Home View from Underground Thoughts on the fare evasion conundrum: why the MTA cares and why we shouldn’t

Thoughts on the fare evasion conundrum: why the MTA cares and why we shouldn’t

by Benjamin Kabak

A recent MTA report alleges a recent spike in fare evasion. is costing the agency $215 million per year, but there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

Earlier this summer, as the MTA was busy confusing cause and effect by blaming for-hire vehicle services for the city’s transit ridership drop, certain members on the MTA Board got a bug in their ear that fare evasion could be a reason why transit ridership has dropped over the past few years. It was never quite clear where this idea came from. Perhaps a few board members were irked by the Manhattan DA’s decision to stop prosecuting fare evaders as criminals; perhaps the few board members who do ride the subways regularly were basing their complaints on the lived experiences of watching people hop turnstiles or stream through emergency exits; perhaps the agency is just trying to avoid responsibility for the ongoing slow-motion death spiral driven by declining service reliability. Whatever the reason, fare evasion has dominated the conversation for the past month, and while I think this is largely a distraction, let’s try to unpack what’s happening here.

In a nutshell, the MTA is facing a large budget deficit that will result in some combination of fare hikes and cuts to service. At the same time, ridership is declining, leading the MTA to miss its revenue projections, and the MTA needs to account for all of its dollars to make its budget projections, already based on fantasy, work even just a little bit. So fare evasion has come under the microscope. A few weeks back, the MTA released a special report [pdf] on fare evasion that alleges with flimsy evidence that subway fare evasion has nearly doubled since mid-2013 to over 200,000 passengers per day and that bus riders who do not pay for their rides count for around 350,000 riders per day or over 16 percent of daily ridership. “It is an increasing problem,” Transit president Andy Byford said in December.

All told, the MTA estimates it lost $215 million to fare evasion in 2018 and is responsible for over a third of the subway ridership drop. According to the MTA’s report, the increases in 2018 are nearly all attributable to an increase in people entering through the emergency exits, and the DA’s decision to cease criminal prosecutions of fare evaders – a common-sense progressive position that doesn’t negate other effective fare enforcement techniques – is shouldering the blame as well. MTA officials meanwhile have been commenting on the issue to no end, as acting MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer did after a recent MTA Board meeting: “You cannot deny the evidence of your own eyes. You see this all the time. This is a growing problem. It’s worrisome, and it’s having a financial impact.”

In response to the MTA’s hand-wringing, the subway story of late 2018 has shifted nearly completely from one of bad service getting worse to one focusing heavily on instances of fare evasion. The Times stationed a few reporters at Times Square, the busiest station of the system, and observed nearly a person per minute entering through exits. Gothamist ran a video of various forms of fare evasion. Even Andy Byford’s promise to remove or fix faulty signal timers seemed to fall by the wayside in favor of more coverage of fare-hoppers.

There’s only one problem: The MTA’s report, all seven pages of it, draws sweeping conclusions based on a questionable methodology as the agency fails to grappled with the complexitites of its allegations, and even those promoting fare evasion as a significant problem have raised some questions that should cast doubt on the thoroughness report. As Byford himself said to The Times, “Is it some sort of protest vote? Is it because you can’t afford it? Is it because you fundamentally disagree that you should pay for transit in the first place? Is it more of an opportunist thing — you didn’t set out that day to evade the fare, but because the gate happened to be open, you followed a bunch of people through?”

First, the methodology: The MTA sent staff to 180 fare control areas (not, mind you, 180 stations) for quarterly observations and then extrapolated system-wide data based on ridership numbers. The MTA alleges this methodology could lead to an undercount of fare evasion, but I believe it could also lead to a significant overcount. It’s not a secret that certain stations have higher observed rates of fare evasion than others, and the MTA has not said which station fare control areas they assessed for this study. They haven’t said if they picked certain hot pockets of evasion, and they haven’t said if they picked fare control areas that are staffed 24/7 or areas that are staffed only for some hours or not at all. Even anecdotally, riders know where fare evasion is negligible and where it isn’t, and the MTA’s data makes no distinction. At the least, the data should be based on a rigorous study of video evidence from all available fare control areas.

The MTA’s report blames emergency exits for the rise in fare evasion.

Second, as the MTA itself has made clear, they don’t know who is evading paying the fare or why, and thus, their conclusions that everyone avoiding a swipe counts as a lost dollar (or a lost $2.75) is unfounded and likely wrong. As recent news coverage and Byford’s own remarks make clear, people skip out on fares for a variety of reasons. It’s true that some people don’t want to pay, but others may have gotten swipe-read errors from the old MetroCard technology and can’t find a station agent to help correct problems. (Those that do find a station agent may find the agent unwilling or unable to help.) Others may have left their unlimited ride cards at home. There are numerous reasons why people at one time or another do not pay, and it’s highly unlikely that if fare enforcement led to a 100% pay rate, everyone skipping out on fares today would pay tomorrow. The $215 million figure is, in other words, wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, if the MTA is concerned with fare evasion, the agency should do a better job pointing fingers at the right culprits. Rightly so, the Manhattan DA’s office has pushed back hard on the idea that decriminalizing fare evasion, usually a “crime” of poverty anyway, is a cause for an increase in fare-jumpers. The office has pointed out that enforcement continues, through summonses and arrests (but not criminal prosecution) which in fact frees up officers to spend more time patrolling the system. In a statement in November, Danny Frost, the director of communications for Cy Vance, did not hold back. “The MTA is running out of people to blame for its monumental failures,” he said. “Transit experts uniformly agree that the MTA’s own performance has driven this decline in ridership. My Byford should fix the subway.”

