Some cities obviously did much better: Until a few years ago, New York City’s “operating ratio” was 35 percent. Most cities with less density did not fair as well (pun intended).

Token and Taken

To stifle the problem of passengers paying lesser fares, coins begat tokens. One had to buy a token apart from the vehicle – mostly from stores and common facilities rather than from kiosks. Still with staff available for monitoring (the JEP did not begin until roughly1973, and only limped along until 1980), it was harder or drivers to ignore passenger underpaying for their rides, and fewer passengers tried, since only a single token had to now drop into the farebox. A further refinement was a slot into which a token had to fit. As he JEP began unfolding, and monitoring began to shrink, the token was a significant advance and stifled fare-skimming to a great degree. Of course, making and selling “slugs” was a thriving business, almost a perfect fit for bus ridership, and launched a new form of complete fare-skimming. Yet the use of tokens was an improvement (keep in mind systems in many parts of the country still took cash, and in a few places, still do today). So the use of tokens lasted for quite a while: It was still employed, and a great convenience, when I moved to Manhattan in 1997; one bought a bunch of them, at a discount, from a liver Earthling in every subway station’s kiosk. (These tokens were not usable on buses; as this installment can only be so long, I’ll skip some transitional bus fare approaches.)

Along Came Farecards

Automation finally began to catch up with public transportation around the turn of the 21st century, when farecards emerged. Such cards partly eliminated the problems of drivers skimming fares – eliminating the counting and processing of cash or tokens. Few passengers boarded without the farebox “processing” their cards. (Mostly for tourists, drivers had to explain to these riders how to insert their fare cards.) Further creating more havoc and inconvenience to many passengers, farecards begat farebox dispensing machines – which allowed many cities’ subway systems to begin closing kiosks where live Earthlings could sell farecards in a tenth of the time a passenger could “buy one” from a handful of fare-dispensing machines in every station. Of course these machines could not sell passes – although one could purchase the equivalent if one bought a costlier farecard. But with a machine, there was no provision for buying a disabled or handicapped farecard.

The machines constantly ran out of change (particularly bills). Then the City began to include a $1.00 surcharge for purchasing a farecard – effectively discriminating against poorer riders who could not amortize these surcharges better against farecards of larger increments. (Live personnel selling cards from the few remaining kiosks did not racketeer riders by charging them a surcharge – suggesting that the City consider the availability of machines an amenity whose use was worthy of an extra dollar.) About 20 years ago, wishing to board a PATH train from Hoboken to the old World Trade Center station late at night (a few years before the Taliban blew it up), I had only a $50 bill. There were no kiosks, no stores open from which to make change, no farebox machines that would take bills larger than $20, and nearby saloons’ bartenders too busy to bother, I simply jumped the turnstile. Caught on camera, a police officer soon approached me out of nowhere, had no interest in my explanation of my predicament (the system’s fault), and issued me a ticket requiring my payment of a $50 fine.

As the reader should begin noticing, fare payment got more and more inconvenient and inequitable, particularly for those riders most dependent on it and the least able to afford it. Fares are now $2.75 per one-way ride. Disabled and elderly can purchase farecards for half price in NYC – but only at those few stations with kiosks manned by live personnel. But the PATH system, using the very same farecard, will not accept discounted farecards.
Purchasing these cards was still problematic given the profusion of discount fares, passes and other gimmicks designed presumably (or allegedly) to encourage the greater use of transit – as if someone without a weekly or monthly pass might walk to work one day a week without it. I recall reading about one transit system with 70 varieties of fares and fare payment options. The technology could not remotely keep up with this profusion of fare increments. So many unlucky would-be transit riders either overpaid for their rides, or went to unreasonable lengths to find the variety best suited to provide the best value – if such a would-be rider could even figure it out.

By around 2015, when the JEP was in full swing, and I had just reached the age qualifying me for a discount farecard, I was lucky that, when I lost my discount farecard, my office in Lower Manhattan lay only two short blocks away from the only MetroCard “store” in the entire five boroughs that replenished them. Doing so by mail was like crawling through broken glass. Once, after wasting an hour in line to purchase a lost one, I gave up and mailed a letter to the address of the single farecard “store” (or outlet) I never got it in the mail, as promised, during the two weeks it should have taken. Trudging my lucky three blocks to the MetroCard store, and waiting for another hour, I reached my turn at a desk, where the clerk had to walk upstairs to fetch it. After about 15 minutes’ wait, he returned with it – along with an apology that it had arrived an entire month earlier, but the clerk had not gotten to the point of mailing it out yet. Hardly offsetting the value of my time, the replacement card actually appeared to contain the balance remaining in the card I had lost – saving me roughly $6.00 (I was among the City’s elite to have purchased a $20 farecard. As the old song goes, “When I walked into the joint, I was a Really Big Spender.”)

