Payment Non-Compliance in Santiago de Chile’s Public Transportation Systems

By: Francisca Gomez

While riding the Transantiago buses in Santiago, which are part of the larger public transportation system in Chile’s capital city, it is common to see users’ transportation smart cards get denied due to insufficient funds to pay for the bus ride. What is less common is to see rejected users get off the bus to load their cards. Sometimes the bus driver will ask these people to pay, and the norm is an aggressive or indifferent response from the user, who then walks past the driver and sits down without paying. Intrigued by the indifference to the community’s laws that such behavior reflects, this post will explore Santiago’s transition from an outdated transportation system to Transantiago, the continuing problem of payment non-compliance, and the city government’s attempts to change the behavior of its people.

The Transantiago public transportation system was implemented in 2007. Before that, the transportation system in Santiago consisted of a Metro network, and a large number of small private bus companies that held concessions from the government. Payments on the bus were made in cash, and government regulations enforced a uniform transportation fare. The system suffered countless problems, including the inability of users to pay a single fee to use the transportation system and make transfers between buses and the subway. No one invested in the maintenance and repair of the buses. Fierce competition caused reckless driving, as bus drivers raced each other to reach passengers at arbitrary locations – official bus stops rarely existed and one could flag the bus in the middle of the street. Payment compliance was a complex issue: drivers had an interest in getting paid, as salary depended on number of passengers carried. However, the service was highly informal, and in the absence of any kind of protection other than a thick glass wall, usually ineffective, drivers were vulnerable to aggressive users who were unwilling to pay.

Upon Transantiago’s introduction in February of 2007, the new transit system came close to collapse and caused political problems. The planners had failed to properly consider user demand, and key routes were unbearably crowded, while new routes ran empty; some buses were too tall to drive under bridges, causing inconvenient reroutes; and for many users, their travel time increased exponentially. This caused massive protests, and soon most of the new buses had been vandalized in retribution for the chaotic system implemented by the government.

Transantiago was able to fix its worst problems by 2008. Waiting times were cut in half, the number of accidents involving buses was reduced, and newer buses polluted less. The universal smart card, the “Tarjeta Bip!”, can be loaded at multiple locations and even by text message, and it allows for three transfers between buses and the subway system in a period of two hours. Students (only at public schools, but at all universities) and senior citizens (available for men 65 years and older; for women it begins at 60) have access to a special card with lower fares. The salaries of bus drivers are no longer dependent on the number of passengers they carry, which has improved safety for bus passengers, pedestrians, and everyone else on the streets. Yet grievances and complaints remain, and in a recent survey of user satisfaction, conducted in January 2013, the Transantiago system received an average score of 4.4 (on a scale of 7.0). Users surveyed were satisfied with a mostly reliable system that gave them adequate transportation choices, but stated that, as always, there is much room for improvement. A forthcoming study will investigate the user satisfaction among the lower classes. Although the correlation between user satisfaction, or lack thereof, and unwillingness to pay has not been studied in depth, anecdotal evidence in newspaper surveys suggests that some users refuse to pay, under the justification that they are entitled to better service or that this public service should be completely free.

Payment evasion is not a new problem to Transantiago. A year after its introduction in February 2007, payment evasion was as high as 20%. Two years later, the problems continued, as some bus drivers were assaulted upon demanding payment; others decided that their safety was more important than enforcing payment, especially under the new system under which their salaries were no longer dependent on passengers carried. By 2012 the highest levels of evasion had been reached, at almost 30%, after a fare raise of CLP 20 (USD 4 cents) from CLP 640 at rush hour, to CLP 660 (USD 1.20 to USD 1.30). At its peak, losses due to evasion were around CLP 100,000 million (about USD 200,000), daily.

Laws have been passed before to try to control the problem. In 2010, Congress approved new and steeper fines, and in 2012 the contracts with the companies that operate the buses were changed so that 70% of their revenue would depend on number of passengers carried (in other words, passengers who pay). However, these actions failed to deliver results. Enforcement of payment compliance and of fine payment was irregular and ineffective. Moreover, violence increased against bus drivers and Transantiago inspectors who were charged with enforcing payment compliance and imposing fines.

On June 2, 2013, the program Zero Tolerance Against Evasion (“Plan Tolerancia Cero a la Evasión) was introduced. Fines were set between CLP 40,000–60,000 (USD 70–115), with failure to pay the fine resulting in seven days in prison. The companies and the Ministry of Transportation enlisted the cooperation of the police and the local judiciary branches, and an intense advertising campaign was launched.

The program has quickly begun to show results. The number of fines has multiplied, and evasion rates have apparently decreased. Three months after the program, a study was conducted to investigate the profile of Santiago’s evaders. Almost 60% were young people, aged 20–29, 75% were male, and while there were variances based on socioeconomic levels, even the best off were evading at a rate of 22%. Only two months after its implementation, evasion rates had fallen slightly from 21% to 19%, the lowest rate after over two years. By October, more than seven thousand people had been fined; the number of fines increased from a monthly average of 120 to 2,000; and the number of inspections had increased drastically, from 32,000 to 160,000 people inspected daily.

Whether these measures will remain effective, and to what extent they will alleviate the problem, remains to be seen. In the meantime, alternatives to heavy fining and prison time must be considered, to ensure a long-term change in the attitude of Santiago’s citizens. The norm has changed from viewing refusal to pay as sly and hidden, to citizens openly refusing without a sense of guilt for what is essentially theft of a service. The marketing campaign of Zero Tolerance Against Evasion includes advertisements, in which paid models appear with blurred eyes in photographs below a message such as “caught stealing” or “discovered after refusing to pay” in bold print. Will the government succeed in altering users’ behavior? If the association between refusal to pay and stealing is effectively conveyed through marketing campaigns and fines, will this be sufficient incentive for users to start paying again?