WMATA: Don’t blame riders for AFC failures

Over at Unsuck DC Metro, there’s a post on riders being cited by the Metro Transit Police Department for failing to pay their fare. The short version of the story is that many riders who have been hassled over fare payment or even cited claim to have had no intent to commit fare evasion, and are treated in a harsh and heavy-handed manner. While it’s possible that some of these individuals really did mean to avoid paying their fare, I can certainly see situations in which an innocent person could be cited for fare evasion under circumstances that simply aren’t their fault. At the same time, some aspects of the design of the Metrorail system (including emergency exit gates with no alarms, even at isolated entrances) encourage willful fare evasion, which in many cases goes unreported, and, worse, uncontrolled.

The major problem here is that Metro Transit Police seem to treat every case of fare evasion equally. I would argue that there is in fact a substantial difference between knowing and willful fare evasion (like jumping over the faregates, or, more simply, passing through the emergency exit gate), and inadvertant fare evasion brought on by equipment failure (which may be failure of a SmarTrip card, or failure of the faregate itself). If an individual has a SmarTrip card in hand, and passes through a faregate, then I would say that there is a good chance that they had every intention of paying their fare, and citing them (or worse, arresting them) is probably the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, I’ve seen individuals pass through the emergency exit gates on many occasions with no consequences; those individuals demonstrate by their actions that they have no intention of paying their fare. They are the ones that the Metro Transit Police should be working to stop.

Now, sometimes the situation may be unclear—suppose a person is stopped, and they present a SmarTrip card which appears to be completely dead. In those situations, a certain amount of discretion is required. If it’s the first time that individual has been stopped with a bad card, then it’s entirely possible that the card had actually just failed (and SmarTrip cards are not all that reliable). The individual should be admonished to get their card replaced, or use a paper farecard in the mean time, and their information should be taken for future reference. If the same individual continues to try to travel, presenting the dead SmarTrip card and claiming they’ve used it to pay their fare, then it’s time to cite the individual. But the reality is that SmarTrip cards fail, and nobody should have to worry about being cited because their card failed at an inopportune moment.

Aside from issues of enforcement, there are technical issues with the Metrorail AFC system which make it harder for even well-meaning riders to pay their fare. The first is that it’s nearly impossible to know the status of a Metrorail faregate. They have tiny 2-line LCD displays on top, but those displays are awkwardly placed, hard to read, and often simply blank. Worse, the system uses bi-parting leaf faregates throughout. The faregate stays open for long enough after each passenger that it’s easy to inadvertently tailgate behind an entering or exiting passenger. Put the two together and you have a recipe for disaster. At peak times, it’s easy to tap your card and then walk through without knowing if your card was accepted, or if you’re just tailgating behind someone. These are technical issues which are hard to fix with the existing Metrorail faregates, but WMATA should absolutely make sure that the next generation of Metrorail faregates feature an improved passenger interface.

One thought on “WMATA: Don’t blame riders for AFC failures”

  1. Good points about fare evasion or the lack thereof by passengers. Yes it would be nice to have new gates with better displays. However, the system also needs new vendors as well and the cost of this is quite large. Earlier in the week the Metro CFO suggested that the Metro fare collection system was outmoded and should be replaced by a new open payments system. I take exception to that comment, elements of WMATA’s fare collection system, the smartrip cards are relatively modern and reliable. WMATA has achieved what is likely the highest penetration of contactless cards in the nation while maintaining it’s old magstripe system as well. Replacing a fare collection system with the size and complexity of the WMATA system will cost in excess of 100 million dollars. That cost will be borne by the patrons and jurisdictions that support the system no matter how the project is funded. Open payments is not a panacea.

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