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Streetcar fare cheats take a hike

Has 'Portland nice' finally prevailed? Fare inspectors say (almost) everybody's paying for their ride


by: PORTLAND TRIBUNE: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTTL - Since Portland Streetcar Officer Ticole Waller began checking for fares in September, streetcar riders have been changing their habits and paying up.“I never used to pay before they got those guys.”

William Barnes, well-dressed in tie and sport jacket this Thursday afternoon, is pointing down the streetcar aisle toward Ticole Waller. Waller is Portland’s first streetcar officer. He’s checking fares.

Barnes says he’s down to his last dollar; he’s spiffed up because of an important meeting he has to attend. And yet Barnes paid a dollar for his short streetcar trip across the Broadway Bridge. He doesn’t always. And, he admits, he never used to.

Barnes says he paid today because he’s in a rush. Normally, he looks for Waller or another inspector and if he sees one on board, he waits for the next streetcar.

“A dollar is still a dollar,” says Barnes, noting that he sees a streetcar officer about every third streetcar trip he takes.

Originally, the Portland Streetcar was intended to be free all around its downtown, Pearl District, Portland State University loop. The Northwest Portland neighborhood association objected to the free rides through its section, so for 11 years the streetcar was free except for Northwest. And the city never hired fare inspectors with the authority to fine or kick off those who rode without paying fares — about one in four riders.

Portland’s streetcar system is owned by the city and operated by Portland Streetcar Inc. It is separate from TriMet’s light-rail system.

This fall, TriMet agreed to drop its decades-old Fareless Square, requiring fares for all rides on some sections of MAX downtown. In September, the streetcar expanded to the east side of the Willamette River. The expansion cost money, so early on it was decided that the eastside line would have to be a pay zone. And because it didn’t seem fair that eastsiders would have to pay but westsiders wouldn’t, the city bid farewell to free streetcar rides.

Now, everybody is supposed to pay, and Waller’s primary job is to make sure they do. He’s supplemented by supervisors who take turns checking fares and maintaining proper streetcar decorum, so in total there are the equivalent of two streetcar officers responsible for the 11 streetcars.

That may not seem like much. And yet, something’s working. New data from streetcar officials shows that all but about 7 percent of riders either have passes or are paying their fares. Eastside riders have the highest payment rate, followed by Northwest Portland riders. Southwest Portland passengers, most of whom are riding downtown, have the highest non-payment rate.

Here’s the kicker: Waller and associates have yet to hand out their first $175 citation or streetcar exclusion. When Waller finds people who haven’t paid — and haven’t jumped off the streetcar as he approached them — he guides them to the on-board ticket machine.

It’s embarrassing

Either “Portland nice” is rising to new heights, or Waller is an incredibly effective authority figure.

A Thursday rider, who says her name is Tineke, says she used to cheat some on the fares because most of her route between Northwest Portland and downtown was in Fareless Square. The TriMet fare (now $2.50) seemed unreasonable to her.

“I was two steps out of the (free) zone,” Tineke says.

A streetcar rider nearly every day, Tineke says she now pays each time she boards a train. She appreciates the streetcar-only fare and the user-friendly ticket machines.

“I figure the dollar is reasonable for shorter rides,” she says.

Another rider, Page, says she takes the new streetcar line between downtown and the Lloyd Center four times a week, instead of riding the more expensive MAX train. She bought an annual streetcar pass for $100.

But the savings isn’t the only reason Page opts for the eastside streetcar line over MAX. “The streetcar is a more hospitable environment,” she says. “I feel safer than I do on MAX.”

Waller hears that, or something similar, repeatedly. Before September, it was not unusual for homeless people to ride the streetcar as a way to get out of the cold. In fact, as the streetcar heads up Northeast Broadway, Waller points to a group of rough-looking men standing near a platform who watch the train move by but don’t make an effort to board. Waller says they might have hopped on if they hadn’t spotted him.

