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Fare evasion costs cities millions. But will cracking down on it solve anything?

New York City has increased policing to curb fare dodging. It’s resulted in outrage and protests from some riders.

A customer swipes their Metrocard through the turnstiles.
Most fare evaders are one-time offenders, according to research from the Public Transport Research Group in Australia.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Allure editor Rosemary Donahue witnessed New York City transit workers installing cameras in front of subway turnstiles, she posted a photo to Twitter on November 1 that quickly went viral.

Part of her tweet — “are you...fucking....kidding me?? — captured the unique frustration and anger New Yorkers reserved for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in the wake of the city’s renewed focus on fare evasion this year.

“My mom waited an hour at Lexington-63rd after leaving work yesterday for the F train... but okay, this is the problem,” responded one Twitter user. “The cost of those cameras, installing those cameras, and paying someone to monitor the cameras is definitely a better way for the MTA to spend money than fixing the trains,” said another.

The online outrage has largely stemmed from riders’ dissatisfaction with the transit system’s efficiency and accessibility that, in their opinion, has not improved much, combined with anger over the perceived treatment of marginalized riders.

Within the past two years, the system’s on-time performance has fluctuated from terrible (58 percent on-time in January 2018) to satisfactory (84 percent in August 2019), but breakdowns, unexpected delays, and service changes still frequently occur. (The MTA also has a history of overstating its performance, according to Jalopnik reporter Aaron Gordon.)

According to the MTA’s estimates, the system will lose about $300 million from fare evasion this year, from both train and bus fares. But officials’ fixation on reducing this offense are misaligned, activist groups say, especially when these policies are likely to affect low-income riders and communities of color. Those who are fined or arrested for fare evasion in New York are disproportionately black or Hispanic, according to MTA data of arrests. The MTA has not responded to a call for comment at the time of publication.

Some activists have called for fare evasion to be decriminalized, which means offenders will have to pay a fine instead of facing arrest or jail time. Currently, people who don’t pay the fare are expected to pay a $100 fine, and the MTA said police will not be focused on making arrests. But according to The Appeal, those with an open warrant or a history of similar offenses could still be arrested if caught fare evading.

Fare evasion doesn’t just occur in New York. It’s an endemic issue for transit systems around the world, and current tactics used by authorities to reduce fare beating are far from perfect.

According to transit experts, we — the transit board, public officials, and regular citizens — might be simplifying the motives behind fare dodging: Why do people hop a turnstile or sneak through a gate in the first place? And what is it, exactly, that we’re trying to fix here?

Fare evasion is more common than you might think. But most people are one-time offenders.

While fare evasion has been studied by data scientists and engineers, few have looked into the psychological aspects that drive this action — a form of “consumer misbehavior,” according to researchers from the Public Transport Research Group in Australia.

The group’s findings, explained to me by Graham Currie, a professor of public transportation at Monash University, examine how common fare evasion is among the general public and the intentions of re-offending evaders, who are a small but significant population in transit systems worldwide.

Currie’s research evaluated rider behavior in Melbourne, but his team also conducted follow-up research in ten cities around the world, including New York, to determine the public’s perception of transit systems with high fare evasion rates.

Currie told me that in New York City, about 40 percent of transit riders evade a fare once a year, intentional or not. “This is a big share of the population,” he said. This one-time fare evasion could be due to a variety of circumstances: The ticketing booth wasn’t working, a rider left their Metrocard at home, or the emergency exit door was left open, which provides for a quick entry.

“But according to the law, even if you do it once, you’re committing a crime,” Currie continued. “So riders’ immediate reaction to the authorities calling them criminals is to feel that the system is incompetent.” (The Public Transport Research Group favors policies that don’t punish riders caught in their first attempt of fare beating.)

Activists have pointed to other cities in the US, such as Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, as examples of places that have passed measures to decriminalize fare evasion in the past year. According to Philadelphia news outlet Billy Penn, only 13 people have been charged with the harshest penalty — a total ban from the transit system — since the city decriminalized the offense in January.

Riders’ resistance and disdain for the MTA in New York overflowed into a protest in early November against increased policing on the MTA. The outrage was prompted by multiple videos of viral arrests that appeared to involve unnecessary force by police toward passengers of color. Hundreds of people occupied a subway platform and took to the streets in downtown Brooklyn. They hopped turnstiles and posted stickers to encourage mass fare evasion, a tactic taken from demonstrations in Santiago, Chile.

The following week, more videos documenting police action on the subway surfaced. A viral video on November 9 showed officers arresting a churro vendor in a station to the outrage of bystanders. (The NYPD told Gothamist in a statement that the vendor, who had 10 summonses for unlicensed vending, “refused to cooperate and was briefly handcuffed; officers escorted her into the command where she was uncuffed.”)

When I asked Currie if he found any correlation between fare evasion and people’s perception of the transit system, he said his research group theorized that would be the case. Their theory was predicated on research done towards shoplifting — how shoplifting rates increase if a shop appears to be old or unkempt and workers are unhelpful.

“I suspect it’s still true, although we didn’t find any link,” Currie said. “If people aren’t happy, it will affect their compliance with what the rules are.”

