Comparing Transportation Violation Rates

You’re probably reading the various news stories out there regarding the Metro Transit study finding between 4.6 and 9 percent of Green Line Riders evade their fares in some way. Blue Line evasion rates are lower, between 2.6 and 3.6 percent. Go ahead and read the click-bait articles for a bit more information, and as always read the study itself to understand the methodology and conclusions.

Articles like these bring out the region’s finest; excellent terms like “hoodlum,” “Shiny Toy Train,” “free-loaders,” and “bums” are de rigueur for any worthy internet commenter. But how does the Green Line stack up against other transportation systems?

Well, for starters, we know fare evasion on proof-of-payment transit systems is extremely common. The report points out that 1994 fare evasion in the NYC Subway – a completely closed system with turnstiles and transit police – had fare evasion rates between 2.3 and 2.6 percent.


Image source:

Los Angeles had fare evasion rates of 6% before spending millions installing turnstyles with marginal results. Even the Northstar Line, with mostly white collar exurban workers, is cited as having a  2% fare evasion line. Read more case studies on proof-of-payment here.

If you think that fare evasion is a failure found only in transit, think again. Virginia HOV violation rates were found to be in the high 20% range (document page 13). Oregon and Washington reported violation rates of 8 to 12 percent.

Right here in Minnesota, drivers on 394 violated MnPass lanes in 2005 and 2006 at rates between 3 and 11 percent:


Violations for HOV (non-tolled) lanes on 35W ranged from 15 to 35 percent. I’m sure if data were available we would see similar trends in compliance rates for people paying to park on-street. We know parking tickets exist, and there’s a non-zero number of drivers who illegally park and get away with it. I guess what I’m saying is not that fare evasion isn’t a problem, but rather that we should put the problem in perspective before we jerk the knee.

We need to be asking better questions, not shouting at “wasteful choo choos.” Maybe in light of this information, Metro Transit would be well-served hiring a few more full-time-equivalent transit police heads to check fares. At what point does the marginal cost (let’s guess $100,000 per year salary + benefits) outweigh the benefits (fare compliance increase + fine revenues)? Even if we knew that number, would society be better if we instead spent that $100k on operating a bus route extra hours or built 16 transit shelters every year? These are the discussions we should be having. Please share if you agree.

54 thoughts on “Comparing Transportation Violation Rates

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    the answer to “hey what opinion wil be less popular than continually saying that we shoudl pay more for parking and gas?”……

    Great point Alex. This is why we should fund the IRS; every dollar spent at the IRS on (especially high income tax evasion) pays for itself at at least a 2:1 ratio.

  2. Julia

    Is there any data on what percent of fare evasion on the green/blue lines is incidental rather than intentional?

    The MetroTransit fare system for light rail is very clunky in multiple ways, especially if you aren’t a single user with a monthly/semester pass. I’ve missed or nearly missed the train probably 50% of the time when I ride with others who need to pay for fare. In once case, we missed the train because I paid for my father’s fare using a $20 (all I had) and I received change in a slow and inconsistent flow of quarters. In another, my father, who has dementia but knows how to ride public transit, happily waltzed onto the train while I was still trying to pay his fare. Thanks to cell phones, I met up with him at the next station, but it wasn’t a low-stress mistake. In a third case, we missed a train because of extremely confusing wording on what fare to select for a single ride senior, using a stored value card.

    I’ve also as an individual, in a day of riding different forms of public transit for errands, taken the train without thought and then realized that I was no longer within my transfer time.

    Given the infrequency of trains and the lack of a warm place to wait during the bitter cold of winter, I will no longer be prioritizing immediate fare payment over making sure he and I are both on the first train to arrive–the low risk of. I wouldn’t be surprised if others make this choice, perhaps compounded by financial constraints that I don’t feel (I pay on exit because public transit is a good I want to support, but that is often after the window of enforcement closes).

    I can see many circumstances where the very poor UX design of MetroTransit’s light rail fare payment system strongly discourages compliance.

    Also, reading your links, I had NO idea that I needed to scan my go-to card again when transferring from bus. Seriously? Okay, then I am hugely non-compliant because I don’t wait in a line to scan my card a second time when I know (thought!) that the bus scan activated my riding. Apparently I’m the problem.