After 90 minutes on and off a variety of streetcars, Waller has surveyed 150 riders and encountered only three to whom he would have been issued fines — if that policy were in effect. All three were told to either buy a ticket on board or hop off at the next stop.

Jeremy Ferguson, operations supervisor for the streetcar, cites a number of potential explanations for the streetcar’s sudden high compliance rate: Waller is more than a fare inspector. He and the supervisors are acting as helpful customer service agents as well. People are becoming more comfortable on the streetcar, Ferguson says.

The new ticket machines that take credit and debit cards have been installed at all streetcar stops, and the machines on board take dollar bills, a major improvement from the old machines that took only quarters. The $1 fares also help, Ferguson says.

Waller adds one more. “It’s still embarrassing,” he says of riders who have to admit to him that they haven’t paid.

Besides, Ferguson says, Waller and supervisors might not be on every streetcar, but “you never know when they’re going to be out there.” By getting on and off multiple trains, Waller is maximizing his ability to be seen by the most riders.

“It’s the fear factor,” Ferguson says. “It’s the anticipation of getting a ticket.”

But Waller has never written a ticket.

“They know it’s hanging out there and they never know what day we’re going to drop the hammer,” Ferguson says.

Citations under wraps

That not knowing is the critical element in what economists call the deterrent effect. University of Chicago economist Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize in 1992 and much of his work focused on how criminal activity could be predicted and avoided by proper use of rational deterrence. Becer believes that the probability of someone getting caught during an illegal act — say, riding the streetcar without a fare — is a greater deterrent than the severity of punishment should he or she get caught.

Bill Harbaugh, a University of Oregon economist who studies the intersection of human behavior and public policy, says the deterrent effect can be distilled to a simple mathematical formula.

“What works,” Harbaugh says, “is the product of getting caught and the fine if you do get caught.”

In other words, Harbaugh is making the long-term cost of not paying and occasionally getting fined the same as the cost of simply paying the fare each time.

As an example, Harbaugh says the most efficient way to deter scofflaws is to catch one non-paying rider a year and execute him or her. The city could spend minimal resources on enforcement but nobody would take the chance.

That can’t be done, of course. Fairness has to enter the equation, which means less severe penalties which can only be balanced by more frequent inspections.

Personally, Harbaugh favors a fine of about $50. “That’s the kind of money that drives a poor person making minimum wage,” he says.

In Harbaugh’s equation, the amount of a fine multiplied by the percentage risk of getting caught by an inspector should equal the cost of a fare. And that should define how frequently inspections need to take place to discourage scofflaws.

The fine on streetcars is going to be $175. The fare is $1. Dividing 175 into 1 yields 0.0057, or half of 1 percent.

So using Harbaugh’s formula, Waller needs to inspect about one of every 200 riders to deter all but the most determined fare cheats.

But Waller and his helpers are doing much better. There are about 12,500 streetcar riders a day. In seven weeks, 18,500 riders have had their fares checked. That comes to about 377 riders getting checked out of 12,500 daily riders — about one in 33.

And Portland riders have been paying the fares even without fines being assessed, though that might not matter, according to Ferguson. Some may see Waller walking down the aisle and assume the streetcar follows the same zero tolerance policy as TriMet’s MAX.

Ferguson says eventually the citation books will come out and scofflaws will face $175 fines, but ironically, he’s in no hurry to make the changeover, especially with compliance so high.

He explains that originally he anticipated streetcar officers would hand out tickets from the start but the data shows he can delay that enforcement. From a cost/benefit perspective, he says, handing out tickets with compliance already so high may not make sense.

Writing citations will take officers’ time and keep them from inspecting everyone on board. And each of those citations will require Waller or another officer to get overtime pay to testify in community court, if it comes to that.

In addition, revenue from citations won’t go back into streetcar operations, Ferguson says, but instead will be routed to the city’s general fund.

The total effect of handing out fines and exclusion notices doesn’t look pretty to Ferguson.

“We’ve made an expenditure, we’ve made an angry customer and we’ve potentially created an unpleasant environment for the rest of the customers on the streetcar,” he says.