App helps fare dodgers escape ticket inspectors
FareBandit assists 'black riders' dodge public-transit fines
Posted: March 20, 2013
By Michael Finnigan
For the Post
The cat-and-mouse game played by fare dodgers and ticket inspectors is a dance as old as public transport itself. Now, though, the odds have tipped in fare dodgers' favor, thanks to a new app for Android phones that gives users the ability to track and share the location of inspectors as they do their rounds.
The app in question, FareBandit, uses mobile Internet to provide up-to-the-minute information that can be accessed and added to by anyone who downloads the free app. People who use the app in Prague risk an 800 Kč on-the-spot fine, which rises to 1,000 Kč if not paid immediately. The price for a month's travel for an adult is 550 Kč.
Similar fare-dodging websites have been in existence for a number of years in cities such as Melbourne, Newcastle and Paris, but FareBandit is one of the first to be transformed into an mobile app.
Petr Pechoušek, the creator of FareBandit, is a self-admitted member of the 240,000-plus group of fare dodgers, or 'black riders,' who pass through the Prague public transport system each year without purchasing tickets.
"I am a software developer by trade, and I wanted to create something for mobile platforms that hadn't been done before," he said. "At the same time, I was a 'black rider,' and one day it struck me that an app that could share the location of inspectors would be extremely useful to some people. The intention was not to make, help or force people to cheat the system but to create a unique application that would actually help its end user. And I think that was achieved."
FareBandit works by giving its users the ability to upload short messages noting the exact time and location of inspectors, using their mobile Internet connection. People who have downloaded the app can then log in, view the information and decide which stop is the safest to disembark to avoid a penalty.
The app is only available for Android phones, but fare dodgers wishing to access the information can do so via its complimentary website. Mobile phone users who own the app can also track the amount of times they have used public transport without paying the fares, and then tally that amount in a virtual bank.
Since its release, there has been a mixed critical response, with some commentators claiming it is morally wrong and others suggesting it might help drive down ticket prices. Despite the conjecture, FareBandit recently won the Czech Republic's AppParade competition, which celebrates home-grown innovation on the mobile market and suggests that, at the very least, the app has supporters within the industry.
The Prague Transport Company (DPP) loses an average 360 million Kč a year to fare dodging, But DPP spokeswoman Aneta Řehková does not consider the app a threat.
"Passengers have attempted to track ticket inspectors and avoid ticket fares for years, and ultimately they were all unsuccessful," she said. "Just because this application has had some press coverage doesn't mean there will be a significant impact on the performance of our traffic controllers."
According to Řehková, there is little point filing charges against Pechoušek because it is naive to think the Internet can be censored. It also remains unclear whether his actions are actually illegal.
Řehková says if the DPP were to release an official statement, it would say that the app is "amoral." Pechoušek countered by saying his intention was only to create an app that was unique and useful, and that morality never entered into the equation. "I've had a great deal of feedback through the app itself and on the Facebook page, and everyone has been extremely positive," he said. "I even get e-mails from people who aren't 'fare dodgers' but are happy to support the app and post inspectors locations."
Andrey, a FareBandit user, says the app is a useful tool for evading ticket fines. "I don't pay for tickets mainly because I only travel a few stops, and the prices are extortionate," he said. "The app isn't perfect yet because the community is still growing, and the information is out-of-date very quickly, but I do check it every time I decide to use the metro."
Pechoušek noted that much of the press coverage has been negative, with journalists questioning the morality of his app, and that he had had a number of negative comments on the Google Play store where the app is sold.
One commenter said that if people want the transport system to work, they should pay their share. Another claimed it was like playing a high-tech version of hide-and-seek, only this time it was easier to win.
So far, the app has been downloaded more than 1,000 times. Its effectiveness relies on user interaction, so its usefulness has yet to be seen. As it stands, the DPP has more than 150 ticket inspectors in employment, and Pechoušek admits the app is unlikely to be effective 100 percent of the time.
"It's just a matter of time before you get caught, but the adrenaline rush makes it worth it," he says.
Pechoušek says he will continue to improve the interface and performance of the app, and that he is currently planning his next big project. "I am currently improving the design and security of FareBandit along with a few other user requests, but I am really excited to integrate Google Maps into my app," he said.
He says the aim is to give people a visual representation of ticket inspectors on the metro and that he hopes this will encourage the community to expand. "I already have a working prototype on my phone," he said. "So fans of FareBandit should look forward to the next big release."
Michael Finnigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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