Otherwise, apart from passes which drivers could once again ignore (thereby collecting no fares at all from selective or random passengers), the farecards appeared to at least simplify purchasing rides for, more than likely, the majority of riders (not compared to paying with cash, of course, but a boon to the fortunate more than 40 years into the JEP). And in those subways where law enforcement officers loomed over the turnstiles,, jumping them was somewhat risky. The notion that these officers might have served the public better by being positioned on the platforms had no bearing on New York City’s subway system: The last time I noted the statistic, 57 passenger were shoved onto the tracks with trains approaching their positions in the stations. As an expert witness, I served on a few cases where, with no train or platform personnel, passengers were stabbed. In 2023, the number of muggings, fistfights and other mayhem in the subways had increased to a crisis covered constantly by the news (mostly the NYTimes). I doubt that those Plexiglas safety gates common to many subway stations in Germany for decades (I remember seeing them operate in Frankfurt in the late 1980s) would show up in a doodle about such a solution in this country, much less as an idea any transit professional might have as a fleeting thought.

We are still only partly along the way to explaining one of the myriad reasons that the knuckleheads who create transit policies and design dysfunctional and wasteful systems are discouraging riders (and gouging the taxpayers to make up the difference). But it is important to note that the decline in transit ridership did not drop out of the sky in one swell foop (to again malaprop a cliché to avoid using one). Merely noting waste, I recently served as an expert witness involving a southern New Jersey bus system whose route-in-question transported fewer than one passenger per hour. If one might wonder why those in the Heartland hate and loathe the “coastal elite,” one need look no further than public transit: In 2021, Los Angeles was covering nine percent of its operating costs from fares. In Japan, As noted, transit system fares cover 160% of these costs.

Script to the Unrescue

Apparently farecards – which drivers did not have to touch or even see – were too old-fashioned for our technological capabilities. Around the time of my attendance and my last-ever APTA Conference (and only because it was held in NYC), the theme was technology. Technology, Technology and more Technology: “Here we come to save the day, technology is on its way.” (Excuse my malaprop, once again, from the Theme Song of Mighty Mouse. National Bus Trader readers must excuse my constant references to songs. As millennia of slaves learned, drudgery hurts less when one sings.) Anyway, months after that conference, I had to travel from my doctors office at 314 14th Street (just west of 8th Avenue) to Union Square (about ¾ of a mile East). I decided that whichever came along first – taxi or bus – I was going to take it. (At this distance, the fares would have been similar.) I soon learned that this approach was not realistic. The first vehicle that came along was a bus, and I hopped aboard – only to be told that the driver no longer accepted farecards (which again, he or she did not have to handle, much less “process” in any way). Instead, I had to purchase script from a curb-side machine, with my credit card. Then, I could board and hand it to the driver, who presumably looked at it to differentiate it from a receipt from a vape store, or whatever (recreational marijuana was not yet legalized in Manhattan). Of course, to pick a thoroughfare with enough time for a driver to collect the fare in nickels, one could not have chosen a better street that 14th Street, which brilliant former Mayor DeBlasio (yes, the same Bill De Blasio who decimated the City’s taxi system by permitting 60,000 Ubers into the city without their buying a taxi medallion, worth $1.1M a couple years earlier) has closed off to automobile traffic – with the exception of TNCs and taxis – in order to speed along the passengers of those buses that came along once every five minutes. Regardless, not knowing if or when my bus or taxi was going to appear first, I eschewed the purchase of bus script – and decided to walk to my destination. As a matter of mental and physical health, this was a far better choice than riding transit (or wasting my script if a taxi came along first, since the scrip was valid only for a short three-or four-hour period). As a pedestrian, I was able to dissipate my anger during my now-long walk to my destination.

