Are Turnstiles Worth Their Cost?

As Los Angeles installs its first devices, their value is worth considering.

At four of Los Angeles’ subway stations, Metro has installed turnstiles at entrances in a demonstration project. The gates are intended to ward off fare evaders and enhance the safety of the system, and if they prove valuable, they will be installed elsewhere in the network. Putting in the devices will require a significant expenditure on the part of Metro, but with millions lost annually to non-paying riders on the relatively high-ridership system, the price is right, since the machines will last for decades and the transit agency will save money by reducing the labor cost of fare checking. Whether other cities would benefit similarly from these devices, however, is an open question.

Currently, Los Angeles fines passengers $250 if they’re unable to produce a ticket, but these random checks have not been able to reduce the 6% fare evasion rate, which means that Metro loses roughly $5 million each year in tickets not purchased. If the demonstration program goes right, at a cost of $46 million, 387 turnstiles will be installed by early 2010 at many of the system’s stations. The program will be expanded to encompass all stations on the Red, Purple, and Green Lines, which are entirely grade separated, and some stops on the Blue, Gold, and (future) Expo lines, each of which has some street-running segments. Controlling access to the stations along these light rail lines is difficult because they’re often located within the public right-of-way; Metro doesn’t plan on blocking off access to the Long Beach transit mall, for example.

Los Angeles is saving costs by not installing turnstiles at every station, and it could be argued that by installing them only at high-ridership locales, the agency will be eliminating most of the fare evasion. But doing so may in fact produce a negative effect: it may well increase the rate of passengers choosing not to buy tickets at the stations without fare gates, since they would be more assured of their not being fined by a roving fare checker. In the long term, in other words, a fully fare-controlled system may be a good idea.

Metro argues that one of the advantages of the fare gates is that they will “reduce the threat of terrorism,” a specious claim since terrorists, like everyone else, could easily buy tickets and pass through turnstiles if they wanted to get into stations. Apart from this nonsensical claim, the fare gates would pay for themselves in just over nine years if fare evasion ceased and ridership remained constant. After that, Los Angeles would improve its finances by collecting more fares; in addition, it would benefit from reduced labor costs since it would no longer need to hire people to check train tickets. This in itself is a relatively good reason to put in the devices.

There are several problems with this, however: installing turnstiles doesn’t prevent fare evasion — it will be perfectly possible to jump over the gates Los Angeles is installing. Second, the city’s ridership is likely to suffer at least some decline as a result of the need to pay. Even so, fare collections are probably going to increase and fare evasion will decrease.

How would a similar investment stack up in other cities that might be considering transit gates? Vancouver, which opened its new Canada Line today, will have fare gates put in all its SkyTrain stations by 2012 at a cost of C$100 million.

In relative terms, the installation of turnstiles has a fixed investment cost, so the price increases linearly based on the number of stations in a system, not based on the number of riders or the length of a route. As a result, it makes more sense to install them in cities where each transit station handles a high number of users.

The chart below compares a fare gate installation in Los Angeles at all stations with hypothetical installations in eight cities with rail systems and New York City (which of course already has turnstiles in its subway). The spreadsheet demonstrates that most cities would be unwise to invest in the devices, as it would take at least 30 years to make up their cost in all cities except for L.A. (16 years), Vancouver (9), or New York (7). An average of 5,000 daily riders/station seems like a prudent minimum number of users needed to justify the use of turnstiles. While they are designed to last several decades, they likely would not make it past their 30th anniversary before needing replacement. It might make sense for some systems to install the turnstiles at only a few of their highest-ridership stations.

Los Angeles’ plan, in other words, is at the cusp of justifiability, because turnstiles shouldn’t be installed unless they’ll ultimately save transit systems money in the long run.

How Cost-Effective Are Fare Gates?

