Can you stop fare evasion without criminalizing poverty?

Police minding the subway entrance.
Police minding the subway entrance.
J2R/Shutterstock

Can you stop fare evasion without criminalizing poverty?

Experts and politicians say there are alternatives to more policing of subway fare beating.
October 28, 2019

Last Thursday, state Sen. Jessica Ramos introduced legislation that would require all officers policing the New York City subway and the city’s public buses to wear body cameras, including the new influx of 500 state police officers who otherwise won’t have to. The proposal comes as progressive lawmakers are raising concerns over police transparency and the city’s increasinglyaggressive approach, epitomized by the viral video of officers aggressively pursuing and arresting a man who did not pay his subway fare on Friday, to cracking down on fare beaters, which some feel is harmful to New Yorkers simply committing a crime of poverty. As a 2017 report from the Community Service Society demonstrates, arrests for turnstile-jumping are most prevalent in low-income communities of color. 

Since the NYPD deployed hundreds of officers to crack down on fare beaters in June, fare evasion has actually increased, according to The Wall Street Journal. Subway fare evasion increased from 3.9% of riders in June to 4.7% of riders in August, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, though bus fare evasion dropped from 24% to 22% of riders during the same time period. MTA officials are blaming the slight increase in fare evasion on the city’s widespread acceptance of fare beating, while MTA President Andy Byford has also blamed the subway’s emergency exits that are easy for individuals to slip through without paying a fare. Fare evasion has been steadily increasing since 2011, in 2018 MTA officials told The New York Times that the number of fare evasions has quadrupled since 2011. The MTA expects to lose about $300 million dollars in revenue this year – double what it lost in 2017 – to fare evasion, a sizable chunk of the agency’s average $4.5 billion in revenue from subway and bus fares. 

So, can government balance the competing interests of decriminalizing poverty and making people who can afford to pay the subway fare actually pay it? Some experts and politicians suggest investing more in Fair Fares, a city-run program that gives low-income residents a 50% discounts on subway and bus fares, rather than spending $663 million on more police officers throughout the next decade. Other ideas include restructuring the subway’s infrastructure, to make it more difficult for riders to enter through emergency entrances and creating turnstiles that aren’t so easy to hop over, as well as analyzing the city’s fare evasion data to make more effective decisions regarding enforcement.

Despite the considerable loss in revenue, progressive politicians and advocates are unconvinced that directing police officers to monitor the subways is the most effective way to combat fare beaters. The MTA’s recent data suggests it may not be, although the New York Post’s editorial board argues the city has become too lenient when it comes to fare evasion – Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez no longer prosecute fare beaters – that has created a citywide culture accepting of fare evasion. “The solution is to provide reliable, affordable public transit, not deafening gate alarms or an expensive new police force that targets subway and bus riders,” the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, told the New York Post in a statement. 

In January, New York Assemblyman Dan Quart – who is running for Manhattan district attorney – introduced a proposal to lower the fine for fare evasion from $100 to the actual cost of the fare that was evaded, which is typically $2.75. “My proposal was intended to lessen the burden on poor people and prevent them from being unnecessarily tangled up in the criminal justice system,” Quart explained to City & State. “For most people, interactions with the criminal justice system are extremely destabilizing and can have long-term, adverse effects on a person’s housing situation, job, or immigration status.”

The Post’s editorial board, however, sees Quart’s proposal as “an open invitation to jump the turnstile,” as it would remove the monetary fare beating deterrent currently in place. 

Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, also argued that fare evasion will become more prevalent if there is no penalty for it. She advocates using summonses and fines as deterrents to prevent continuous fare beating. “It's not a crazy idea that if you don't have deterrence for a low level crime that there will be more of that low level crime,” Gelinas said. “Is it (fare evasion) the worst crisis in the world? No. Is it something that you can completely ignore? No. I think better design and some balance toward more equal database enforcement will get you a lot of the way there.”

Eugene O’Donnell, a retired NYPD officer and lecturer at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, told City & State that progressives overestimate the extent to which fare evaders are not paying because they can’t. “It's naive to think that the people who aren't paying can't afford it and there is a lot of mythology here,” O’Donnell said. O’Donnell attributes most of the city’s fare evasion to a growing lack of respect for the city’s justice system, which he believes is due to the mayor undermining the NYPD. “People feel like it's a badge of honor to go through the turnstile now without paying, you know,” O’Donnell said. “I wouldn't say he (de Blasio) eroded the justice system, I would say he's imploded the system.”

