Should people obey the law and pay for expensive transportation infrastructure when they use it? Yes.
With that firmly in mind, let’s look at the StarTribune article announcing that “Freeloading on light-rail lines rises sharply.”
The article reviews some possible reasons why fare non-payment may have gone up, what Metro Transit is doing in response, and some context from other transit agencies. All useful information, which reporter Tim Harlow should be commended for including.
Context: other non-payment for transportation
Less useful is the lack of context with any other kind of transportation non-payment. For example, MnDOT monitors violations on its MnPass network, and these rates can be high. The most recent report shows violations from the second quarter of 2016; and shows, for example, an average 18.6% violation rate on 35W during the evening rush at the Lake Street monitoring location.
The MnDOT report does not give an average by corridor, so we can’t compare to average Blue or Green Line rates. But the StarTribune went into great detail on the violation rates by line and station for LRT (four different charts in the on-line article); this same information is available for MnPass. And violation rates look roughly comparable. The Green Line station with the highest violation rate and the 35W MnPass location with the highest violation rate are about the same, and both corridors also have stations/monitors with very low violation rates.
How do we talk about it?
Given that LRT and MnPass both see non-trivial rates of non-payment, how do we talk about each? Compare the LRT article with the last StarTribune piece on MnPass violations.
“Freeloading” (“Scofflaws” in print; “freeloading” on-line)
“The difference is enough to make even law-abiding drivers consider sneaking over for a bit.”
“Just last week, however, she sneaked into the far left lane to pass a "really slow driver," she said, though she was by herself.”
“"has no idea what that whole MnPass setup is," she said.”
Not a single pejorative term.
“Fare dodging scofflaws”
“Green Line cheaters”
No interviews with anyone, let alone a sympathetic violator.
The LRT article imagines only one kind of non-paying rider: a “cheater” and a “dodger”. Nothing about people who can’t figure out the fare machine, or the fare machine wasn’t working, or, like the drivers in the MnPass article, were just late/or impatient.
We can also look at the language we use around parking. Minneapolis issued more than $5 million in parking tickets last year; clearly a lot of people don’t pay for their parking. Yet a recent article on parking tickets opens with “unwitting motorists”, and describes how “the lure of…scoring a spot for free is often too great.”
How we should talk about it
So, how should we, as members of the Chamber, and leaders in the community, talk about the problem of non-payment, and possible solutions?
It matters how we discuss fare non-payment. The LRT article supports the narrative by transit opponents that transit at best doesn’t pay for itself and at worst is meant to benefit “freeloaders.” A picture that pretends that LRT users are cheaters while drivers are just confused is fundamentally inaccurate and thus a barrier to good decision-making. And let’s not pretend that terms like “freeloaders” and “Green Line cheaters” are not heard by some people as carrying racial meaning. This language is a serious problem for our work to build a multi-modal transportation system that works for everyone.
Our goal with this statement is not to criticize the StarTribune. We use these examples because they probably mirror how a lot of people—including us, at times—talk. Rather, it is to take responsibility for how we talk. As business leaders, we are in a powerful position to point out that Metro Transit is doing a good job balancing convenience and enforcement, as any good business does. Sometimes people do not pay for the MnPass lanes they use; MnDOT does not install toll booths. Sometimes people shoplift; Target does not check your bags. In fact, at most stores, it’s easy to just walk in and out. The fact is that in any system, public or private, the vast majority of people do the right thing.
We are vocal advocates for transit as part of a complete transportation system. That means people ask us about fare non-payment. We answer:
- Everyone should obey the law and pay for expensive transportation infrastructure when they use it. On all parts of the transportation system.
- Metro Transit runs a convenient, efficient system. ‘No turnstiles’ makes sense. Turnstiles cost more than they bring in and inconvenience everyone without solving the problem. They make no more business sense than tollbooths on 35W, or bag checks at Target.
- Any system can be improved. We support continued work to make payment easy and fast. For example, faced with non-payment for parking, Minneapolis and Saint Paul made it easier to pay, and saw revenue go up. Payment systems and enforcement should respond to the fact that vast majority of people in any system do the right thing.
Thanks for being a part of this important conversation.