Number of stations
Total daily riders
Avg. riders/ station Lost revenue/ station @ $16.4/ rider, 94% paying*
Years to make up cost @ $1.25 m/ station**
Los Angeles (all stations) 62 305 k 4,900 $80 k 16
Charlotte 15 22 k 1,500 $25 k 50
Denver 36 70 k 1,900 $31 k 40
Houston 16 40 k 2,500 $41 k 30
Jersey City 23 38 k 1,700 $28 k 45
New York City 468 5,226 k 11,200 $184 k 7
Phoenix 28 33 k 1,200 $20 k 63
Portland 64 107 k 1,700 $28 k 45
St. Louis 37 62 k 1,700 $28 k 45
Vancouver***
33 271 k 8,200 $134 k 9

* The $16.40 per rider loss comes from the data we have from Los Angeles. The city loses roughly $5 million a year in non-paying customers; it has about 305,000 daily riders. ($5,000,000/305,000 = $16.4). Around 6% of riders are assumed to be non-paying, based on L.A.’s information.
** In Los Angeles, the turnstile installation is costing about $1.25 million per station ($46 million, 40 stations). The assumption in this spreadsheet is that ridership levels remain constant with or without fare gates.
*** Except the Canada Line, because its future ridership is unclear at this point.

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • So those turnstiles will pay for themselves in a decade if they take fare evasion to zero and none of the people currently evading will decrease their use of Metro. Sounds pretty damn unlikely. The turnstiles will, however, set up a real and symbolic barrier that will inconvenience every single person who goes through those stations.

    This looks like one of those “tough on crime” approaches that benefits no one. If this were a 25% evasion rate I could understand, but 6% sounds like a very low rate to me, and one that may represent various marginal portions of the community that would not necessarily respond like the average transit rider would.

    (Back of the envelope calculation: inconveniencing 305K riders a day for 3 seconds each = about 1 million seconds a day, or about 100,000 hours a year.)

  • anonymouse

    I disagree, Michael. Turnstiles will provide a real and symbolic barrier: if you jump over it, you are committing fare evasion. That alone would deter some number of fare evaders, and it would also stop inadvertent fare evaders, for example people who think that LA has free transfers between lines like every other city in the world. And remember, the alternative to faregates is continuing to pay the sheriffs to check fares, which they do rather ineffectively, preferring to stand around and socialize instead. And hey, I for one would prefer a turnstile that tells me I don’t have a valid fare rather than an angry cop writing me a ticket for $250 which can only be paid in person at the county jail.

  • anonymouse

    Also, on cost effectiveness terms: if the MTA just puts in gates on the Red Line, that’s 14 stations with a ridership of 160,000, or about 11,500 daily riders per station.

  • EngineerScotty

    Use of turnstiles may be one more arrow in the “broken windows” quiver. There are probably some classes of rider that transit systems would be better off without–whether they pay the fare or not.

    In a somewhat related development, last week Tri-Met (the transit authority in the Portland, OR metropolitan area) voted to discontinue its downtown free-fare zone (“fareless square”) for busses; only trains would continue to be fareless in the downtown zone (which, despite the name, hardly resembles a square). The stated reason for this is not recapture of fares from short-trip bus riders, but reduction of fare evasion–as the busses run on a pay-as-you-board basis, it is easy for scofflaws to board in the Square and inform the driver that they are making a trip within the fare-free zone, and then simply remain on the bus as it travels outside. Without the requirement that they be in possession of a valid fare instrument; enforcement of this is difficult. The rail lines–MAX and the Streetcar–both operate on a proof-of-payment system; so fare enforcement (using fare inspectors only; no physical barriers to boarding) is not made more problematic by the Square.

  • Spokker

    That $5 million figure is based on Metro’s flawed analysis. Former Metrolink CEO explains it here: http://www.thetransitcoalition.us/largepdffiles/TC-Metro-2008-01-31-01a-FaregatingAnalysisReport-RichardStanger.pdf

    “What the analysis has done is take
    Metro’s annual rail ridership and multiplied it by 6%, then multiplied the result by the base $1.25
    fare (74.3 million annual riders x 6% x $1.25 = $5.6 million). But the average Metro fare is not
    $1.25, but 60¢ (from the 2005 National Transit Database) because most riders use monthly, weekly,
    day or other type of passes variously discounted from the full fare. The estimated revenue loss
    should be $2.67 million, at most.”

    These things might not even pay for themselves, and won’t allow connecting transit such as Metrolink to offer seamless transfers at no additional cost. That doesn’t bode well for regional connectivity.

    Proof-of-payment is not the honor system, and when fare checkers double as officers, it’s the best system to use on any sized rail transit network.

  • People who are not willing to pay for the service are just thieves. And such problem exist in every major city, in every kind of mass transit system. Also buses, trams and inner-city train are flawed with such irresponsibility of people who think that they can get something for free and nothing bad will happen. But it does. Local authorities must spend money to avoid free-riders, and less money is spent on needed repairs and investments. People who are not paying for ride are thieves to us all.

