For years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has mostly relied on the same approach to deter people from sneaking into New York City’s subways without paying. As passengers trickle in, police officers stand next to turnstiles and write tickets to those who jump them.
Yet even after a dramatic increase in enforcement, the transit system lost $690 million to fare evasion last year, officials say. Now, the M.T.A. is grappling with a more existential question that is not about how to crack down on fare evasion, but about whether criminal enforcement is the right approach at all.
A report unveiled by the authority last month proposed a range of new solutions, including funneling more resources onto buses, where most fare evasion occurs, boosting a program that subsidizes the cost of public transit for low-income New Yorkers, posting more advertisements urging riders to pay, and adding new fare gates that are harder to climb.
While some riders who do pay feel cheated by the idea of letting others off the hook, left-leaning politicians and advocates for poor New Yorkers have denounced aggressive policing because they say it unfairly targets the city’s most vulnerable people and, crucially, is not actually effective.
Many American cities like New York struggle to rein in losses from fare evasion, in part because the cost of penalizing transit users can exceed the amount of money collected from fining them. As a result, some places like San Francisco and Seattle have relaxed enforcement.
For New York, police enforcement is “part of the solution in the long run,” Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, said during a news conference about the new study. But he also stressed that the authority and the police department should consider an “approach that has a lot of different components in addition to N.Y.P.D. enforcement.”
Concern over fare beating intensified in New York last year as government officials were seeking to lure back riders who were avoiding mass transit, in part, because they were frightened of crime. Police officials declared a crackdown on so-called quality-of-life offenses in March 2022, and enforcement rose by about 28 percent to 80,000 fare evasion summonses that year compared with 62,380 in 2021, according to the M.T.A.
Arrests and summonses for fare evasion have disproportionately fallen on Black and Latino New Yorkers, giving fuel to critics of the approach. During 2022, they accounted for 73 percent of people arrested and given a summons for fare evasion among all incidents in which race and ethnicity were reported by the police, according to an analysis by Harold Stolper, an economist at Columbia University who studies fare evasion policing patterns in the city.
“You have people who genuinely cannot afford the cost of transit because they cannot afford the cost of living in New York City,” said Molly Griffard, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, who said resources devoted to fare evasion should be redirected to address the root causes of the behavior.
“There’s this sort of kneejerk reaction to just rely on policing our way out of a problem that police can’t solve,” she said.
A spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams said the city has tried to help poor riders through the city’s Fair Fares program, which subsidizes public transit fares for New Yorkers whose income falls below the federal poverty line — about $30,000 a year for a family of four.
But he did not commit to the report’s suggestion that the city double the income threshold needed to qualify for Fair Fares, which, according to the study’s authors, provides considerably less support than comparable transit subsidy programs in other cities.
He also said that it was unacceptable for people to refuse to pay for rides, calling it a public safety concern for the city.
The M.T.A. last year appointed a group of scholars, urban policy experts and transit advocates to study the problem of fare evasion and come up with ideas to stop it. Their recently released report offers the clearest picture of how and where the M.T.A. is losing money, and what tools the authority is experimenting with besides policing.
The study found that most fare beating occurs on buses, where the system last year lost about $315 million in revenue. Yet efforts to rein in the problem have focused largely on subways, where the cost was $285 million, according to the report. Commuter rail lines lost another $44 million, and the authority also lost $46 million in vehicle tolls on bridges and tunnels.
“The panel was convened because it’s enormously important to the M.T.A. to be able to collect fares, but it is equally important to the M.T.A. to not be viewed as a vehicle to send more and more persons into the criminal justice process without the need to do so,” said Roger Maldonado, who co-chaired the panel and is a former president of the New York City Bar Association.
“That’s why it was so important to look at the underlying reasons for evasion and look to come up with recommendations for solutions that would address that evasion without going into the criminal process.”
About 700,000 bus riders do not pay the fare on an average weekday. Skipping the fare on buses is as easy as stepping aboard without paying or dropping less than the full cost of a ride in the farebox. The authority counts fare evasion incidents on buses with automated fare counters and with sensors above doors that count the number of people aboard a bus.
Despite that statistic, the study found that there was little enforcement on local buses, which make up the vast majority of the system’s routes and stop the most frequently. The authors called on officials to deploy more fare checkers to local buses, and to improve the technology used by bus fare checkers.
They suggested, for instance, that the authority enable them to access to the M.T.A.’s database of offenders on their cell phones. They also said that because the authority briefly made buses free at the height of the coronavirus pandemic to encourage social distancing, it must now launch a messaging campaign reminding people to pay.
On subways, most riders evade the fare by walking through open emergency exit gates or by jumping over, ducking under or squeezing in together at turnstiles. To measure incidents, the M.T.A. deploys about 10 people every quarter to spend about 600 hours at randomly selected stations, where they manually count how many people skip the fare and compare it to the system’s fare collection totals.
The authority is also experimenting with camera technology, which has revealed that more than 50 percent of subway fare evasion happens at its gates.
The panel recommended replacing the system’s turnstiles with what it described as “fare gates of the future,” tall, motorized plexiglass doors that are harder to sneak around. The study noted that variations of the technology have been installed in Amsterdam, Paris, New Jersey and San Francisco.
And the panel urged the police to give warnings to first-time offenders in hopes of compelling them to pay, rather than immediately penalizing them with a $100 summons. Those who do receive a summons and pay it should get back $50 in credit to ride the system, while repeat offenders and people who commit more serious crimes in the system should face more serious punishment, the authors wrote.
Some recommendations lack key details; for instance, there is no price tag nor a specific timeline for the turnstile project.
Officials have not specified how much they have spent fighting fare evasion, but at a City Council meeting in December, Richard Davey, the president of New York City Transit, the M.T.A. division that oversees the city’s subway and buses, said the authority paid about $1 million per month for 200 private guards to monitor subway turnstiles.
The guards have little power to enforce the law or the M.T.A.’s rules, which has prompted questions about whether the cost of hiring them was justified.
The goal in flooding New York City’s subway with police officers last year wasn’t just to stop fare beaters, but also to make the system feel safer after a sequence of high-profile crimes scared many riders out of using public transit.
The safety of the system has been a source of anxiety during the pandemic after a series of shocking crimes on platforms and trains. Last month, a woman was shoved against a speeding subway train on her way to work during what prosecutors called a “completely unprovoked” attack.
Dorothy Schulz, a retired captain with the Metro-North Police Department and emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoed the mayor’s complaints about “a sense of disorderly behavior” in the subway and said that a boost in fare evasion enforcement was necessary to make riders feel safe.
“You’re supposed to pay to enter,” Ms. Schulz said. “It’s not a free system.”
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