My unexpected ride-along with a fare inspector

JWG's Muni fast pass collection
Photo by Flickr user frankfarm

It was late-ish. 11 p.m. Late for my getting-old ass, anyway. I was tired, having just come from a Muni Diaries editorial meeting, and needing to commute from Pac Heights back to the Mission. The NextBus marquee read 8 minutes until the next 49-Van Ness was due. Fine.

As is my custom, I staked a space just beyond the bus shelter. Tired as I was, my legs could stand to … stand a bit longer. Minutes went by, and I walked back over to the shelter to see what NextBus would prophesy. But before my head could do a wrap-around 180, one of the dudes sitting down informed me that it would be about 4 minutes. Fine.

I remained by the shelter for some reason, and that was enough to warrant some banter between the two seated dudes. It was then that I looked closer and realized that they were fare inspectors. Nice enough gents, working late. Cool stuff.

Then that thing in me that my fiancée loves to hate reared its ugly head. I can’t remember what topic I chose, but I did it: I shot the shit with these guys. Nothing big or consequential, but the talk inevitably revolved around Muni and their work, inspecting fares.

A few minutes later, as NextBus began “NextBusing” (4 minutes, 2 minutes, 7 minutes, arriving), an SFPD officer pulled up in the stop. The fare inspectors simultaneously saw the bus coming, and one of them had glommed onto me conversationally. Things were getting really interesting.

The cop parked his car all the way forward in the striped part of the bus stop and got out of his squad car casually just before the bus pulled up. I boarded first, just in front of the inspectors, who were followed by one of SF’s finest.

I took my backward-facing seat and overheard a call for show of proof of payment. We started moving, and a few minutes later, the inspector who seemed to like chatting with me slightly more than his partner found me. We shot it some more, and this was where things got really interesting.

I managed to slip in earlier in the conversation that I “help run a Muni-related website.” I think he liked that, probably more than he actually liked me. But here’s what it got me: The guy showed me two or three of his confiscated fake Fast Passes.

One was on really thin, standard copier paper. It was printed in color, but only on one side. This dummy coulda spotted that thing a mile away.

Another was on thicker-stock paper, something I’d call hella close to what SFMTA uses. It was printed on both sides, and my immediate reaction to its dramatic simulation was: “Whoa, how can you tell this one is fake?”

“Look at the magnetic stripe,” he said. And there it was, the non-shiny giveaway.

The inspectors deboarded around Market, and I’m sure I had a silly grin on my face the rest of my ride home. It was like I had been to the Muni museum, circa 2009. It was like a field trip, a ride-along. It was out-of-this-world, and to this day, one of my favorite Muni rides.

It just goes to show: sometimes small talk can yield rewards.


  • Sunset Grandma

    Recently I manged to run my fast pass through the laundry (yeah, doofus). Amazingly the mag strip still worked but the pass had a faded look. I encountered a fare inspector who gave my pass very close scrutiny but who apparently decided this 70 year old was an unlikely counterfitter. Everyone was nice, polite and professional. All good!

  • Sounds like an interesting night, Jeff. That’s cool about the fake fast passes. It never occurred to me that people would bother to counterfeit them… Huh.

  • whir

    Back in the days of my dissolute youth I, uh, heard that the more serious counterfeiters would cut the silver strip off of an old fast pass and rubber-cement it onto a new one.

  • Rob Nagle

    Good story Jeff!

  • Seven

    Wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a Youth or Senior pass and try to fake it with that (maybe doctor the lettering, but it’s got the shiny stripe. Those are only $15, which is practically free compared to the $70 I now be pay.

    Now I’ll never do that, because I’m an honest person (read “sucker”). But Muni has created an obvious opportunity to cheat the system with their fare scheme.

  • Daishin

    “It just goes to show: sometimes small talk can yield rewards.”

    What, may I ask, is the reward in this case? Seeing dumb fare inspectors show you some fake fast passes? I would be more impressed if you asked them what it’s like doing what they do, and perhaps why they take on such rotten work. As you may know, I consider them lower than meter maids in the pecking order of city government.

    • Daishin: If you’ll allow me to steer the perspective 180 degrees, the reward here was multifaceted.

      I already tend to empathize with most people, but this experience did more to humanize the situation of fare inspectors and what they’re up against for me. At the same time, I’m fascinated with things like crime and artifacts, so seeing a set of fake Fast Passes was, well, neat. It’s nice to know just how far people will go to cheat the system. Helps to empathize somewhat on that end, too.