  • Adam

    If they’re going to do this they need to implement smart card technology.

  • tom veil

    I’ve never been to LA, so someone please clue me in: what is to stop someone from buying one subway token and just holding on to it for months on end until they’re finally approached by a fare checker?

  • There is a basic flaw in the argument about Vancouver. The
    installation of turnstiles on the Expo line requires the
    reconstruction of the stations in order to meet a basic safety
    requirement – evacuation in an emergency. The BC government tried to
    avoid that by saying that the Expo stations needed to be rebuilt
    anyway so that they could take longer trains – which is specious. They
    also tacitly acknowledged that the gates would not pay for themselves
    through increased fare revenue by trotting out the “it will make
    people feel safer” argument which I notice is missing from this piece.

    The claim that “the transit agency will save money by reducing the
    labor cost of fare checking” is also false since staff levels are what
    provides security, In fact with gates at stations more staff are
    needed on SkyTrain because of the need to open a gate manually to deal
    with people in wheelchairs, with strollers or heavy baggage: someone
    has to be available to do that all the time the station is open. At
    present staffing levels for roaming staff are less than what would be
    required if turnstiles were installed and all stations manned. The
    comparison based simply on capital cost recovery and an assumed rate
    of evasion is false and misleading.

    Turnstiles do not eliminate fare evasion. Both London and Paris have
    completely gated systems and levels of fare evasion comparable to
    ungated systems. London also tried that “not all stations need gates”
    approach and fare evasion increased significantly.

  • Ken Ruben

    You have to have proof of payment, i.e., a TAP Card that you have tapped, an EZ paper pass (either Senior like I havew) or a regular Metro EZ Pass (not yet on TAP),.

    The token will get you a paper pass presently issued by the machines; eventually the machine will issue a ticket that will act as a tap card (with this pass-card-ticket, it is only good for one subsway-rail ride (unlike the EZ Pass)..

    I welcome other comments and/or correctionss.

  • TransitCommuter

    It’s reasonsable to expect fare gates. The random LA Sheriff checks aren’t very effective because frequent riders will pick up on the signs when they are there. People will start taking out their passes, and human traffic to the gates will slow down. The LA Sheriffs only end up catching those fare evaders who don’t ride very often.

  • Bj

    It would be useful in the context of this debate to have some idea on the effectiveness of the current fare inspection system. How many fare-evaders are caught? How much money is collected through fines? Presumably that goes at least some way towards compensating for the estimated losses caused by fare-evasion.

  • Spokker

    TransitCommuter, they don’t just check at entrances to stations. They check on trains and after people have gotten off trains.

  • Ken Ruben

    This is a follow-up to my earlier posting and I apologize for the minor typos that crept in.

    I met some of my Metro contacts while heading for the Gold Line at Union Station and since I don’t use the ticket machines at Union Station or anywhere else since I have a Senior EZ Pass, I was informed that those machines DON’T take tokens.

    So the poster who wanted to use a token can only use it on Metro buses.

  • EngineerScotty

    One requirement for a robust POP system, turnstiles or no, is reliable ticket vending machines–the MAX system in Portland is frequently plagued with ticket machines that malfunction, run out of paper, etc. Fare inspectors are correspondingly less zealous than they might be otherwise.

  • John Coanda

    One thing that is not discussed, is the added cost of staffing stations to handle people in wheelchairs, people with strollers, luggage, etc. Currently the status are unstaffed.

    This smells an awful lot like a boondoggle to me.

  • Robert Chang

    Spokker, Metro refuted all of Stanger’s points pretty convincingly:

    http://boardarchives.metro.net/BoardBox/BB%202008/BB%20020108.pdf
    http://www.metro.net/board/Items/2008/02_February/20080228RBMItem36.pdf

    It is unfair to show the Stanger letter without discussing Metro’s response.

  • Tom Rubin

    MTA’s analysis of the costs and benefits is fatally flawed for multiple reasons — I highly recommend the outstanding analysis that was done by Richard Stanger that is referenced by “Spokker” in comment 5 above.
    Among other things, MTA failed to consider that fare gate systems require attendents at each station (“double-ended” stations, such as at Union Station, you often need more than one). These attendants are required when the gates don’t work and for a variety of other reasons. When you figure that it can take four full-time employees to staff one end of a station, as well as factor in the rest of MTA’s incredibly silly assumptions — such as fare gates will stop ALL fare evastion — and calculations, this idea is a loser from day one.
    Except for Cubic Western, which sells (leases, in this case) the fare gates, which managed to convince several MTA Board Members — who have never been known as the starpest knives in the drawer.

