Collecting fares using the honor system

Connecticut’s newest mass transit system, CTfastrak, is off to a great start. The bus rapid transit system running from New Britain to Hartford is carrying up to 10,000 passengers daily. Mind you, that’s coming off of its debut week, when all rides were free.

In fact, it’s the fare collection process on CTfastrak that makes it innovative: It’s on the honor system.

Unlike with most buses, CTfastrak passengers pay before getting on board, purchasing tickets ($1.50 for two hours’ use) at the stations or online. This reduces the “dwell time” at each stop as passengers may board through any door. A similar system is running in New York City on certain “Select Bus” routes and seems popular.

But without paying a fare to the bus driver as you board, how do they know you have a ticket? Ah, there’s the rub. The “honor system” relies on “fare inspectors” making random checks. Getting caught without a valid ticket means a $75 fine, though in these early days they’re mostly giving warnings.

Only a handful of U.S. transit systems have adopted the honor system for fare collection, including the San Diego trolley and the Muni subway in San Francisco. In Minneapolis, getting caught on a bus without a ticket is a $180 lesson in “doing the right thing.”

In Los Angeles, the Metro had so many problems with freeloaders they converted to turnstiles. Even a $250 ticket for fare evaders didn’t encourage payment, resulting in a $9-million loss in ticket sales. And the fare there is only $1.50.

On Metro-North, fare evasion doesn’t seem to be a problem. If you don’t have a ticket they’ll just throw you off the train (at the next station, of course). Or get an MTA cop to issue a fine.

Until a few years ago you could buy a ticket on the train for the same fare as on the platform. That meant wasted time for conductors and a “money room” at Grand Central processing a million in cash each week. Now if you don’t have a ticket and buy one on the train, there’s a $5.75-$6.50 penalty … even on a $2 ticket. Senior citizens get a break, as do those boarding at stations that don’t have ticket machines.

The bigger problem on Metro-North is uncollected fares. The railroad admits it loses money by not collecting all tickets … but less money than it would cost to properly staff trains with enough conductors to collect them all.

Most infuriating is when trains from Grand Central leave Stamford. Everyone can see that dozens of commuters got off there and scores more got on. But the new arrivals’ tickets are seldom collected unless conductors have issued seat checks to the original New York passengers.

Watching someone traveling from Stamford to, say, Bridgeport get a “free ride” is like watching someone shoplift in a store. You just know you’ll be paying more to subsidize their larceny, with neglectful conductors as their willing accomplices.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see