    TL;DR. I’d posit MetroTransit could increase compliance (and increase efficiency/improve customer satisfaction) through better UX design of their payment system.

    1. Rebecca AirmetRebecca Airmet

      I agree with pretty much everything Julia has said. I’ve also evaded fares on the Green Line unintentionally a few times (thanks for the education, Julia!)

      While I agree that the UX could be far better, we’re now in the unfortunate position of change/upgrade being cost-prohibitive (as opposed to getting it right the first time).

      Are there other, cheaper ways to encourage compliance besides increased transit cop presence or resdesigned UX?

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        not really? it’s pretty straightforward that you have more cops, throughout the day, maybe in plain clothes… i was once taking the subway in Berlin and didn’t use the ticket system correctly. i was sitting there when these two completely bad-ass plainclothes German cops came on the train and started saying “deine ticketen!” or somehing, in a very menancing way.

        i sheepishly held out my ticket, and they pulled me off the train without a word, and made me stamp it in some sort of machine that i hadn’t known about.

        anyway, i was scared sh*tless. it gave me all kinds of flashbacks to WWII movies or whatever. the MT cops are really really nice compared to Germans.

        more MT cops, throughout the day. pretty simple. i’m sure you could take the cops off of whatever duty they have surveilling people of color by the skyway tower in DT saint paul…

      2. Julia

        Don’t thank me, thank Alex’s MPR link!

        But this makes me wonder how this study was done. Did they simply count the number of people who entered a train without scanning their card? Because if so, then the estimates of “lost revenue” are likely hugely exaggerated and I’d guess that they mostly reflect people like you and me, who’ve already paid and therefore think they are covered.

        I’ve “evaded” standing in line to touch my wallet to the pass thing after already activating on the bus; I’ve never evaded paying my fare.

        1. David W

          No. I got surveyed, and it was two guys in a train going around asking people to show them the form of payment they used. They had a clipboard, were not uniformed, and had nothing visibly identifying them as being affiliated with the Met Council. What concerned was that the data collectors seemed to pick and choose who they surveyed, and it wasn’t clear how they made those choices.

    2. Matt Brillhart

      Just to clarify, the report differentiates between “evasion” and “non-compliance”. Not scanning your pass after transferring from a bus would fall under the latter. In the report, when they talk about fare evasion, they are referring to riders who intentionally fail to pay and have no valid pass whatsoever.

      Are you supposed to scan your pass after transferring from a bus? Sure, but mostly just for ridership statistic purposes. You’re not actually scamming the system out of any money, nor would a cop ever issue a ticket for “non-compliance”

      1. Julia

        The link to the report is dead. Can you clarify on how they did the study?

        I wouldn’t think that they could issue a ticket–I’ve paid fare.

      2. Andrew B

        *rewrites headline*

        Freeloading sports fans think their game ticket doubles as train ticket

        (Evasion rates for passengers that use Park‐and‐Rides to get to special events may be higher than the overall evasion rate for the Blue Line)

    3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author


      Thanks for the excellent comments, and I 100% agree. However, here’s what the study defined as “evasion” vs “non-compliance”:

      “Audit defined “evasion” as the following: (1) riding without any fare media; (2) riding with fare media more than 1 hour outside of the transfer period; (3) riding with electronic fare media that had expired or had never been activated; (4) riding with electronic fare media that had been reported stolen; (5) riding with fare media that is not valid on light rail, such as Super Saver Stored Value passes; and (6) riding with a Campus Zone pass outside of the allowed zone or on the Blue Line.

      Audit defined “non-compliance” as the following: (1) evasion; (2) riding with electronic faremedia that is pre-paid in full, such as a U-Pass or Metro Pass, but was not tagged on the platform; and (3) riding with electronic fare media that was last tagged on a bus, is within the transfer period, but was not tagged on the platform to denote a transfer.”

      Later on, they say that while “evasion” rates were 2.6-3.6% and 4.6-9% (Blue/Green), compliance was 80.8-84.8% (Blue) and 81.6-87.6% (Green). Meaning, the number of situations like you describe are far more common than purposeful (or unknowing) evasion, but were definitely counted separately.

