Fun with Fare Inspectors on the 38

38 geary
Photo by atacklamb

Rachel at Fog Ciy Notes makes taking the bus entertaining — her daily rides are full episodes with a regular cast of characters and some startling guest stars. In this report, Rachel and her friend met two fare inspectors who were polite and friendly. Then, as almost all Muni stories go, they were all in for a surprise.

Saturday night Sam (who will be posting reviews of the hotel bars we went to) and I headed downtown for an evening of drinking in hotel lobbies. Trust me, it was both more and less glamorous than you can imagine.

We caught a mostly empty 38 at 6th Ave. and settled in to seats towards the back.

At 3rd Ave., a pair of fare inspectors got on and made their way through the bus, checking people’s Fast Passes, Clipper cards and transfers.

A woman sitting two rows ahead of us did not have any proof of payment. The female fare inspector sat down nearby and told her to go ahead and keep looking for her transfer, and if she couldn’t find it she would get a ticket. It was sweet of her to give the woman a chance. Also, these inspectors were polite and friendly. We liked them immediately.

The male fare inspector moved to the back of the bus, where he kept an eye on the back door.

We watched the inspectors, watched the fare evader woman rifle through her bags over and over again.

At Fillmore the female inspector started to write up the woman’s ticket. She explained how the woman could appeal the ticket if she found her transfer. The woman had some questions, all of which were answered by the inspector.
We got to talking with her. She was very chatty and gave us some tips on how to make sure we don’t get busted for fare evasion:

Tip 1- Always keep your receipt from purchase of a Fast Pass or Clipper refill. In a pinch, the receipt is good proof that you did indeed pay for your pass.
Tip 2- If your Clipper card gets lost or stolen, report it immediately and have it canceled, otherwise someone else can use the Fast Pass or funds on the card.

Her tips were good, common sense really, but I appreciated them anyway.

Our bus approached the Van Ness stop.

A man was standing next to a tree, facing us.

“Is he peeing?” asked the female fare inspector.

He was, of course. Standing next to a spindly tree, a few feet from an idling cab, this guy was taking his sweet time. And we all were treated (punished?) with a full frontal view.

“This is like the third time this week I’ve seen guys doing that in public,” I told Sam.

The female inspector started laughing, and pointing, and even rapped on the window.

Well, you didn’t think we’d give away the ending (it’s not that kind), did you? Mosey over to Fog City Notes to read the rest of the story and find out what else they saw.


  • James O'Boston

    Why are there fare inspectors at all?

    Systems in New York, Boston, DC, and others I’ve ridden don’t have a separate squad of “fare inspectors” because either there is someone at the gate (as there is in SF) or the driver of the vehicle checks for payment as people are boarding. Done, and done, no 3x re-checking.

    Seems to work everywhere else. What’s the problem, San Francisco?

  • Mario


    Contrary to the cities you cite, the backbone of the public transportation system in the City of San Francisco are its buses and light rail lines. A few major light rail line stops are gated, but most are not.

    LRVs allow all-door boarding at any stop, including the ones that are not gated, and all passengers are required to hold proof of payment during their trip. Bus lines currently don’t allow all-door boarding and all passengers must board at the front of the bus. That increases dwell time so significantly that it slows down the system and increases the cost of operating it. This is especially true for the articulated buses which are over-crowded.

    Fare inspectors serve the following purposes:
    1) Enforce proof of payment on LRV
    2) Enforce proof of payment on buses, where riders may have illegally boarded through the rear doors. This is especially needed on articulated buses, which are over-crowded and it is impossible for drivers to prevent rear-door boarding. Before Muni started proof of payment enforcement, it was estimated that it was losing 10% of its revenue to fare evaders, which is down to 3% now.
    3) Prepare the system for all-door boarding on buses with proof of payment. This may be done on some crowded lines or all lines. If reliable fare enforcement is in place, allowing all-door boarding may become practical and speed up service (and save Muni money, as the faster the service, the less resources are needed to provide the same level of service).

  • James O'Boston

    Mario, a very large part of the Boston system is above-ground trolleys – the green line. These are comparable to the “light rail” portions of the system in SF.

    Boston also runs buses, and the “silver line” runs partly as a bus line on the streets, and partly as “BRT” underground.

    Both the green and silver lines have a combination of at-the-stop and behind-gates boarding.

    Your explanation is really lengthy, but doesn’t really speak to the issue, And forgetting that, there is no need for separate inspectors in any of the other cities on buses at all… so that’s a non-starter.

    The biggest problem with most operations in business or government that think they are “different” from all the others — is primarily that they think they are different from all the others. For the most part, these systems are more similar than dissimilar.

  • Thanks for posting this, guys! I gotta say, this was one of the most enjoyable 38 Geary rides I’ve ever had.

  • Mario


    All-door boarding and fare inspection is common practice in Europe and throughout the world. Those systems tend to have more efficient operations than comparable systems in the US (especially San Francisco). So this is not a novel idea. San Francisco transportation engineers believe it will be a good idea to implement in San Francisco.

    I am not familiar with the particulars in Boston, but in New York the slowness of the buses is not considered a big issue, since most people simply use the Subway. Do you happen to know the average bus speed of the busiest bus line in Boston?

  • James O'Boston

    Mario, sweeping generalizations aren’t going to get you anywhere. The buses in New York are quite busy.

    Yes, in New York, 1.6 billion subway rides were taken in 2009. But so were 726 million bus rides. (45%) That’s not a trivial number and waving it away with a “most people…” is not helping to make your point.