According to surveys conducted in Melbourne, recidivist fare evaders are not typically poor or disadvantaged. “A high share of them work and a number of them are wealthy, actually,” he said. In surveying this group of people who consistently fare evade, Currie found that they’re driven by the thrill of risk-taking.

This behavior is also tied to how much people perceive to be in control of the situation, which means they weigh the risk or likelihood of being caught. Stricter policing does reduce fare evasion, Currie said, although public officials need to implement it “carefully and considerately.”

People are more motivated to pay up if they think they’re likely to be checked for a ticket, Currie said. In Melbourne, for example, the transit system deploys plainclothes officers to inspect tickets randomly at stops and stations.

There’s also the “proof of payment” system that’s popular in Europe where there are fewer gates or barriers to entry, but occasionally, an inspector on a bus or train will demand to see a rider’s ticket. These methods have helped lower rates of fare evasion in cities like Oslo. The idea is to make paying for fares easier and faster — in addition to increasing the possibility of a passenger being checked.

The cost of fare evasion and why cities care so much

Andy Byford, New York City’s transit president, has maintained that fares are crucial in improving rider experience. “Every dollar that doesn’t come to us, in terms of fares that should be paid, is a dollar that we can’t improve in service,” he said at a news conference in September, according to AM New York.

Fares aren’t the only source of revenue for the MTA; the system also earns money from tolls, taxes, government subsidies, and advertisements. But fares account for the largest chunk — about 38 percent (or $6.2 billion) — of the MTA’s annual earnings.

The MTA, despite approving a much-needed $54 billion plan in September, is expected to reach a $1 billion operating budget deficit by 2023. The authority board voted to raise fares in April, and the city deployed an additional 500 transit and NYPD police to 50 subway stations and 50 bus routes where evasion is most common.

Andy Byford at the University of Toronto.
Andy Byford, the city’s transit president, has said that fare beating is an issue that the MTA can’t ignore.
Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The deployment would cost the MTA $249 million over the next four years, according to chief financial officer Bob Foran during the 2020 budget proposal on November 14. The agency is also expected to raise fares and tolls in 2021 and 2023 and cut back on 2,700 jobs.

As Streetsblog NYC reported, the police deployment will be partially financed by the $200 million the MTA is expected to save through anti-fare evasion efforts. But the projected cost of these efforts raised eyebrows among activists, local politicians, and city residents.

In September, Byford said that he would “like to see cameras on every train on every bus on every station on all the gate lines,” according to the New York Daily News. Yet subway fare evasion hasn’t curbed despite increased policing, officials said in October. It’s actually risen from 3.9 percent of riders in June to 4.7 percent in August. (Bus fare evasion has dropped from 24 percent to 22 percent during the same time period.)

Cracking down on evasion is one way to rake in more funds for the MTA, which is also struggling with a decline in ridership. Still, it’s not likely that the MTA, or any American transit system, for that matter, is going to turn a profit any time soon.

Few public transit agencies in the world are profitable, and most of them are based in Asia. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway system operates on a “rail plus property” model that profits off real estate developments above its stations. It’s also partially owned by the Hong Kong government and privately run.

Most transit systems don’t follow this model and rely on government subsidies or taxes. That’s why — even in cities where public transit is financially sustainable — fares do matter, and public officials are willing to crack down on evaders despite outcry.

It’s not just in New York City, which has estimated a loss of $300 million in annual fares. London Travel Watch, a transport watchdog group, said the system will lose 100 million pounds this year to fare dodgers. And in cities like DC, where fare evasion is decriminalized, the Metro expects to lose $36 million in 2019.

The promise and the price of free public transit

As transport fares continue to rise in cities around the world, a number of activists and organizations are calling for them to be eliminated. In other words: make public transit free. This is a radical demand — one that’s been considered for decades — that aims to reduce inequality in our transportation system. Research has shown that poorer communities have shoddier access to public transit systems.

As Joe Pinsker writes in The Atlantic, “Maybe free public transit should be thought of not as a behavioral instrument, but as a right; poorer citizens have just as much of a privilege to get around conveniently as wealthier ones.”

Luxembourg will be the first nation to offer free transit starting in 2020. With a system as complex and old as New York’s, though, the idea could sound far-fetched. After all, if the MTA can’t turn a profit, how will it subsidize fares for millions of residents while ensuring that the trains run on time?

Cities have been grappling with how to reduce fare evasion for decades, but making the system free, according to Currie, isn’t a viable solution for many. “High-capacity mass transit costs a fortune,” he told me.

Academics and activists have made in-depth, research-backed arguments for decades as to why we should or should not make public transit free. Transit advocate Ted Kheel, who lobbied for free transit in New York City for over 40 years, proposed a plan that included congestion pricing, taxi surcharges, and higher parking fees to cover fares.

Meanwhile, a 2013 report in the International Journal of Transportation that analyzed free fare schemes in Europe discouraged entirely free systems. While subway use drastically increased, the study found free transit to be costly and required “broad political support and long term commitment.”

Ultimately, before New York even considers a new fare system, it needs to improve its “ancient and unreliable” infrastructure or the city’s growth will soon be stifled, Currie said.

For the time being, it seems like the only thing passengers can do is pay for it. And people, for the most part, are doing so. It’s just that frustration arises when riders feel that their conditions aren’t improving, when fares are rising, and when more and more of that money is directed towards enforcement.

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