At the most recent MTA Board meeting we were presented with new fare evasion data showing increases in recent months on both subways and buses, along with a new plan to crack down on offenders. Andy Byford, NYCT Transit President, acknowledged that service issues were a problem, but implied that an “equal” issue was that of people choosing to not pay the fare. The MTA presented data showing fare evasion trends for the past 5 years (the first time this data has ever been shared) showing an increase in both bus and subway fare evasion in recent months. Unfortunately, the MTA released very limited information on their methodology, making it impossible to assess whether the data they released does indeed indicate rising fare evasion or is driven by decisions about which subway stations and bus routes were sampled and at what times of day.
One explanation offered by the MTA for the rise in fare evasion according to their data: Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s decision to not prosecute arrests for the crime was at least partly to blame for the change.
But even if we take evidence presented by the MTA at face value, it does not support this explanation. The trends show a much larger increase in fare evasion on buses than on subways, and the MTA has said that the highest bus fare evasion rates are in the Bronx and Staten Island. These changes would not be caused by a change in prosecuting arrests for fare evasion in Manhattan subways. Moreover, fare evasion still carries a stiff penalty: a fine of $100 for failure to pay $2.75.
Still Byford has proposed increasing fines, not arrests, suggesting he thinks civil penalties can be an effective deterrent.
Byford’s plan calls for working with the NYPD to send new enforcement teams to stations and routes they identify as having the most fare evaders. Our own research has shown the troubling practices with how the NYPD enforces fare evasion, often focusing on poor communities of color, and we would need to see clear plans with how they plan to prevent this. If the rate of bus fare evasion has been consistently high in Staten Island, why have we not seen a spike in summonses and arrests there?
Given the discriminatory history of NYPD fare evasion enforcement, any efforts to heighten fare evasion enforcement in certain locations should first be justified by data to support the need for heightened enforcement in these areas. Otherwise it is an open invitation for the NYPD to exercise discretion in their enforcement in ways that continue to target lower-income communities of color.
And we can’t expect transparency, considering we are currently in the middle of a lawsuit attempting to get the NYPD to comply with the law mandating detailed arrest and summons statistics.
While it is a good thing that Byford’s plan says police officers will be posted outside of the turnstile in plain view, rather than their historically preferred method of hiding behind doors and columns, this does nothing to address the root causes that make it hard for impoverished New Yorkers to pay the fare.
Transit affordability is the central issue, not an increase in disregard for the law. We note that the biggest jump in subway fare evasion rates came in 2017 following the fare hike that went into on March 19th that year. The rollout of Fair Fares—the half price MetroCard plan that was approved by Mayor de Blasio for all New Yorkers at or below the poverty line—in January of 2019 should be a big help in decreasing the need for low-income New Yorkers to jump the turnstile.
Creating more ways to access the system, with a focus on ensuring working MetroCard vending machines, eliminating long lines or creating other points of purchase especially for boarding buses could help as well.
We don’t doubt fare evasion is a real issue, and we do believe that people should pay their fair share. But the real issue here is poverty. The cost of living is rising far faster than many New Yorkers’ paychecks. Yet everyone still needs to get to work, school, daycare, and medical appointments. We should not criminalize hard choices, but reduce the need to make such choices in the first place.