    MUNI moved a fraction of that number. I can’t find 2009 stats but of 221 million total rides, 91 million were on a bus… (41%)

    MUNI and MTA have similar percentages of passengers riding buses.

  • Mario


    Maybe my generalizations about New York and Boston are misguided. Do you believe that New York and Boston bus vehicles operate at optimum efficiency? Do you think vehicle speed might be improved if you allowed all-door boarding on all vehicles? Are the MTA and MBTA not considering all-door boarding at all?

    Should San Francisco wait for MTA and MBTA to follow with an example, or is it OK for San Francisco to follow the example from the rest of the world and lead in this regard?

    I am not sure the point you are trying to make. San Francisco’s transit system is inefficient, and that frustrates riders and costs money. There is a reasonable case to be made that all-door boarding will improve it. There is also a reasonable case to be made that all-door boarding may be facilitated by fare inspection (I don’t think you can put fare gates at every bus stop without an insanely expensive capital investment). The fact that no other US city seems to have done it, doesn’t mean that San Francisco shouldn’t, especially since it seems to work in many non-US cities. So I really don’t understand what in particular you object to. Your only argument against fare inspection has been “Boston, NYC and DC don’t do it”, and that just doesn’t cut it against the facts.

  • Mario


    I should clarify that there are two pre-requisites to all-door boarding as Muni sees them (and you may disagree with them).

    1. Most payment should not require using the driver’s fare box, otherwise even if riders board from the back, they still need to advance to the front to pay, which may be very hard on an over-crowded bus. That’s why they are aggressively pushing the Clipper smart card payment system. Making it required in the Subway portion (which will happen soon) will encourage part-time riders to obtain it for use on buses. With that system in place, most people can pay at any door using an electronic smart card reader and no cash will be exchanged on the bus.

    2. Muni should have an effective fare inspection system to deter fare evasion. Muni has been experimenting and iterating with this for a couple of years now.

  • James O'Boston

    mario, in my experience, there is very little, if any, all-door-boarding happening at any bus or light rail above-ground stop.

    The only places i’ve seen all-door boarding are outside the city core, beyond embarcadero, where in my experience the number of passengers is pretty low, and i’m guessing many board without paying.

    i haven’t seen any all-door boarding on the F line or on any buses… in fact, the “step down to open” configuration of both buses and trolleys precludes this.

  • Mario


    That is because all-door boarding is prohibited on anything other than JKLMNT.

  • James O'Boston

    Mario, then tell me again why there are fare inspectors on buses. I’ve yet to see an on-bus inspection that (a) covered the whole bus; (b) didn’t catch the guy who slipped out the back; (c) didn’t cause the bus to WAIT while the inspections were taking place

  • Mario


    As I said, Muni views effective fare inspection as a pre-requisite to all-door boarding. I personally disagree and think all-door boarding should come first, and Muni should work on effective fare inspection afterwards, but Muni is so cash-strapped they are afraid to do it without knowing they’ll recover their fares.

    There is also a lot to criticize about how Muni has approached the problem of fare inspection. I have personally never been asked to show any proof of payment, so I don’t even know how they are doing it these days. At one point they were just waiting at a particular bus stop and waiting for people who exit the bus before inspecting them (saturation raids). Saturation raids were stopped because of complaints that people who don’t speak English don’t understand what the inspectors tell them. Now they are going smaller scale, supposedly after undergoing cultural and linguistic sensitivity training.

    I personally feel they just need to take a look at Zurich’s (or many other European cities’) fare enforcement system and learn. One inspector boards each door at a random stop and the vehicle takes off (no delay). Typically by the next stop, they are off. If you ride 2 times a day, your chances of inspection should be once a month. The penalty is double price of the monthly pass, thus not worth the trouble evading. I think inspectors should also have to have the option to ask an evader to exit the vehicle whenever the trouble of writing a ticket (and then having it adjudicated) seems to exceed the need to financially deter people from evading fares.

  • Colin T.

    Former Boston resident, current SF resident, and Munich/Berlin/etc. visitor here.

    The European system is way more efficient. Basically, you must have valid payment, but you board without impediment. You get checked around twice a week on average by inspectors who board as Mario described and ride to the next stop, not slowing operations at all and preventing people from running. (The inspectors do not identify themselves until the vehicle starts moving, although frequent scofflaws can sometimes spot them anyway).

    The fine is double the monthly pass, yes, but better yet it is payable IN CASH to the inspector on the spot – either that, or you are detained at the next station and dragged to some far-off locale for “booking” (which amounts to getting a ticket, basically, but with much more inconvenience.)

    I don’t think we have the regulatory framework in place for this kind of system in SF, but dragging fare evaders off the bus or making them pay in cash would be a huge deterrent. Right now, as I understand it, there are effectively no consequences for ignoring a Muni citation anyway.

  • Nick

    If MUNI could enforce ENTRY ONLY at the front of the bus, and EXIT ONLY at the back of every bus (with appropriate exceptions for people with special needs) fare evasion could approach zero. The only way to do that effectively, is to put a fare inspector/collector at the back door. It would work, but it would be cost prohibitive.

    The alternative, that which Mario stated, “… they just need to take a look at Zurich’s (or many other European cities’) fare enforcement system and learn. One inspector boards each door at a random stop and the vehicle takes off (no delay). Typically by the next stop, they are off. If you ride 2 times a day, your chances of inspection should be once a month. The penalty is double price of the monthly pass, thus not worth the trouble evading. I think inspectors should also have to have the option to ask an evader to exit the vehicle whenever the trouble of writing a ticket (and then having it adjudicated) seems to exceed the need to financially deter people from evading fares….

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