Cracking down on fare evasion on New York’s subways and buses

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is taking steps to stem a problem that cost the transit agency $690 million in lost revenue last year.

Unarmed security guard contractors block an emergency exit to deter fare evasion at the West 4th Street station in Manhattan.

Unarmed security guard contractors block an emergency exit to deter fare evasion at the West 4th Street station in Manhattan. Marc A. Hermann / MTA

New Yorkers have a lot of reasons for dodging bus and subway fares, but their habits are beginning to derail the transit system’s bottom line.

Some people truly can’t afford to pay for their trips. Some may have gotten used to free bus rides at the start of the pandemic four years ago. For others, it’s an inconvenience to swipe their MetroCards, or they simply feel entitled to a free ride.

This spring, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes to finally begin collecting potentially billions of dollars in new revenue from congestion pricing after more than a decade of delays. But the recalcitrance of riders who refuse to pay is starting to add up.

People who pay say, ‘Why am I a sucker seeing everybody walk through the gate?’
MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber

“It’s a problem because it demoralizes riders. People who pay say, ‘Why am I a sucker seeing everybody walk through the gate?’” MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber told City & State. “It creates a sense of disorder in a public space where you really can’t have that feeling. People are not going to feel safe if they see everybody breaking the rules before they even get on the subway.”

Like most transit agencies across the country, the MTA depends heavily on the fare box to make up its more than $19 billion annual operating budget. Now transit ridership is merely two-thirds its previous highs before the pandemic and fares are down 26% from the first few months of 2020.

Lieber estimated that the transit system lost $200 million to $300 million from fare evasion before the pandemic. But by 2023, that number grew to $690 million in lost fare revenue according to a Citizens Budget Commission report. Even though the MTA collected $5 billion from paying subway and bus customers, fare evasion amounted to 14% of the agency’s potential pool of revenue and nearly 4% of its operating budget, according to MTA and City Council records.

Now, fare evasion is happening more frequently, especially on buses.

Bus fare evasion cost the MTA $315 million last year alone, which was more than the $285 million in subway fare evasion. In the last three months of 2023, 45% of local bus riders did not pay their fare to board, up from 21% in the last quarter of 2019. By comparison, 13% of subway riders skipped turnstiles over the same period last year, up from 5% at the end of 2019. (Several experts attributed the discrepancy to the fact that many buses did not collect fares during the pandemic and passengers in some areas may have gotten used to not paying them.)

Passengers who don’t pay their fares have stressed the MTA’s daily operations and its plans for the future, officials said.

“If you’re relying on revenue to come in and pay workers at the MTA to run the service that’s desperately needed and it doesn’t come in, that puts the transit system in not a great place and fares have to go up for everyone else who is paying,” said Kate Slevin, executive vice president at the Regional Plan Association.

Solutions that alter rider behavior have not been easy. In 2022, the MTA convened a task force of transit experts to study the root causes of fare and toll evasion and find ways to reduce them. Their recommendations included modernizing turnstiles and other entrances, downgrading enforcement so that a first offense earns a warning before a fine or summons, and expanding the income eligibility for its underused Fair Fares program so another 500,000 passengers would qualify for discounted service. State lawmakers adopted several measures in the state budget this year, but they didn’t extend a free bus pilot on one line in each borough. And the city must include more money in its budget in order to pay for an extension of Fair Fares.

“Fair Fares can address some of the (fare evasion issues),” said state Sen. Leroy Comrie, chair of the Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee. “It has not been advertised well for a lot of people. We need to make sure the Fair Fares program is capturing them and embracing them and they’re actually using it.”

The most visible way the MTA has sought to fight fare evasion has been through law enforcement. In the first few years of the pandemic, transit leaders urged New York City Mayor Eric Adams to deploy more police officers underground to combat a rash of assaults. But MTA officials also asked police to tackle fare evasion and requested another 800 officers in March. So far this year, police have arrested 1,700 people for fare evasion and ticketed another 28,000 people.

Lieber has been happy with the police presence in the transit system and wants district attorneys to press charges against repeat offenders.

“It’s stealing from other New Yorkers. It’s destroying the value system of our shared public spaces. And most importantly, it creates this sense of illegality and disorder in the system,” he said. “When you have people who can pay, and in many cases, wealthy people in wealthy neighborhoods who just make it a habit to waltz in with their $8 latte in their hand and not pay, I think that it’s time for the DAs to take action and I hope they will.”

But the reliance on the New York Police Department has brought its own set of problems. 

Police have disproportionately arrested Black and Latino riders, who made up 93% of those arrested for fare evasion and two-thirds of those who received tickets in the fourth quarter of 2022. Bus riders who used the MTA’s new payment system, OMNY, complained that police ticketed them even though the system granted free rides after reaching their weekly fare cap. And the city’s migrants have said they have been increasingly targeted by police and arrested for illegally entering the subway, which could spiral into deportations.

The extra enforcement hasn’t been cheap either. Overtime pay for police in the subways skyrocketed from $4 million in 2022 to $155 million last year, Gothamist reported.

The aggressive spate of enforcement has disturbed transit advocates who questioned whether fare evasion should be criminalized in the first place. Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, said the hysteria over the crisis went back to the first campaign for congestion pricing more than a decade ago that sought to convince drivers to pay a new toll.

“Drivers should not support congestion pricing, so the logic goes, unless every last rider has the fare extracted from them,” he said. “And that doesn’t make any sense. It’s incredibly expensive to extract a fare from people who can’t and won’t pay.”

Pearlstein would like to see an expansion of Fair Fares as well as adding all-door boarding to buses and the extension of a free bus pilot on more lines in order to entice more riders to use city buses.

“It’s clear now after the pandemic that we can’t rely on fares as much as we did before. The (subways and buses) aren’t going to be crush-loaded with people who are going to offices five days a week,” he said. “I don’t see the Legislature funding free fares because that will cost several billion, but in the incremental way budgets are made, it’s possible we could arrive at that over several rounds from a fare-dependent system to one that is independent (of) fares.”