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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Muni Looking to Declare War on Fare Evasion -- Will This Be Nat Ford's Vietnam?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 16, 2009 at 12:30 PM

Beware fare-evaders everywhere!
  • Beware fare-evaders everywhere!
Stating that fare evasion is rampant on Muni is akin to noting that the weather in San Francisco is sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and usually in-between. It's a statement of fact -- and there's little anyone can do about it.

Or is there? At a recent public meeting Muni CEO Nat Ford promised a "crackdown" on fare evasion (yes, again). SF Weekly has spilled plenty of real and virtual ink regarding Muni's Sisyphean efforts to deter fare-jumpers. During the protracted debate over the Municipal Transportation Agency budget (and other agencies dipping into it) Supervisor David Chiu and others ridiculed Muni for spending roughly $8 million more on the inspectors than the fines they managed to amass from deadbeat riders. Muni brass is quick to maintain that this is a "narrow" way of judging the efficacy of the fare inspector program. Inspectors don't just ding scofflaws, their presence also encourages fence-sitters to pay up. But does Muni have hard data to back this up? No. No they do not.   

So forgive us for not thinking "Muni's fare-evasion problem is over!" after reading today's Chronicle article detailing Ford's remarkably vague declarations. The story noted that teams of Muni workers have been riding the rails and visiting stations to assess how effectively fares are being collected; 35,000 observations have been recorded and "the findings will help develop the new attack plan." Wow! That sounds aggressive -- but when we called Muni Spokesman Judson True to ask him just what the thousands of observations have been observing and what this so-called "attack plan" might be, he had no answers.

True noted that Muni is still in the "data collection phase" and there hasn't been any formal analysis yet (are they expecting wildly variant new data to come in between rides Nos. 35,000 and infinity? Couldn't they have started noticing trends after, say, the first 25,000 ride-alongs?). So, essentially, all Ford has said is "We've seen lots of stuff and we'll think about these things." Hmmmm.

So we're still wondering how, exactly, Muni will be more "aggressive" in combatting fare evasion. Certainly the agency can't literally clamp down on miscreants. Bus and train drivers are not permitted to physically remove willfully non-paying riders from vehicles; operators have roughly the same M.O. as Britain's unarmed police officers -- "Stop or I'll say stop again." Irwin Lum, the president of the Muni Drivers' union, recently told SF Weekly that management has been leaning on drivers to clamp down on fare-evaders. But Lum said there's only so much a driver can do without risking his or her safety. And with the only option for a driver who has already asked a fare evader to get the hell off being to put the keys in his or her pocket and call the cops, it becomes a question of cost-benefits. Is it worth multiple long delays and calls to police (who likely charge Muni for their time) to bust fare-evaders? Is it worth setting the stage for a confrontation between agitated Muni passengers and a scofflaw who won't get off -- again putting Muni in a jam regarding future liability payouts? Usually it isn't. Drivers turn a blind eye. 

It warrants mentioning that a bevy of San Francisco police officers are now assigned to a commander who works within Muni. Perhaps this will help alleviate some of the fare-evasion problems -- but that's a detail Ford isn't talking about right now.

The headline of this article ponders if this will be Ford's Vietnam, but another martial analogy may be apt as well: the Crimean War. In fact, to crib from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade

Half an hour late, half an hour late
Rode the 35,000
"Forward, the Muni Brigade!"
"Charge for the transfers!" he said:
Into the valley of Scofflaws
Rode the 35,000

"Forward, the Muni Brigade!"
Was there a transit engineer dismay'd?
Not tho' Nat Ford's staff knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to shrug and sigh
Theirs not to Twitter "why?"
Theirs but to charge the ratepayers to the sky
Into the valley of Scofflaws
Rode the 35,000

Fare-evaders to the right of them,
Fare-evaders to the left of them,
Fare-evaders in front of them
Bullshitt'd and plunder'd
Boldly they rode and well,
Among the users of meth,
Among the seat odors of Hell
Rode the 35,000

When can their glory fade?
O the wild fee-hikes they made!
All the city wondered.
Honor the fee-hikes they made,
Honor the Muni Brigade,
Noble 35,000

Photo   |   Jim Herd

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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