      One could likely claim that a certain portion of violators on 35W/394 cited in the article were “non-compliant but not evading” – tourists, out of town business travelers, etc. But my gut is that the majority were choosing to evade paying tolls.

      1. Julia

        Thanks for clarifying!

        I think I’d probably still fall within those “evasion” rates at least occasionally. For example, my card not reading properly (whether I am aware of this or not), a broken bus reader immediately preceding my light rail ride (nothing to remind me that I haven’t technically “paid” after I get on), or my transfer period expiring while I am unaware (the one hour grace period makes this less likely, but still possible some days of lots of little trips/walking/errands).

        I’m sure that some people are evading fares purposely. I would still be curious about their situation, especially given that public transit serves more marginalized groups than highway express lanes. How many of those evading are doing so purposely and when bus fare is a marginal expense for them? If a person’s on light rail to stay warm in the winter while waiting for a homeless shelter to open and hasn’t paid fare? If they don’t have the cash to pay for both dinner for their kids and fare for their family?

        No idea, but express-lane access is a luxury form of a transit service that offers extra convenience to a service that already has an entry fee. In the case of how our cities are currently set up (sprawl, distance to work), there isn’t a no-pay option for many people, regardless of how close to the financial margins they are living.

      2. Mike Hicks

        Interesting that the compliance rate is higher on the Green Line than the Blue Line, despite the higher evasion rate. The rate of non-compliant but non-evading riders is probably around 14% on the Blue Line, yet only about 8.5% on the Green Line.

        1. Wayne

          I’d imagine it has a lot to do with the more thoughtful station platform designs. After the huge list of screw-ups in station design and usability from the blue line they hopefully learned some design lessons.

      3. brad

        Regarding non-compliance reason #3, does that mean that riders don’t have to revalidate when transferring between Blue and Green lines? Or that it’s just so common they didn’t even count it?

    4. Rosa

      Those are a really good points. Paying for tickets with those machines is SO SLOW. I have still never figured out how to buy a regular & reduced-fare ticket (I have a 9 year old) on the same transaction.

      And half the time, I get off the bus with my pass that I KNOW worked on the bus, and swipe it on the train machine, and it doesn’t read it. Did not registering my transfer count as evasion?

      1. Ken Duble

        Can’t you buy tickets on your i-phone? In Dallas, we do that. It posts the time of purchase. If fare checkers see you only bought one after they entered the coach, you’ll still get fined.

        1. Rosa

          Possibly? I’ve only had a smart phone since last fall and I got an unlimited-ride pass starting in January.

          Still, with the ticket machine right there to take cash, it is ludicrous that i can’t (for example) push the senior fare button, the youth fare button, and the adult fare button and put one amount of cash in to pay for everyone but me to go to the Mall of America (while I use my pass). Instead, as far as I’ve ever been able to figure out, you push one button, pay one fare, push the other button twice to do two of the same fare, etc. It’s super super slow and meanwhile other people also want to get on the train and if it shows up half are going to just get on without at ticket rather than wait 10 mintues for another train.

  3. blk

    Ask yourself these questions:

    How many cars are driving around with expired tabs right now?

    How many drivers are driving around with expired or licenses revoked due to drunk driving?

    How many people live in Minnesota but have a car registered in Wisconsin under the name of a parent or other relative?

    My guess is that there are far more lawless drivers out there than fare jumpers, and their lawlessness causes more problems and costs far more.

    1. Ken Duble

      This solution tends to be unpopular in the U.S. because you end up with homeless people practically living in the vehicles.

  4. John

    I’ve ridden light rail only a few times though I take the bus more often and once the southwestern line is built (I hope) I will ride that extensively. However, each time riding light rail, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time figuring out the fare, how to pay, which train to ride and how far it goes.

    I suspect the system is designed for frequent riders who learn the system but isn’t user friendly for the casual rider.

    Beyond that, I am a strong supporter of light rail and hope to see the southwestern leg of the system built within my lifetime if all the arguments can be solved and all the well connected property owners on the lakes side of Minneapolis can stop obstructing the process. Yes, it is a pain to have something like this come through a once quiet neighborhood and it will disrupt some natural areas but all in all the route is minimally disruptive and will provide a clean and easy way to get around.