Gelinas also argued that the city’s heavily subsidized public transportation system is the “biggest anti-poverty workforce participation programs” that the city has, as it keeps residents from being reliant on cars, which are far more costly than Metrocards. “People who are going to minimum-wage or low-wage jobs, for the most part are paying the fare,” Gelinas said over the phone. “And the thing poor people really need is a reliable transit system and to have that you need to have fare revenue.” 

Fair Fares is now an option for some riders dealing with financial hardships, but only 130,000 of the city’s 800,000 low-income residents are able to utilize the program because only residents currently receiving cash benefits or food stamps are eligible for the discounted MetroCards, which is why advocates are pushing to increase the program’s funding. 

Both left and right agree that subway infrastructure that makes it more difficult to get into the subway without swiping would be helpful. “You have the exit gate there that's completely unattended,” Gelinas said. “I mean, it's (entering through the exit gate without paying the fare) really tempting, especially because sometimes the exit gate is just closer than the turnstiles, if you're in a hurry. There are a lot of design issues that I think could solve the problem, including better-built turnstiles. But you're still going to have that exit gate, because of fire (safety) considerations.” 

O’Donnell also said he felt that the use of law enforcement to curb fare beating should only be used as a last resort and questioned why, with technology advancing, there isn’t a simpler solution within reach. “I can't be alone in wondering why technology (to control the subway and bus entrances) is not being used in the subway and why there's so much reliance on law enforcement in the year 2019,” O’Donnell said. 

Quart argued that the city “incentivizes fare evasion by design” and that public transit infrastructure should be altered to make it more difficult by eliminating turnstiles that are easy to jump over, installing less faulty MetroCard machines and hiring more MTA staff.

Fare evasion, however, is much more common on the city’s buses than in the subway. Roughly one out of every five bus riders evades the fare, according to the Times. Gelinas suggested continued enforcement, such as fines and summonses, to curb bus fare beating, noting that many tourists are often guilty of accidentally evading fares due to a lack of clear instruction on how to actually pay the fares. “If you go on the Fifth Avenue buses, a lot of tourists get on the bus and don't pay the fare sometimes, as well as other people,” she said. “Sometimes because they don't know how to pay the fare. But sometimes you'll see a family of six get on the bus and the bus is already crowded and they're not paying. The city could probably have more stepped-up enforcement as well as education on how you pay your bus fare on multiple lines.”

MTA official Robert Linn told the Journal that fare evasion on just five bus routes were responsible for a $27 million loss in revenue in 2017, based on MTA data – the same as the 50 subway stations that are known for excessive fare beating combined. Linn suggested that more cops should be deployed on these bus lines specifically, rather than being spread evenly between buses and subways. 

Quart objects to police officers on either the subway or buses. “Putting 500 extra police officers on trains and buses will only empower the NYPD to further harass and surveil people of color, and it won’t work to eliminate fare evasion,” Quart said. “Right now, fare evasion is disproportionately enforced against people of color. It’s racist, plain and simple, and we have no reason to believe these new officers will enforce the law in any other way than the way they have historically.”

Assemblyman Michael Blake is similarly opposed to the influx of officers surveying the subway and buses, and on Monday, Blake publically called upon Cuomo to invest more in communities, instead of the city’s growing transit fleet. 

People of color have been disproportionately arrested for fare evasion, according to NYPD data from May. Within the first three months of 2019, 87% of the 1,000 people arrested for fare evasion were either black or Latino. About 70% of the 18,700 riders issued summonses for fare beating, during that same time period, were black or Latino. 

Also uncertain of how utilizing more officers in the subway and on buses will curb fare evasion, Gelinas questioned how the MTA police will interact with the NYPD. “We (New York City) have like 2,800 NYPD Transit Police and we're going to add 500 MTA police,” Gelinas said. “What's the chain of command here? Are the MTA police going to act completely independently of NYPD? What kind of intelligence will they have? Like, the NYPD kind of knows who all your chronic pickpockets are and who are your sex offenders. There's lots of stuff beyond fare beating.”

The city has an abundance of MTA and NYPD data at its disposal that could help the city better strategize and refine its approach to enforcing its policies. “It makes a lot of sense to have the enforcement where the data shows there's a bigger problem in the subway system,” Gelinas said. “We're not measuring this very well. So (the city should) start with the measurements. Where does the data say we should be enforcing this?” 

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.
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