      But on that note, I doubt a chance encounter with a counterfeiter would be so rewarding. I’d probably find myself biting my tongue a lot, and here’s why: I simply do not believe anyone has the right to ride Muni without paying. I also just don’t get the mindset that informs one to believe they are somehow superior to the rest of us, superior to the employees of Muni. Jumping fare, making fake Fast Passes, it’s all terribly exhilarating and exciting, I’m sure. The sense of entitlement I witness, in all walks of life in San Francisco, to be sure, but especially when it comes to Muni, appalls me.

      As a commenter on another post said, it’s really simple: pay or don’t ride.

      Now I’m sure there are some “dumb” fare inspectors. Get any group of like, oh, seven or eight humans together, and you’re gonna get yourself some dummies. But this guy I had the fortune of chatting with was a very respectful, level-headed guy doing his job. He happened to make a very human, very real, very simple connection along the way. I’m just not sure what makes him such a villain in your eyes. Is it the doing his job part? Is it the helping ensure a safer, more just riding environment on Muni? I’m missing your point entirely.

      Do enlighten us, please.

      • Daishin

        I certainly agree with you that “fare inspectors” are human beings, but only barely. I cannot believe that any person would actually go to MTA and apply for such a position. To me, as I’ve said any number of times on this site, fare inspectors are one of the few faces of MUNI. Fare inspectors represent a punitive transit system that is inefficient, dirty, over-crowded and poorly managed. I realize that you must be one of those citizens who think they are doing a great job. I do NOT think that fare inspectors have anything to do with making the system just, to use your word. There is nothing JUST about a transit system that is a disaster. Why would defending a person who represents that system be a good thing? Instead whenever I speak with inspectors, I ask them to quit their jobs and apply for a position at MUNI that truly improves the metro line instead of creating one more punitive layer of union employment. To me the biggest waste of taxpayer money is the fare inspector racket. I have little or no respect for them or for most of the employees at MUNI.

      • Daishin

        In addition, I would say that it’s an affront to the people who ride MUNI that we are forced to pay more money ($2.00) to be treated to worse service and less riding choices. And on top of that, add the harassment of the fare inspectors. So MTA is saying to us: you already have a terrible transit system that punishes you for not driving in your cars, so we then are charging you more money for less service. So then we (MUNI) will force you to pay for this by using a policing mechanism that shoves the whole lousy thing down your throat. Why then should people feel it’s their just duty to pay anything to such a system? I admire the Robin Hoods who rip off MUNI. They are paying exactly what the service is worth: absolutely nothing!

  • muni_lover

    Daishin, I really don’t think you answer his request for enlightenment or respond well to the point. Your argument is spurious and specious here. You concede rather ungraciously that Fare Inspectors are human but then you say that they are one of the few faces of Muni and are therefore the ones to receive your wrath over the bad service and high prices. You point out no particular aspect of them other than that they represent Muni for the reason why you have such a wicked hatred for them.

    Would you then tell other Muni workers to quit their jobs if you could see them face to face? I don’t get you or your argument. Would you ask the operators to quit? How about the cleaners? I personally thank the unsung hero, the cleaner, who toils at a thankless task so that I have to sit in only the occasionally (and thus understandably so) filthy vehicle.

    You complain about the colossal waste of taxpayer monies that the Fare Inspector racket is but I ask you how are the people who are issuing citations for monies and checking people to make sure they pay …a loss?? I really can’t see what you are trying to say or if you are logical. The Fare Inspectors MAKE money for the city.

    I think that they are doing the right thing and more than paying for themselves. Revenue jumped in the years that they hired more of these guys. I say hire more. Fare Inspectors, don’t quit! It’s you Daishin who needs to please quit!

    You encourage thievery which is one of the greatest ills of the system. You advocate for people to weaken our system further by using up the resources such as electricity and oil plus the space to ride for other people who want to pay but cant because the train is packed with some fare evaders among the fare payers.

    Like I said before, Daishin, you clearly have no particular point to your arguments that speaks to why Fare Inspectors apart from all other workers deserve such vehemence, such intensity of feeling that you express. This tells me that it is personal for you. Im sure you’re such a joy to encounter each and every time a Fare Inspector sees you and hears what you have to say. This much passion over such a long time as your rant here and all your previous rants tells me can only mean that one day…you chose not to pay, got caught, thought you were entitled, and got cited for a very expensive ticket that you so richly deserved.

    Until you come up with a valid argument, I would rather listen to what anyone else here has to say.

    • Daishin

      Below is a great response to Muni_lovers’ comments. Please pay attention to the paragraph that begins “The fare checkers are just another rub against the passengers”. It describes my sentiments exactly.


      November 6th, 2009 at 12:37 am
      I hate them (fare inspectors) for many reasons, but here’s the biggest reason: Muni itself.