    1. Local Transit Rider

      If you have trouble figuring it out in Minneapolis, good luck traveling. I have visited dozens of cities in the U.S. and Europe, and I would say we have a “beginner” system here. Everything is extremely intuitive on the light rails here, not to mention the bus drivers will actually help you if you don’t know what to do. I will say though, evading fares in Minneapolis is far scarier than any major city in Europe.

      1. Wayne

        Seriously, good luck in New York if you accidentally board an express. You’ll be in the Bronx before you realize you’re on the wrong train.

    2. Mike Hicks

      I’ve always hated fuddling with dollars and change when paying fares, so I got a Go-To card as soon as I could after they became available. Initially, I had to manually refill it every so often by taking it to a ticket machine, but I’ve had it linked it to my credit card for a few years now. That way, I don’t really have to think about it.

      1. Ken Duble

        With London’s Oyster pass, if you still have a credit on your card at the airport and you’re flying out of the area, they’ll refund your balance in cash!

  5. g bernard hughes

    certainly a system losing 1/2 million to over a million dollars every year is in need of some fixing. (& thats only on the green line!) think of the more frequent bus service we could get with that money. or the protected bike lanes. or more traffic-calming street improvements to aid pedestrian movement.

    with transit dollars so short, its important to be able to look long & hard at what works & what doesnt.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I agree in principle, but the study cited many examples where ramping up enforcement or spending money on physical barriers/etc didn’t do much to lower evasion rates.

      An analogy. My wife (and sister, actually) used to work in loss prevention at Target HQ. Target employs many security guards, installs cameras, pays extra for anti-theft devices, etc in the store. No question, theft rates are lower than they’d be absent these measures (and costs). But theft still exists. Why doesn’t Target double its security workforce to prevent that last bit of theft, or come up with some other measure? Maybe because more security would make for a less pleasant shopping experience and turn customers away. Maybe every security officer is worth $X in potential lawsuits if something goes wrong. Or maybe they’ve hit diminishing returns and every dollar extra spent won’t cover its costs in prevented theft. I could say the same of malls (which have theft in their tenants’ stores), and many other businesses.

      The same principles apply to Metro Transit.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      “Losing?” The marginal cost of these rides is close to zero, if not actually zero. This data tells us nothing about whether the system is losing anything.

      The question is whether marginal investments in enforcement might pay for themselves, or better yet, provide a net benefit. At greater than 90% compliance rates, that seems doubtful.

      Assuming that every ride could be a paid ride and thus represents an implied loss is magical thinking.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      That number is for Blue Line compliance, and is based on another audit with different methodology. The study (liked in the post) gives a pretty detail description of how they’re different and not really comparable.

    2. Matt Brillhart

      Dan, that is not correct. You are *supposed* to scan your unlimited pass / Metropass / UPass every time, including when transferring from a bus. We can argue the definition of “required” though, as you would likely never be issued a ticket for failing to swipe the pass (if it is valid). Not scanning your pass is exactly what the report describes as “non-compliance”, which is different than actual “fare evasion”.

      The only rider that doesn’t need to scan anything at the platform is one holding a PAPER transfer from the bus. (Also disabled veterans, etc. who ride free of charge)

      1. Peter Bajurny

        One of the times I’ve been fare inspected, the guy next to me hadn’t swiped is U-pass. He had a valid fare because he had a U-pass, but the reader the police carry shows when it’s been swiped, and they scolded him for not tapping into the station.

        So no ticket, but a scolding.

        1. Rosa

          That’s funny, because when I’ve been checked on the train with a paper transfer, they checked the time on it very carefully, but when I had the U-pass with me all I did was wave it at the officer & he said “it’s OK, I see your pass”

  6. g bernard hughes

    im simply saying that its important to be objective abt this substantial loss of money – money which is so sorely needed & the investment of which could make a difference in how our transit system operates.

    im not saying more cops are the answer. i dont know what the answer is. but we wont find it if we cant look honestly at how well – or badly – our transport serves us.