  • Spokker

    I can already see a couple things that are wrong with MTA’s rebuttal.

    “Is it clear how the two fare
    systems [Metrolink and Metro] will
    work together?

    UFS was designed to be a regional system
    and Metrolink is a TAP participant who
    received regional funding to become
    compatible. How the systems will work
    together is based on business rules and fare
    policies.”

    Metrolink is not implementing TAP. They have stated that it is cost prohibitive.

    “What will be the fare media costs
    and passenger inconvenience to
    Metrolink riders.

    Fare media costs were not considered as part
    of the Faregating Analysis since smartcard
    fare media will be required regardless of fare
    gates. Fare media is not a deterrent to patron
    convenience. Metro pass riders transferring to
    Muni operators must carry a separate
    interagency transfer today, and vice versa.”

    Metrolink riders do not have to carry a separate interagency transfer today. All one-way, round-trip, 10-trip and monthly passes are also EZ-Transit passes which allow full use of Metro Rail on the day or month the ticket is good for.

    Since Metrolink is not moving to TAP, they have to utilize resources to get customers who transfer to Metro rail and bus lines on TAP. First, transfers for one-way and round-trip riders are being discontinued and this will go into effect once the fare gates are operational. Second, 10-trip and monthly passholders will have to get TAP cards. On their Metrolink pass there will be a coupon code that can be used to load a monthly Metro pass onto their TAP card for “free” (actually, Metrolink riders partially pay for the cost of transfers in the ticket or pass price whether they transfer or not).

    From then on monthly and 10-trip ticket holders will have to carry two passes if they intend to transfer to Metro. One-way and round-trip riders will have to purchase separate one-way tickets or day passes to transfer, further increasing the cost and inconvenience of taking public transit. Metrolink has decided that they can only support their bread and butter passengers, which are monthly passholders. This is good for retaining ridership, but is it good for growing ridership?

    We should be working toward a system that is as easy to use as possible. We need interagency cooperation, not a system that is even more fragmented than it is now.

  • Spokker

    Hahaha, wow, I was under the assumption that TAP wasn’t going to be a Big Brother thing. I actually had faith that Metro wasn’t lying to me when they said that information on where and when you TAP was not going to be accessed by anybody.

    http://www.metro.net/board/Items/2008/02_February/20080228RBMItem36.pdf

    “Electronic trip data can be retrieved and provides
    evidence of where and when the offender entered the system.”

    And drivers throw a fit when anyone suggests installing a GPS tracker on their car to figure out how much they drive for the purpose of a VMT tax. Transit riders take this stuff lying down.

    But it’s not like proof of payment systems can ever catch criminals…

    http://laist.com/2009/08/17/year-long_murder_suspect_caught_dur.php

    Yeah, let’s move from police officers checking fares to blind turnstiles. *rolls eyes*

  • You note that there is currently a 6% fare evasion rate right now based on spot check systems. But systems that have turnstiles have a similar fare evasion rate, sometimes worse.

  • Wad

    From a MetroRiderLA post contributed by Spokker, who also posts here:

    A 2007 article puts fare evasion higher, though I wonder if the study was somehow skewed to make fare gates look better.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/26/local/me-evade26

    Blue Line weekdays and Saturday: 5%
    Blue Line Sunday: 8.2%

    Red Line weekday: 4.4%
    Red line weekends 6-7%

    Green Line weekday: 6%
    Green Line weekend: 8%

    Gold Line weekday: 3%
    Gold Line weekend: 4%

    Orange Line weekdays and Sunday: 5%
    Orange Line saturday: 6%

    At these levels on POP lines right now, the worst fare evasion rate is 8%. For one thing, this is not a critical level. Second, the fare gates are being installed on the Red Line (subway), which has a lower than average fare evasion rate on weekdays and average on weekends.

    Also, I’ve been having a hard time finding a study online about which method was better: fare barriers or proof-of-payment? It had surveyed about two dozen North American agencies, including Los Angeles, with a sample of both fare-enforcement methods.

    All the agencies reported had more than 90% rates of compliance. No agency reported 100% compliance.

    When fare gates and POP were averaged together, the fare gate systems had an advantage of only 1-2 percentage points over POP. The fare gate systems were not uniformly better, as a few POP systems had better compliance rates than some of the worse gated systems.

