La Presse on Wednesday had a story that discussed an apparent flaw in the new smart-card fare system being used by the STM and other transit agencies in Quebec. The story concluded (with Journal-de-Montréal-style undercover anecdotal investigation) that people could make use of this flaw to get free transit rides. The Gazette matched the story within hours.
Here’s how it works: Users take the paper/magnetic cards that are distributed as tickets, transfers and proof of payment on buses and in the metro, and bend them to make the magnetic strip unreadable. When the cards are placed into magnetic readers, it produces an error. The STM personnel are instructed to let the people through, even though no fare has been deducted from their card.
Of course, there’s nothing new here. We’ve known about how easily the magnetic strip can be rendered unreadable for months now, among all the other problems inherent in this card. And people have been attacking the fare payment system through its most vulnerable part – the employees – for a long time now. The computerized fare system just makes this easier.
What this story shows are the two major problems with the way the STM (and other transit networks) deal with fares. One is new, the other is old.
1. The new fare systems are not human-readable. The previous modes of fare payment all could be verified by a human employee simply looking at them. Even the punch-card transfers given out by bus drivers had a timestamp printed on them.
The new magnetic card has information printed on the back about how many fares have been deducted and how many are remaining, but there is no way for a driver to manually deduct a fare from them (this will become an issue if and when multiple-use disposable cards come back – The Gazette’s article says these cards will be phased out in June, but I think the writer is confusing them with the old system which is being phased out).
The Opus card is even worse. There is no way to tell without a card reader how many fares remain on the card. There is no way to manually deduct a fare. And a bus driver can’t simply throw away a bad Opus card and issue a new one.
2. No one forces you to pay your fare. This problem, which has existed since the beginning, really leads to all the others. Bus drivers are specifically instructed never to leave their seat while a bus is in service. If people get on and refuse to pay, they’re just let through. The alternative – a potentially physical confrontation between a bus driver and a hostile passenger – is to be avoided at all costs.
The metro is a bit better, with physical barriers in place, but jumping a turnstile is only going to get you in trouble if the cops are nearby.
Sure, there are fines of hundreds of dollars for people who refuse to pay their fares, but bus drivers and metro ticket-takers aren’t empowered to give them. Only when a security agent or police officer is present do these tickets get issued (and nobody’s stupid enough to refuse to pay a fare when a uniformed agent is around).
Some transit systems such as the AMT get around this with a proof-of-payment system. In these systems, fares are checked at random by officers with the power to issue tickets. You can take the train for free, but eventually you’ll get caught and face a hefty fine. The STM is moving to this system with the new cards, but won’t be able to implement it until June when the old system has finished being phased out. They’ve also promised to post agents on buses, but the ratio of agents to buses needed to seriously cut down on fraud is far higher than would be financially feasible.
Sure, the fare system is flawed, but it has nothing to do with bending a magnetic strip.