The why/where/how of fare inspectors

Bustin the hobo.
Photo by Flickr user WeMeantDemocracy

It’s easy for us law-abiding, government-loving socialists to cheer when Muni fare inspectors show up on the bus. And cheer I did this week, when an alpha fare-inspector and her two ticket-wielding comrades showed up on my 47-Van Ness a couple days ago and handed out at least two tickets.

Though some drivers do have the time and desire to come up with creative punishments for fare-jumping, it’s understandable that most of them do not. Enter fare inspectors. Though one guy in front of me complained about Big Brother watching us, I personally don’t think it counts as some kind of police state if the law-enforcers are actually nabbing people who did wrong. Still, once I stopped silently cheering them on from my seat, I did start thinking about the why/where/how of back-door policing.

From an Oct. 19 SFGate story

Fare evasion on Muni occurs most frequently in the afternoon and at night, the study found. Among the lines where the problem is most prevalent are the 9-San Bruno, 14-Mission, 38-Geary and 47-Van Ness, but few are immune.

It doesn’t seem like an accident that the 47, one of four lines called out in this story, ended up with not one, but three fare inspectors the day after this story ran. Great, whatever works, right? But it did lead me to wonder whether the fare-checking would continue in earnest once the story died down and once the SFMTA office was jammed with people contesting their fines.

In other words, I wondered whether this was simply a good show or temporary move to prove that something was being done. Or will fare-jumping significantly decrease in a year’s time? I certainly hope it’s the latter, especially since I’d argue that fare-jumping is easier to eradicate than other types of petty crime.

Let me explain. We learned from an SF Gate story on crime cameras that certain crimes (homicide, drug deals, etc.) are conveniently moved out of the cameras’ range if cameras are around, thereby decreasing the crime in one area and increasing it one block down. Before you know it, it’s a life-size game of whack-a-mole for the police.

Fare-jumping seems more precise than that. If you’re on Van Ness and want to head into the Mission on Muni, the 49-Van Ness or 14-Mission is your only real way to accomplish this. If you know there are fare inspectors on either line, you are either going to pay your fare, take your chances, or find another line to jump if all you’re into is wasting time on the bus. But if there’s regular fare-inspecting, I think jumpers are more easily backed into a corner, as there are only so many lines that can remain uncovered. Especially if there are more fare inspectors on the hottest jumping lines, during the hottest jumping times.

Or maybe this is completely false logic. Nonetheless, fare inspectors really can’t hurt anyone, in my opinion.

Disclaimer: Before I officially lived in SF and carried a trusty FastPass wherever I went (and uh, before I contributed regularly to a transit-oriented website), I’d somewhat regularly sneak onto the back of an F-Market/Wharves line on my way to work. I could have easily paid the then-$1.50 a ride, but I couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t have cash. Muni “owed” me for some transgression. Everyone else was doing it. All of these are poor excuses.


  • Sara

    One bus driver in particular on the late run of the 38 likes to deal with fare jumpers by refusing to open the back doors. He just tells everyone to get off by the front door, especially when we’re going through the Tenderloin to Fillmore stretch, and often pulls up past the bus stop to make the people waiting run a bit and screw with the ones waiting for the back doors to open. Which works pretty well
    That same bus driver yells at anyone still bold enough to try it via the front door– but he’s the rare exception. Most of them shrug and mutter and do their best to ignore it. So I’m glad to see a few fare inspectors, wish there were more.

  • Daishin

    I don’t think that your description of fare inspectors is accurate. I’d put it this way. MUNI is an inefficient, over-crowded, dirty transit system. Since the mayor and the Board of Supervisors will not give enough money to MUNI to improve it, they instead create the false issue of fair evasion. So therefore you hire fare inspectors who, by the way, don’t earn their way by income from tickets they issue. To me the whole fare inspector game is a ruse. It’s also a daily reminder to me that MUNI is a terrible transit system for a large city. When I see them, they become the face of MUNI which is the worse possible image for the system, and on top of that, they are like the police, which further militarizes our society.

  • quaxon

    How about instead of wasting money hiring fare inspectors and being tied up in court from all the contested tickets, they spend the money on getting better organized and stop cutting routes. Hell nearly every other day there is some kind of delay and i am regularly waiting 10-15 minutes for an M to come while 3 L’s, 2 K’s a J and a few N’s roll by. Not to mention the 3 K’s were beck to back, and completely empty. seriously, whats the fucking logic in that!

