Expand Fair Fares instead of cops on NYC’s transit system

New York Police Department officers patrolling the city's subway system.
New York Police Department officers patrolling the city's subway system.
Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock
New York Police Department officers patrolling the city's subway system.

Expand Fair Fares instead of cops on NYC’s transit system

The $249 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo has found for 500 more police officers should instead be used to make Metrocards affordable.
November 19, 2019

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has recently been focused on what it says is a crisis facing the city’s subways and public buses: fare evasion. The MTA has claimed (without providing much information on how it got its numbers) that so many people are riding transit without paying the $2.75 fare that it’s costing the beleaguered agency several hundred million dollars every year.

To respond to the supposed scourge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed the addition of 500 more police officers to the transportation system. MTA officials have said that the officers will be there for “deterrence,” not to make arrests. But, as of November 10, the New York Police Department had written 38.4 percent more transit summonses this year than last, nearly all for fare evasion – even before Cuomo’s extra squad has been deployed.

The new officers will come at a steep cost: $249 million over four years. Compare that to the amount the MTA has said it lost to fare evasion last year: $215 million. If this money is used to fund more police officers it will be egregiously misspent. It would be much better used to help poor city residents get on the subway in the first place.

If more people are hopping the subway turnstiles, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a crisis of voluntary lawbreaking: What the transit system really suffers from is an affordability crisis. Low-income city residents are the most likely to rely on public transit to commute to work and move around the city, and yet more than a quarter of poor, working-age New Yorkers report often being unable to afford the fare. Not all of those who decide to jump a turnstile or board a bus at the back are poor. But too many people have to choose between finding a way to get into the system without paying or not being able to get to work, school, doctor’s appointments and other essential destinations.

It’s also poor New Yorkers and people of color who are likely to feel the biggest impact of any crackdowns. A 2017 report from the Community Service Society of New York found that arrests for fare evasion were most concentrated at stations near poor, black neighborhoods. Ninety percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic. That trend continues: this year 90 percent of people arrested for fare evasion were people of color. Even as the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys have promised not to pursue charges against people arrested for fare evasion, and as the number of arrests has subsequently dropped, summonses show the same pattern: about three-quarters of those who have received summonses are people of color.

These are the people from whom the cost of the new police officers will be recouped. The MTA is promising that $200 million of the price tag for new officers will be covered by their efforts to eradicate fare evasion – in other words, the $100 fines paid by those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the original $2.75 fare.

In response to the fact that so many poor people struggle to afford public transit, the New York City Council passed funding last year for the Fair Fares program, which gives out half-priced subway cards to low-income New Yorkers. But the program is off to an embarrassingly sluggish start. Advocates had expected all 800,000 people living below the poverty line to be eligible, but only 30,000 were made eligible when it rolled out in January. While the program will be opened to all poor residents this coming January, the city has at this point only managed to enroll about 90,000 people.

The Fair Fares program was only allocated $106 million for its first six months, with no guarantee of funding in years to come – that money will have to come from future budget negotiations. What better use for the $249 million Cuomo has magically found for 500 more police officers than to instead help fund a program that allows people to buy Metrocards at a price they can actually afford?

We already know what will happen if we decide to instead use the money to send more police into the transit system. They will criminalize the people who ride it. Just watch the recent viral video of at least a dozen officers, guns drawn, descending on a subway car to handcuff a teenager for allegedly failing to pay the fare, or the arrests of earlier this month of Latina women for the crime of selling churros in subway stations. 

This kind of policing doesn’t even seem to be effective. Fare evasion has increased over recent months despite the deployment of hundreds of more police officers in the system.

What of the people who can actually afford the fare but refuse to pay? Forty percent of New York City transit riders evade a fair just once a year, a one-off issue that may be due to a broken payment kiosk or a Metrocard left at home. If we make it easy, and at a basic level, possible, to pay the fare, that could incentivize those who can afford to pay to actually do so. Metrocard vending machines are constantly broken. The city still hasn’t rolled out contactless technology so people don’t have to swipe to get in. Buses, where evasion is by far the most prevalent, only accept quarters if you don’t have a Metrocard with money on it (which you can’t buy at bus stops, only in subway stations). Not to mention the vast investment needed to simply ensure that trains and buses run efficiently and on time, which might prompt more people to cough up the money for their ride.

For the rest of fare evaders who can’t afford the cost of a ride, this is a crime of poverty. Putting cops in the subway to issue $100 summonses does nothing to solve the underlying problem. Funneling money to more police officers is a waste of resources when there is an obvious way to ensure that poor people can afford to ride the city’s trains and buses.

Bryce Covert
is an independent journalist writing about the economy and is a contributor to The New York Times opinion section and The Nation.
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