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|
||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.