      Passengers have to deal with dirty busses, late busses, rude drivers all while having prices jacked up and service reduced. Why are being forced to pay more for half-assed service, and then feel like we’re in a police state by having to show our fast pass EVERY DAY!? I would gladly show my fast pass everytime if Muni ever did something for me (i.e., clean the graffiti off the busses, get there on time, and pull into the damn bus stop area [if it’s free} so I don’t have to walk into traffic).

      And then there’s the homeless! The homeless are on the busses ALL THE TIME!? Why can’t Muni do something about keeping them off? New York found a way. DC found a way. It can’t be that difficult.

      And can Muni ever bring any updates to the lines that need it? Quit giving all the nice busses to the tourists! Get rid of those filthy buses from the 70s that constantly break down on the major lines and give the people of San Francisco a nice ride for once. You can’t tell me that Muni hasn’t had any money for upgrades in the last 30 years.

      And the fare checkers need to ease up already! I once went from Church to Powell. Fare checkers boarded and checked for passes. I showed my pass. But then at Civic Center, 3 more got on. They didn’t check because the previous officers told them it was all clear. When I finally get out at Powell, 2 more officers are waiting upstairs to check for passes. I flipped out and yelled at them. 7 officers on one ride is too much!! It feels like we’re being punished!

      And I have a big problem with that article in the Chronicle that said 10% of passengers aren’t paying their fare. IT’S ONLY 10%! That still means 90% of passengers are gladly paying their $2 to ride. That’s pretty good! I find it very difficult to believe that a 10% evasion of fares is really breaking the bank for Muni. There has to be other ways Muni is mismanaging its money.

      And don’t even get me started on Muni being the cause of so many accidents, some of which are fatal. They want to make me feel like I’m always on the brink of being punished when so many drivers are practically doing so with their eyes closed?

      The fare checkers are just an extra rub against the passengers. They’re going to give me crappy service and then MAKE SURE I PAY FOR IT?! It’s like they’re saying, “We’re serving you horse shit, you’re gonna like it, and you won’t complain about it either!”

      I hope the fare checkers all get run over by a bus.”

  • Tony

    A lot of my buds are anarchist types so they love sticking it to Muni. They see Muni as just one more public agency that’s there to fuck the people over. And the fare inspectors are little Muni-ites telling us all how to behave ourselves and be good little boys and girls. I can definitely see the militaristic police state in SF more and more. Maybe this whole thing is about the bourgeoisie
    take here on Muni Diaries. I’m thinking most peeps on here are “hard-working” Americans! lol.

    • *scratches head* I just don’t get it. Are you 16?

      • Tony

        Don’t get what, Mr. Jeff? That there are peeps out there who like to ride Muni for free? or there are peeps out there who dislike anything this city does to the people that is unfair? Like other folks here all I’m saying is that by raising the fare and lowering services Muni is the bad guy. And when they use the Muni-ites to police the buses then the Muni-ites become part of the problem too. The only peeps who love the Muni-ites are the worker bees who demand that everyone pays their fare share. I ain’t no worker bourgeoisie bee. I think the folks who love Muni should pay more if they think Muni is a good and fair deal for everyone.

        • I don’t get how your solution solves … well, anything, short of an individual’s own finances. But hey, I’m no anarchist. Just a bourgeois worker bee, making the world a terrible place for you and yours. I was once like you; then I looked around and realized there’s no way such a free-for-all would work. Not in this society, anyway. Maybe form your own somewhere else. I’d love to see how that would work out for you.

      • Tony

        My solution tears down the corrupt system that runs Muni and is Muni. That’s how. get rid of the overpaid drivers and asshole fare inspectors and you’d save a lot of money. that’s my solution dude. btw do you work for Muni as one of their advocates?

        • Hi Tony, nice to hear from you again. I might be missing something here, but your solution strikes me as completely untenable. Tell me: If not for the “overpaid” drivers, who would drive the buses and street cars and cables and light-rail vehicles? And I suppose the system could function without fare inspectors, but aren’t we in the middle of a budget crisis? True, hopped fare isn’t the cause of the crisis. But especially in times like these, the notion that some people should get to ride for free while routes are eliminated, service is reduced, fares are hiked, and MTA employees are laid off just seems absurd. But it does score pretty high anarchy points.

          Listen, given the nuttiness (and beauty) of San Francisco’s population, even if it were to function flawlessly, Muni would be a chaotic, yes anarchistic, environment. That’s what we celebrate here at Muni Diaries. We want the system to work well for people, and we do our best to highlight when it doesn’t. We also want to foster creative, productive discussion about how the system can be fixed. That’s it.

          And no, I do not work for Muni, in any capacity. If they could afford it, and wanted to pay me, I’d take it gladly. I’m getting married this year, and could sure use some extra dough. But in all seriousness, no. Eugenia and I run this site (at almost no cost, I might add) because we want to have a place for people to tell their Muni stories. The end.

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