Trust, turnstiles and the underground economy

D.J. WALDIE is the author, most recently, of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles."

In two pairs, the officers pass through the swaying rail car, crisply uniformed and armed, taking up positions that surveil the exits. The passengers, at least those who notice, shift a little in their seats, pat pockets or rummage in a purse or backpack.

It's reminiscent of the moment in a hundred black-and-white movies when the refugee carrying the forged letters of transit, or the agent with the microfilm sown into the lining of his coat, faces the blank mask of authority. You expect a clipped command of "Your papers, please."

OK, so this time it's only a quartet of dutiful Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, in green and khaki, going through the boring routine of checking passengers for valid passes and tickets on one of Metro's four "honor system" rail lines. The deputies make these occasional rounds because there are no conductors punching tickets on these trains and no turnstiles or gates on the platforms of Metro's subway and light-rail lines.

The whole system, in fact, depends on the willingness of passengers to play by the rules. You buy a ticket at one of the automated vending machines, you walk onto the platform, you wait, you get on the train -- and only rarely do you encounter the deputies who, when they do show up, work in well-rehearsed squads on the platforms and through the cars.

Just as in the L.A. County jails, strangely, a thinly deployed force of deputies oversees a potentially larcenous multitude.

I've seen the other side of the honor system too. In 10 years of riding Metro trains, I've seen deputies nab three or four fare scofflaws, who confessed with mumbled acceptance as they were walked onto the platform at the next station. I once watched a foot pursuit through a train and onto the platform. It may have been the $250 fine for fare-dodging that made the runner flee, but maybe he had other law enforcement issues.

Once, I stepped off a train in Long Beach and reached into my pocket for the ticket to flash at the deputies waiting at the exit -- only to find that nothing was inked on my ticket. It was totally blank, like something from a "Twilight Zone" episode. Although I had done nothing wrong, I felt like a scofflaw, and the deputy's expression betrayed his suspicion that I had ridden for days on my undated and therefore unlimited ticket.

That's what the "honor system" feels like in a city that harbors bleak suspicions about human nature. In a city where burger joints can have burly men with clipboards vigilant behind velvet ropes, rail mass transit in Los Angeles operates, as 20 similar metropolitan systems do, on faith -- and on the anxiety of riders that if they do cheat, they will be humiliated in public and have to pay the hefty fine.

But now, some are questioning whether the price of faith is too much. An estimated 6,000 riders a day on the Red Line, according to The Times, are fare dodgers. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, an MTA board member, asked the agency to study the installation of a barrier-and-ticket system for the Red Line, like that used in New York to keep fare-dodging in check. According to MTA estimates, it could cost $30 million or more to install new ticket machines, gates, ticket readers and turnstiles in subway stations. On the other hand, the MTA had to spend $19 million last year just for Red Line deputies and civilian fare inspectors.

Turnstiles would not, of course, eliminate the need for a law enforcement presence or prevent all "turnstile hopping" in subway stations any more than they do in New York. But going off the honor system would certainly cut some fare-dodging. Just how much it would cut is not yet clear.

The question is complicated by the perplexing business model of public transportation. All transit in Los Angeles is subsidized to some degree. Metro's rail systems were built with money from county sales tax increases, state transportation funds and a lot of federal dollars. And no passenger pays the full cost of a trip. Whether they ride the rails or not, taxpayers are still paying part of that cost.

Subsidization makes the system affordable for the people who must use it -- mostly those who are too young or too old to drive or too poor to own a car. In effect, ticket-price supports create a market for mass transit, and that benefits me (and the other people in business suits on the train) because there wouldn't be a train at all for the people in suits unless there were enough poor people riding it.

Perhaps fare dodgers should be seen as the ultimate beneficiaries of routine transit subsidization, just like those who get their tickets through the lively (and illegal) market in unexpired Metro day passes that goes on at some rail stations. (It's a kind of curbside capitalism for which traders of day passes hang around the automated ticket vending machines. Riders getting off the system get a dollar or two back on their original $3 purchase; someone getting on the system gets a bargain to ride anywhere Metro goes until the pass expires.)

Mass transit in Los Angeles is full of these rough calculations. Metro's day passes reduce some operational costs, simplify some of the complexity of riding and complicate the problem of fare enforcement. Just like taking the subway off the honor system, which might increase some revenues but complicate using the system and raise some operating costs.

There would be nominal gains in part of the transit equation and losses elsewhere. Would it be at all possible to calculate the real losses and benefits? I don't think so.

It rankles that some people beat the system, although every transit rider, to some degree, gets a partially free ride. Maybe putting turnstiles in the subway would make L.A. feel more like New York (which is as good a reason as any not to put them in). Maybe the turnstiles would make the MTA look more responsible to voters who are being asked to build a bigger transit system that they probably won't use. Maybe turnstiles would be a sop to the lingering conviction in L.A. that transit riders are an untrustworthy and lesser breed of citizen.

This city isn't a haven of trust. It doesn't have an ingrained sense of propriety. A fair percentage of its residents are on some kind of make. But in the highly artificial community that rides Metro rail by faith (and the occasionally looming presence of a sheriff's deputy), I'll continue to commute with the just and the unjust alike, not caring if my seatmate has paid his fare, and never feeling that I've been a sucker because I did.

The invention of Los Angeles, which is the task we've all been drafted for, requires some measure of reciprocal trust. I trust you; you trust me; the MTA trusts us both. You and I learn civility. The government learns to be humane. The trains attract riders. And everyone generally ignores the cost of transit subsidization, even by the informal means of fare-dodging. This is the combination of fiction and hope that makes Los Angeles livable.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BY THE NUMBERS

If you're caught without a ticket on Metro's

"honor system" rail lines, the fine is $250. Some fines for comparable misconduct:

Advertise with bugles, drums or other noisy instruments within 10 feet of a front property line: Up to $250

Graze cows in unauthorized places: Up to $200

Fly a model airplane where prohibited: Up to $200

Hold a parade without a permit: Up to $500

Join a boating race without permission: Up to $200

Make a figure eight on water skis: Up to $500

Wash dishes in a public body of water: Up to $200

Cut in front of cars waiting to get gas: Up to $1,000

Ditch school: Up to $250

Feed an nondomesticated animal, such as a coyote: Up to $1,000

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Source: L.A. County and city codes.

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