Bus transfer as beer in a paper bag
This week's City Paper has a serious article on the coming end, next month, of paper bus transfers in DC. You'll still be able to transfer for free using a Smartrip card ($5 initial investment), but there will be no transfer at all if you pay with cash.
The context of the change is that a significant portion of bus riders don't pay, and often the scam involves presenting a transfer slip that shouldn't actually be valid, or that is faked. The bus drivers generally won't challenge a rider, as they are unfortunately sitting ducks for assault; a driver in New York City was killed recently, in fact.
Here's the nut of the article:
One driver doesn’t understand why people go to such lengths to get a free bus ride, when there is a really simple way to get from points A to B when you’re short on cash.
“I understand that some of my co-workers have attitudes, but most of us don’t,” he says. “If someone says, ‘Mr. Bus Driver, I don’t have any money, but I need to get somewhere, can you let me ride?’ most of us would probably do it,” he says.
That’s a fine sentiment from an empathetic driver. But it misses the point of the whole transfer transaction, and that’s saving face. No one—not the lowliest of bus riders—wants to tell an entire busload of people that he doesn’t have five quarters and a dime to rub together.
It’s why the bus transfer in D.C. has become the mass-transit equivalent of sticking a beer in a brown paper bag: If you went to the trouble of waving a strip of paper—even an ice-cream sandwich wrapper or a corner of the Giant food circular could work—a bus driver would likely allow you to board, no questions asked. With a transfer, you don’t have to shred your dignity by pleading poverty or trying to sneak in through the back door as other passengers disembark. In return, the driver gets to keep his eyes and mind on the road instead of playing transit cop and social worker.
So what's the solution? High criminal penalties for assaulting transit workers is one idea, but I believe most jurisdictions already have those, and it's not like that fixes the problem. Prosecuting for fare evasion is probably not that realistic.
Maybe we should go the other direction: get rid of fares for busses. The lost revenue is less of an effect than you might think, because you can save on all the costs associated with fare collection. Some U.S. cities have already experimented with this -- Seattle and Portland, for example, both have ride-free areas downtown.