    The report said the 1-2 percent difference was not statistically significant enough to determine conclusively that one system was better than another. Also, the report implied that switching costs are too high, and advised transit agencies to stick with the systems they have.

    No system has ever reported 100% compliance, so Metro is basing calculations on assumptions no agency has ever reached. At best, Metro can only hope to reduce subway fare delinquency to 2.4% — which would likely be one of the best rates in North America. It’s an admirable goal, but ludicrous at the same time.

    The Green Line can also be sealed off, since it is entirely elevated. It has worse than average delinquency, yet 2% only pushes it to average or above average. The Gold Line has the lowest fare delinquency rates, and only about half of the stations can be gated.

    The Blue Line has higher than average rates, yet there are only 6 or so stations that can be plausibly sealed off with gates. Fare barriers can be easily avoided here, so they’d be useless.

    If you used Richard Stanger’s calculations of fare recovery and estimated loss of revenue, and figured a $100 million capital investment for the gates, maintenance and fare-card system integration, Metro would need the gates in place for 37 years to recover the costs of the system.

  • I think one of MTA’s hopes here is that they will get a better count of ridership in general, not just deal with fare evaders and they may be right. There’s no way to track pass usage, for example. The transit police check, but there’s no count for riders if somebody has a regional pass or an interagency pass. You get data on who purchased the pass, and you can catch these trips on the buses, but you don’t get this data on the trains. So it should help the MTA link up some trips.

    Even with TAP cards– I”ve been guilty of this–I hold a monthly pass, but if I am running for the train or being absent-minded that day, I sometimes, don’t bother passing my card over the reader. I will do so on my way out so that the trip is counted somewhere, but it’ll be counted at North Hollywood instead of 7th street. Bad. So the turnstiles will stop me that from happening. Given how many of us wind up running for the train, I have trouble believing I am the only one who does that.

  • Al Roads

    The 6% evasion rate is definitely low. All you have to do is stand one of the fare barriers in Union Station and see how many people try to enter without a valid pass. Some didn’t even know you had to pay to ride the system, which says something about the current fare inspection force.

    TAP has been available for about a year now. Granted, most people with TAP cards do not tap on a validator, but that should change with gates. The data the agency collects with TAP enforcement has invaluable worth when it comes to route planning, train frequency, future allocation of resources, etc.

    RE: the Stanger report, every point was refuted by MTA. Will there be issues/problems with gates as they are introduced to an open system for the first time? Of course. But Los Angeles is the only subway system in the country without a barrier system. I’m glad we’re taking steps to catch up.

  • Tyler

    I’m shocked that you didn’t consider a more cost effective system like Toronto’s.

    With over 1 million daily riders and only 69 stations… It would only take 5 and a half years to pay that back. If they last 30 years then that is nearly a 6 fold return on investment.

  • Jake

    Untrue, Al Roads, lots of systems use the inspection or “fare-check” method besides LA…Seattle’s one. The barrier method might make people feel better, but it’s worth discussing whether it’s truly effective.

  • Martin

    A big reason for pushing forward on the Metro fare gate project is to allow Metro to impose zone fares on the rail system. You won’t find this in Board report but only by talking to staff.

  • Madam_S

    Great forum here, with both sides debated. I had read Stanger’s analysis long ago, and thought it was very interesting. I recently read the Metro rebuttal, but was not impressed.
    Many points remain:
    1. Metro assumes 100% effectiveness of gates;
    2. Maintenance and staffing required for gates are ignored, though significant.
    3. Metro ignores cost of new tickets (new “fare media”);
    4. Fines can be increased.
    Also, please stop claiming that LA should do this because other cities do it. This argument is meaningless, since many cities do without it (in N. America and Europe).
    It’s interesting that this page says it’ll take 16 years to recoup capital investment, while Metro numbers say 9-10. However, neither accounts for non-capital costs, and neither will be accurate, since these propositions always underestimate costs and overestimate benefits.

  • I got my purse caught in a turnstile a few months back and for the life of me, I couldn’t get it out. Took at least 10 mins to get it unhooked and I ended up missing my train.

  • The article has been written in august 2009. Almost 5 years after it would be curiously to know what the author can say about turnstiles payback in Los-Angeles? Thoughts in the material are right. Is there any information about economic benefit of turnstiles during these 4,5 years?

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