So, it turns out the great transit caper has been taking place under our noses — a subway train heist being committed by riders who don’t pay their fares to the tune of something like $60 million per year. I feel like it’s fair to emphasize that conclusion, given that over the past couple of years I have written columns mocking politicians who suggested fare evasion is a big, and growing, problem. Former councillors Josh Colle and Joe Mihevc: you were right when you said the number of free riders was likely double what the TTC had been officially estimating. Or, you were closer to right than I was. It turns out, according to a report from the city auditor, that it’s closer to three times as common as the TTC management had been estimating. Having a few extra fare inspectors on the TTC — or just spreading them around a bit more — might help cut down on the number of fare evaders, Edward Keenan writes. (Marcus Oleniuk / Toronto Star file photo)That $60 million a year is a lot of money, even for an agency with a $1.8-billion operating budget. I mean, the 10-cent fare hike expected to be levied on law-abiding riders this year is anticipated to generate $25.6 million. The number of people not paying seems to be a problem. What we do about it is an important question. However, I fear that focusing too closely on trying to eliminate fare evasion — as satisfying as that would be to many of us conscientious fare payers — could wind up being counterproductive.The TTC should keep two things in mind when approaching this problem: first, the reason the transit system exists is not to collect fares (as it might be in a for-profit business), but to provide excellent transit service to the people of Toronto; second, we don’t want the cost of policing this — either in dollars or in time and energy — to exceed the revenue it collects. If we wind up spending $70 million on enforcement to eliminate a $60-million problem, we’ve lost. The first point is especially important, in my mind. The vast majority of transit riders are paying their fares. Keeping the system quick and convenient for them — and making it more so, as well as more affordable — is job one. Piling onto a crowded rush-hour streetcar to check everyone’s fares, thereby holding up their commute, or any other enforcement measure that would slow things down significantly, is probably not worth it. And may be counterproductive. Read more:Revenue lost to TTC fare evasion three times greater than agency previously said, auditor general reportsTTC plans to hire dozens of fare inspectors to deter people from skipping out on payingTTC internal report on fare evasion raises red flags over lost revenueThat still leaves a lot of room to easily — easily — reduce the problem of nonpayment of fares.Job one for me would be to put “fare evasion” to the side for a moment and deal immediately with “fare repulsion,” the phenomenon in which the TTC has been actively making it difficult for passengers to give it money. The well-reported and by now well-known problem of Presto machines and gates not working is one culprit. The machines on streetcars that are supposed to accept cash fares and tokens are another. In my experience, these seem to be out of order a significant percentage of the time; when they do work, they take a minute or more per passenger to process a transaction, therefore becoming useless for a line of 10 people trying to pay their fares during, say, the one-minute trip between the ferry docks and Union Station.Some of the other problems identified by the auditor have relatively straightforward fixes. The card that lets kids in free should maybe be a different colour, or cause the machines to loudly make a different sound. In my admittedly limited experience riding in London and New York, banks of fare gates at stations are often staffed by an attendant who’s walking around, answering questions and keeping an eye on turnstile-hoppers at the same time (just having the set of eyes there, I suspect, would deter many sneaks). That’s an example of a fix that would reduce evasion while making customer experience better, rather than worse. And if you had an attendant capable of waving people through at every gate station, you could dispense with child cards altogether.Finally, since the new streetcars and all-door boarding are identified as a key part of the problem, it wouldn’t hurt to sometimes have fare inspectors on them. In five years of almost daily streetcar riding to and from the Star, I have had my fare checked dozens and dozens of times exiting the streetcar at Union, but not even once on any other streetcar route or at any other point in the system. You don’t want it to be too intrusive, but it ought to be like illegal parking patrolling — just frequent enough that anyone expects they may get caught. If the TTC were to cover those things — starting first by making it easier to pay if you want to, and then picking the low-hanging fruit on the enforcement tree — I think we’d likely see the problem greatly reduced, without too much expense and without making service worse for most riders. At that point, we could decide if it’s worth the energy and cost to reduce it further.Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwireWHEN IT COMES TO EXPERT ADVICE, COME TO US.