    1. Mike

      The loss looks substantial when you assume that everyone who dodged a fare had the money for one. How many people do you think dodged fares because they had no or very little money? We need to adjust our “loss” number accordingly because we can’t lose money that doesn’t exist.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Or assume that every ride that happened without paying would have still happened had the rider been forced to pay.

        It’s just not accurate to project out the evaded fares and look at them as “losses.”

        1. Matt Brillhart

          I’d have to agree, as a number of fare evaders are likely traveling shorter distances and less likely to be caught in the act. Most Green Line stations are just 1/2-mile apart, and the obvious alternative to paying $1.75/$2.25 is walking. No revenue is being lost when the person would instead choose to not ride at all.

  7. John O

    I’ve TECHNICALLY skipped maybe 1/4 of the fares on the LRT’s – the dozen or so times I’ve ridden on them in the last several years. And it was all UNintentional (and probably didn’t cost Metrotransit anyway because I took a bus soon after and thus got charged anyway – that would take a long explanation of the “transfer window”. I’ve also, when I’ve gotten off at my destination, looked harder, and found the little Go stands which is where you touch your Go Card to pay, and paid — more on that below).

    Anyway, I used LRT so rarely that I didn’t know (or had forgotten) how to use my Go Card to pay my fare. I walk up to this big highly visible ticket/fare machine on the platform and futilely press my Go Card against the big Go Card logo button on the machine, and it dutifully chirps and pops up a menu of options — like add more money to my Go Card balance, among many other choices. But nothing for simply paying the fare of the train I’m about to get on. (On a bus, you just touch your Go Card onto the Go Card button logo on the reader next to the driver). After fussing with the buttons and options looking for some way to pay the fare, the train arrives and I just get on and take my chances.

    I eventually figured out that you don’t pay your fare at the big ticket/fare machine, but rather at a little, thin, separate “Go Card” stand on the platform, where, like on a bus, you just touch the Go card to the Go Card logo. But since it is sometimes a year between rides on an LRT, I have forgotten this. (Now its on a list of reminders that I review quarterly and is well burned into my brain).

    1. Mike Hicks

      This is one of my big annoyances with the ticket vending machines. It doesn’t make much sense why they only work for adding money to Go-To cards and not deducting to pay for fares.

      1. Wayne

        That’s seriously a big pet peeve of mine. Or it was until I got a metropass and now I never have to worry about topping it up again.

  8. Kenny

    How much extra revenue would the system get by cutting down on fare evasion? I would imagine that a lot of people who are currently evading fares would just choose not to ride, rather than pay. You’d end up with the same revenue and fewer riders. It might mean things are slightly less crowded at peak periods, but it’s not going to help things much, even if you could crack down on it absolutely free.

  9. Sam

    That theory suggests that the ridership numbers for the green line are inflated, then, as we control for those riders we would lose because they had to pay to ride.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Sure. So some % of fare evaders between 0 and 100% would choose to walk/bike or forego the trip entirely. The number is probably closer to 0 than 100, let’s say 20%. So 20% of the average 6.8% evaders would not ride the Green Line, or a 1.36% drop in ridership. Assuming 35,000 weekday riders, that’s down to 34,524 riders. I don’t think that changes the story much.

  10. Anders Bloomquist

    Another thing to add to our list of competing costs: How much money does each of us save the MN taxpayer each time we don’t take a car? Even if a person doesn’t pay their proper fare, how much does lessening related traffic costs offset their oversight?

    Or here’s a wild hypothetical, How much would ridership go up if fares were voluntary? And what if all the savings in road costs were sent over to pay for transit?

    1. Ken Duble

      This solution tends to be unpopular in the U.S. because you end up with homeless people practically living in the vehicles.

  11. Lisa

    It would behoove us advocates (walking, biking, transit) if we didn’t spend so much time talking about drivers breaking rules. They already face higher consequences then we do (tickets, higher insurance rates etc). More importantly, their rule breaking is also completely irrelevant when it comes to us being responsible for our own actions.

    We spend a lot of time insisting that we have just as many rights as drivers but we also have responsibilities. I feel the best way to show that we belong is to prove that we can follow our own rules, not just insist that they follow theirs.

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