  • Daishin and quaxon: Just to play a spot of devil’s advocate here, and setting aside issues of budget cuts and service reductions, delays, the fact that MTA is overspending on inspectors, and the like, a question for you:

    Should people who do not pay be allowed to continue not paying?

    I realize there might easily be rogue inspectors, some (featured before on this site) who perhaps take their jobs a little too seriously, and who abuse their duty. But shouldn’t there be some mechanism in pace to ensure that everyone pays their fair share? And I agree with the idea that the burden of ensuring payment should NOT be on the operators’ backs.

    Call it the great equalizer, but to my mind, we should all pay a little bit, and the same amount, to play.

    • Daishin

      Thanks for playing devil’s advocate. I would agree with you about each of us paying a little bit more if i thought it would improve MUNI. This is a one-sided issue. The citizens of Sf do all the paying and the unions, the mayor and the supervisors stymie any real change to improve the system. I would pay a lot more if I thought MUNI would really improve and eventually become a world class transit system. But I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime. MUNI remains a political hot potato.

  • The method is no doubt imperfect, and I’m sure the fare inspectors are, too. So’s the system, while we’re at it. Inefficient is a good word for it.

    But for those of us who ride the Van Ness lines frequently, fare-jumping is definitely a real problem. Any bus that goes past any BART station in the city sees upward of 10+ people cramming into the back. And that’s just one stop on one evening.

    On-time performance and the like could be improved, but those are separate issues to address.

  • Mike

    @Daishin and quaxon:

    I’ve used mass transit in several cities all over the United States and Canada, including living for 17 years in Los Angeles until January 2008 riding buses every damn weekday for at least three hours down both Santa Monica Blvd. and Sunset Blvd., and I can assure you that the fare evasion problem in this city is like nothing I have ever seen. During my time in Los Angeles, I can count on both hands the number of times I saw people try to evade fare payment by using the back doors, and in every case they were called out for it by the drivers and the buses didn’t move until they paid or got off. That is ten times or less in 17 years.

    This attitude that everything would just magically get better if Muni added more lines and more buses and more this and more that is complete and utter bullshit. The ten percent of the people that evade fare payment are the same people that cause the disturbances, intimidate other riders, trash the buses, and make the quality of life worse for everyone– not just on Muni but in the city as a whole, because that kind of behavior and sense of entitlement doesn’t stop when they get off of Muni. People that act like spoiled, rotten little children need to be disciplined, not rewarded for their behavior.

    This city has a lot going for it, and I’ve enjoyed my two years here, but I’ve never seen a city where such a large percentage of the population just doesn’t give a damn about themselves, their fellow residents, or their city.

  • melissa

    I think the whole “honor” system is a joke. Back East, you buy a token, card, whatever, you slide it through and you’ve paid- end of story. No one bothers you, no one takes you off the train to give you a ridiculous ticket and those who do jump the fare, well it’s obvious and most of the time, hard to do (due to the way the turnstiles are built).
    SFMTA needs to update their system, their losing money because there are people who are jumping the fare and getting away with it and increasing the violation ticket or the actual fare isn’t going to help. Also, there are several stations where the ticket machines don’t work- so people who want to buy a ticket have almost no choice sometimes.

  • Peter Smith

    hey proles, stop beating up on each other — public transit should be free. it’s time the car people, the folks destroying our city, pay up for the daily damage they do.

  • Daishin

    The people who responded to my complaints about MUNI and the fare inspectors didn’t address the real issue, which is that fare inspectors do nothing to improve MUNI overall. As a system MUNI is punitive. We have a sensible, but punitive, parking policy for the downtown area. So one would think that public officials would provide an excellent transit system but instead do not; second punitive policy. Nathaniel Ford, MUNI’s CEO, has on many occasions said that MUNI needs at least double the budget it has to create a transit system comparable to other large cities. So instead of really addressing the budgeting problems, the mayor and supervisors work with an insufficient amount of money and try to haggle with terrible union agreements. Any and all “additions” they make to the system are peripheral; e.g. NextBus, fare inspectors, etc. And in the case of fare inspectors it’s one more punitive measure.

  • Mike


    “The people who responded to my complaints about MUNI and the fare inspectors didn’t address the real issue, which is that fare inspectors do nothing to improve MUNI overall.”

    That’s funny, because I specifically address the issue of fare evasion and how eliminating it would improve the experience of the average Muni rider.

    We get it already: 1) Your solution to fix a system that is already inefficient and poorly run is to listen to the CEO of the inefficient and poorly run organization and double his budget as he requests, and 2) if we won’t double the budget we shouldn’t do anything, because anything we do is peripheral at best and punitive at worst. Wow.

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