Farecards Redux

Swiping farecards apparently caused a wild outbreak of carpal tunnel disease. To address this problem, the fareboxes were reconfigured so that one no longer needed to swipe his or her farecard (although most machines still allow this). Instead, one would now stick one end of his or her credit card (with a faux chip emoji embedded on it) into the machine …and wait for the machine to “recognize” it, subjecting the card bearer to messages like, “Do Not Remove Your Card,” and then, “You Have Been Approved” or “Please Remove Card,” or sometimes some form of a rejection – which could usually be cured by reinserting it – or if the would-be passenger were lucky enough to also have a now-obsolete farecard, by swiping it – like the corny old-school cardholders like myself.
In mid-March, in NYC for the first time in months, I was unable to purchase a farecard (my elderly card could not be refilled because there were no kiosks, and as noted, one could not do this with a machine). My machine-of-choice did not accept cash. (It told me it was out of bills.) Nor did the one next to it accept cash for the same reason. Then the second machine refused to process a payment with my credit card. Watching all this were three transit law enforcement officers. One extremely nice woman among them sympathized with my situation – I was hardly the only one struggling with one of four machines, although my fellow travelers (more likely still New Yorkers, as I had been for 23 years until COVID became the last straw) appeared to have been more skilled or more lucky (not feeling lucky, and not a gambler, I would bet on more skilled).Regardless, this wonderful, kind women left her colleagues, and literally walked me to the turnstile and taught me that I didn’t have to bother with no stinking farecard machines any more at all (although four were still there, some would-be passengers struggled with them, and three officers were stationed there to help them) Instead, all I had to now do was take out a credit card and tap it on an LED screen on the turnstile and, presto, a readout told me to “Go Thru.” It was literally that simple.

One reading this article should note that it took transit literally a century to reach this point. Of course, with constant attempts by the New York Department of Taxation and Finance to scam me – recently by re-submitting two tax notices representing sums that I had clearly paid (by e-filing no less) – I was not pleased to now provide the New York City Transportation Authority with the same means to access – and do whatever it wished – with my personal information the same way Uber and Lyft use it. Regardless, now I will not think twice before taking a subway. Paying for the ride (still, at the full-fare rate, since the system could not deduce my right to pay half-fare from my credit card) because easy – even while scammed out of my ADA-required elderly pass rights.

A Ride One Can Count On

A few months ago, not wishing to drive through Queens, I parked at a familiar not-too-overpriced lot on Broadway and 184th street – intending to take a taxi to LaGuardia Airport (since some nincompoop attorney for whom I was working, as usual, would be paying for both the taxi and the parking). But first I had an errand to do a bit further downtown. Unwilling to use any TNC, with no taxis in sight in at least 10 minutes, and not wishing to walk (with two suitcases) to the nearest bus stop, a gentleman with a shiny new SUV approached me to offer me a ride to the airport (which was my obvious destination after my first errand). He was not an Uber or Lyft driver – although, in fairness to me, having seen hundreds, or perhaps thousands, I have never noticed one equipped with the Uber or Lyft logo – or both combined, since motorists signed up for both can driver alternately for both. I asked the driver the fare, and he quoted me within a few dollars what I knew the taxi fares to my final destination to be. (He kindly transported me first to my initial nearby errand, at no extra cost.)

Without the dependable safety assurances that an Uber or Lyft driver would seem to provide, I had no concerns about riding with a driver unlicensed in any way to provide public transportation of any kind. Why would a transportation professional be concerned about this? Those professionals aware of the goings on in the field have probably learned by now of the class action lawsuit in California against more than 100,000 Uber drivers. So how unsafe could a well-dressed adult in a shiny new SUV be?

Afraid to ride in an unauthorized vehicle? Not me. I’m an expert witness with nearly 700 safety-related lawsuits under my belt. I am actually one of few Americans who knows what safe transportation is. And with the exception of a few modes – mainly schoolbuses and motorcoaches – I know how and when to get safe transportation. It simply does not come with the term “public” in front of it.

Epilogue

More than three decades ago, as the U.S. business partner of a Slovenian bus and truck manufacturer, TAM Maribor, I noticed one day, while walking through the factory, a line of buses with telephone-booth-size cages built adjacent to the rear doors – where I was told the passengers boarded. A similar tight grid blocked off the driver from passengers. Surprised, I asked my colleagues what this was about. I was told that, in the African country they were designed for, drivers did not feel safe – and they had driver shortages for different reasons than we do. Nor would a “fare collector” feel similarly safe. The cages were designed so that those collecting fares could not be stabbed in order to rob them of the fares they had collected. There was no fear of being shot through such a cage that a knife could not be thrust through: How would the shooter then get the fares?

In some places, being a driver in the vehicles configured for them would be a far greater risk than our drivers face in such vehicles. In contrast – not necessarily or only insofar as safety — being a passenger in some Third World countries is a cakewalk compared to being one on certain modes in the United States of America. Oh say can you see by the dawn’s earliest light how true and obvious this is on certain modes here when they are doing their mediocre best.


Publications: National Bus Trader.