Tackling fare evasion crucial to making BART better

“Quality of life” permeates almost every BART conversation as code for the interrelated issues of fare evasion, homelessness, cleanliness, drug activity and public safety.

Everyone inside BART headquarters knows these issues negatively impact BART riders, workers, infrastructure and revenue, yet little permanent progress has been made.

What can a transit system do about a rider’s quality of life? It comes down to people sharing small spaces, the human behavior that occurs there and what is expected in a civil society.

Three types of activity on the train cause most of the quality of life complaints: drug use, transient misbehavior and criminal acts. Complaints of cleanliness usually stem from these three issues. Some of these behaviors are intertwined with mental illness. None of them are exclusive to the BART system.

We can’t wish for an end to filth, violence and drug activity in our system while making only incremental, and sometimes costly, experimental moves that take years to assess. These issues are sucking the oxygen out of the trains. Immediate action is needed, and we saw a good start last week.

BART finally took bold action in cracking down on one bad behavior by implementing a new fare evasion enforcement program at fare gates in San Francisco stations. Police officers issued criminal tickets to those attempting to enter BART without paying the fare.

The goal is to eliminate some of the bad behavior from the system as many of the criminals, transients, panhandlers and drug users regularly do not pay. The program also sends a strong message to others that the free ride is over.

After only three days of the crackdown, the results were notable. Riders commented that fewer homeless people were using the trains as shelters, riding them all day to nowhere. At some stations, large numbers of people turned around at the fare gates and walked out of the station at a rapid clip. Some riders at Powell Street cheered as they looked up after swiping their Clipper cards to see several officers citing and turning away those who didn’t pay.

As we dove into our first draft of the fiscal year 2020 (FY20) budget season at the last board meeting, it was a relief to see the addition of 19 new police officer positions, along with four more fare inspectors. If we can get the police officer hiring handled, the officers at the gates should stay until fare gate improvements are made.

So-called station hardening to prevent fare evasion is a far more cost-effective and permanent solution than staffing gates with officers. However, the FY20 capital budget for fare gates contains only $1 million toward those improvements, of which over half came from a carryover from FY19. That’s not nearly enough.

Contrast that with $2.1 million being added for homeless initiatives like outreach teams who attempt to connect homeless to services, Pit Stop restrooms at street level and elevator attendants to keep transients and drug users away from San Francisco stations. While these are noble efforts, stopping people from entering the system without paying should be a higher priority.

With a $2.4 billion annual budget, we should be able to find more than $1 million for fare gate improvements – if quality of life is really a top priority. Otherwise, talk is cheap.

Contact Debora Allen at ­debora@fixourbart.com.