The No. 14 Muni bus rumbles south on Mission Street, picking up five to eight passengers at each stop: Mothers with their children, young adults wearing headphones, seniors vying for the few remaining seats. No one tags on. No one glances around furtively to see if someone is watching them ride for free. After 20 minutes and eight stops, just two passengers have tagged in at the Clipper device. Twenty people have gotten on.
Is fare dodging the new normal? It seems the answer is yes. Some of the 18 riders who failed to tag on might have a Muni pass, others, including anyone under 18, low-income seniors, or low-to-moderate income people with disabilities, can legitimately ride for free. But either they make up the entire bus-riding population, or an awful lot of riders no longer pay.
This is not merely an anecdotal observation: The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s own data reveals that its ridership is recovering far more rapidly than the sales of prepaid adult Muni passes and single-fare rides.
Interviewing riders at the bus stops before they alight, it would appear that many often consider paying, and some even insist that they do pay. But all agreed that, given the noticeable lack of tagging or fare inspectors, paying is a choice.
A woman waiting for the 22 says it depends on her mood. “I just walk on and decide if I feel like paying today.”
Another blames her fee-dodging on others. “When I first moved here, I paid religiously. But it’s very frustrating when you realize you’re the only person who has paid,” said Isabella, who moved to the city in July.
“I don’t pay all the time, but like, 80 percent of the time,” said a woman waiting for the No. 1 bus at Clay and Franklin streets.
Another rider says he probably pays 60 percent of the time; three more bragged that they haven’t paid in months.
And another insists he pays because of his station in life and his disposition:
“I pay my fare, because I have the means and I’m a rule-follower,” he said while waiting for the No. 33 at 18th and Dolores.
Angelica Campos, a student at City College advocating for free transit passes for CCSF students, said fare evasion “is something I really try to avoid doing.” Why? The $125 ticket.
“I pretty much always pay. I’m pro-transit, I like giving money to transit agencies to do their jobs,” said Jackson. However, he adds, he understands that people ride for free. He helps to run @UnfareSF, a Twitter account that notifies riders of fare inspectors.
Though many attribute what appears to be a rise in fare evaders to SFMTA’s suspension of fare enforcement during the pandemic, confusion about payment has been brewing for years.
An SFMTA blog post from 2017 titled “Make No Mistake: Most Muni Riders Pay Their Fares,” begins: “If it ever seems that only a few Muni riders pay their fare, it may be because most customers pay before they board.”
Today, fewer riders are paying before they board than ever before. From July to December 2019, riders purchased 396,018 monthly passes, an average of 33,000 per month. In the same period in 2022, pass purchasing was down by 78 percent, with an average of 7,257 pass holders per month.
Adult passes (1000s)
Following the pandemic,
ridership has recovered
faster than adult pass sales
has recovered faster
than adult pass sales
Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from SFMTA.
Revenue from single-fare rides is also behind ridership recovery. In the same period, weekday ridership was down 46 percent, and revenue from single-fare rides was down 51 percent, despite the decreased use of monthly passes.
But SFMTA stands by its 2017 explanation for why, in the agency’s view, it only appears that riders are not paying.
Stephen Chun, a spokesperson for the organization, said: “Sometimes it will appear that a person isn’t paying their fare when, in fact, they are. Sometimes riders with monthly passes and free Muni passes don’t tap their Clipper card or pay cash, but that doesn’t mean they’re not paying their fare.”
Pete Wilson, the vice president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents bus drivers and fare inspectors, said, “let’s say I get a transfer. What do you want me to do, announce to everyone, ‘Hello, I’ve already paid?’ Or my wife, who has a pass, should she have to wave around her pass?”
But, he concluded, “We don’t really know who’s paying and not paying.”
But even the SFMTA board appears concerned. “Fare-evasion patterns warrant greater investigation,” suggests its Feb. 7 report.
Do inspectors help?
Wilson argued that fare evasion would be even more rampant without the looming threat of citation, making inspectors’ impact on revenue greater than the tickets they issue.
This assumption is challenged by Chris Arvin, a transportation advocate and data scientist, who studied fare-evasion data provided by SFMTA for the 38 line.
In September, 2022, inspectors targeted the line every single weekday, but the fare evasion rate, calculated by taking the percentage of fare evaders in the sample of people stopped by officers, went up in October.
“There’s no real correlation between fare enforcement and seeing the evasion rate change on that line,” Arvin said. “So, what are we actually getting for our investment there?”
Erica Kato, a spokesperson for SFMTA, says that inspectors aren’t supposed to be an investment.
“We do not use Transit Fare Inspectors for the purpose of generating income,” said Kato. “Rather, the priority for their role is to ensure compliance.”
This was the suspicion of Aditya, another manager of the Twitter account that notifies riders of fare inspectors:
“This isn’t a money-making scheme. It’s just for punishment, for creating a sense of embarrassment.”
Compared to the harmful impacts of personal vehicles, skipping the $2.50 price to ride mass transit seems positively innocuous to others, as well.
“If all those trips were taken by car, the city wouldn’t function,” Arvin said. “When someone takes transit instead of driving, they’re doing everyone a favor.”
Victor Grayson, a 71-year-old who drove for Muni from 1984 to 2004, agrees that we should question the urge to villainize passengers.
The biggest fare evaders, in Grayson’s opinion? “Corporations.”