Will fare evasion and copping the occasional fine save you money in the long run? As with most economic questions, the answer is that it depends.
Because of the automated ticketing system, it’s pretty hard to get onto State Transit Authority buses without some kind of ticket. Once you’re on board, though, enforcement becomes a massive joke. The STA estimates it only catches 0.6% of fare evaders, and the on-the-spot fine for fare evasion is $200, so the average “price” of fare evasion is $1.20 – 10c more than the cost of really short trips, but significantly less than a ticket price for anything longer than from Uni to Town Hall. If you’re willing to get shouted off the occasional bus by a driver who hasn’t seen you dip your ticket, outright fare evasion thus makes perfect sense
On trains, the situation’s a little more complicated. CityRail estimates that one in 42 fare evaders will be fined, and the on-the-spot fine is again $200, so the ‘price’ of fare evasion on the average train journey works out to be a hefty $4.76. The highest CityRail concession fare, on the other hand, is $4.20, and if you’ve invested in a MyMulti or aren’t travelling from Wollongong to Newcastle your actual fare is even less, so fare evasion costs the average free rider more than just buying a ticket.
A little economics makes it easy to avoid being the average fare dodger, though. The NSW government uses transit fines as more or less blatant revenue raising, and so only sends transit officers to check trains when there’s a decent chance of making their salary back by (a) catching enough fare dodgers or (b) scaring enough bystanders into paying their fares. This means that on low-traffic trains running at off-peak times, particularly weekends or late at night (when transits officers get paid penalty rates), the odd of being fined are agreeably low.
The incentives for transit officers are even more in your favour. A substantial proportion of those who are fined for fare evasion also receive fines for something more obvious and higher on a transit cop’s priority list, like putting their feet on seats, vandalism or offensive behaviour. If you’re a well-behaved fare dodger, you’re much more likely to get away with it. Also – because they’re understandably aggrieved about failing the IQ test to become proper cops – transit officers are more likely to target passengers they don’t like or who their prejudices make them think are more likely to evade fares. Wearing a tie to uni or browsing The Collected Works of Jane Austen on the train might make your friends think you’re a wanker, but apparently that’s how CityRail thinks law abiding citizens behave.
If, however, you’re like me, and the mere thought of being caught without a ticket fills you with irrational terror, fare dodging isn’t for you. And neither is economics, probably.