Even if a rather technical change in enforcement policy with regards to criminal prosecutions has driven people’s attitudes, the MTA’s own actions deserve scrutiny as well. Over the last decade, the MTA has eliminated station agents from various entrances, thus leaving stations completely un-staffed at all hours of the day, and the agency (thankfully) turned off the piercing alarms on emergency exits. Both of these moves could create an environment more conducive to fare evasion as well. Meanwhile, even something as simple as turnstile design and placement could lead to fare evasion. The MTA does not have any wide turnstiles for people with larger packages or strollers, and at many stations, emergency doors are closer to staircases to street level than the block of turnstiles are. The MTA could imitate European and Asians systems that have taller (and wider) fare gates that are harder to jump and can be pushed open in an emergency, obviating the need for side doors that may facilitate fare jumping.

Could a redesigned fare gate drive down evasion rates while improving system access?

But ultimately, if you still have the nagging feeling that none of this matters, you’re probably right. Two elements the MTA glossed over suggest just how little this matters. First, with regards to international comparisons, fare evasion in New York City was historically and globally low and remains at or even under the average for comparable subway systems. Fare evasion generally ranges from around 1-7 percent of daily ridership, and the MTA’s figure of around 3.8% is right in the middle. With around 96-97 percent of riders routinely and regularly paying the fare, a small amount of fare evasion isn’t just expected but normal the world over. Meanwhile, the agency doesn’t contemplate the costs of increased enforcement. We know about the social costs of criminalizing fare jumping and how this crime of poverty is disproportionately enforced across race and class lines. We don’t know how much it would cost the MTA to drive down this rate of evasion. Does spending $80 million on enforcement to generate $100 million more in revenue (for a net of only $20 million) benefit New York in the long run? How better could those enforcement dollars be spent to, say, improve service so people don’t respond with a shrug and a leap over the turnstile. After all, many people told The Times they don’t feel bad fare-jumping considering the MTA doesn’t seem to feel bad about how poor subway service has become. (This is of course a different story on buses where all fares should be based on proof of payment, and one could make the case that most NYC buses should be free or at a significantly lower fare anyway.)

In the end, as Ross Barkan recently wrote for City & State NY, the hand-wringing over fare evasion is a distraction from the real story: Ridership is down because service reliability is down and travel times are up. Again, fare evasion may be an effect of a confluence of factors, but it’s not the cause or even the problem. Once the MTA’s houses of cards are in order with respect to subway service, we can try to drill down on the whys and wherefores of fare jumping. With the transit system facing various problems few are willing to solve, fare evasion should truly be the least of everyone’s concerns.

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16 comments

marv January 1, 2019 - 11:48 pm

Are there statistics showing how frequently a fare evader uses the station where they evade the fare? Is their use of the station regular and/or predictable?

If there is a high correlation, why not have cameras to catch the evaders and then periodically position officers to arrest them.

Make it known that we will arrest evaders.

Fare evasion is not a mistake – it is a conscious theft.

Lack of enforcement makes us payers feel like suckers.

At the same token (pun intended), make it known that a system exists for people to get on the subway when they have forgotten their wallets with mail- in-payment required within 30 days. Thus no excuses

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DS January 2, 2019 - 4:42 am

Exactly. This is clearly a direct result of the DA’s decision not to treat fare evasion as a crime.

Why is this a big deal? Because people who commit minor crimes and get away with them tend to commit larger crimes over time. people are worried about the subway when they should be worried about the fact that we’re not enforcing the law ans therefore setting ourselves up for more stealing down the road.

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Thomas Graves January 2, 2019 - 8:55 am

While I normally agree with you Ben, here I must party company. Sure, fare evasion is not the major cause of the horrendous decline of the NYC subway. The corrupt and utterly incompetent MTA provides ample genuine reasons. That said, fare evasion outside of the cases where it’s caused by a fare card malfunction or other justifiable reason is wrong and should not be tolerated because it’s stealing. It’s that simple. Why you think it’s ‘progressive’ to ignore repeated small-time theft is hard to fathom.

And no, fare evasion is not necessarily a “crime of poverty” as bleeding hearts would have it. It’s as much an opportunistic crime by low-life scum who prefer not to pay whenever and wherever they can get away with it. As someone who lived through the terrifying nadir of subway quality in the 1970’s, the current growing tolerance of people not paying, or shitting on the platform, or hassling riders is a warning of how quickly the subway is headed back in the direction of its darkest years. Maybe it’s not there yet, but with DiBlasio and people like you excusing theft of public services, and with the police declining to prosecute, the ultimate destination is clear: a totally out-of-control shit-hole ala 1975. Good luck.

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VLM January 2, 2019 - 9:03 am

There’s a difference between “ignoring it” by not repeating the MTA’s trumped up claims ad naseum as The Times has done and continuing to enforce fares through summonses and other methods Ben points to in this post. You conservative neolibs and your fears over repeating the 1970s are flat-out silly on their face, if not simply overtly racist. The subway is far far from where it was 40 years ago and isn’t heading there simply because NYC demographics aren’t what they were then either. The problem is bad service, not your bogeyman.

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Erik January 2, 2019 - 10:09 am

Any system that provides reliable, frequent, and safe/comfortable service to a robust network of locations justifies its fare, even at a small premium.

Unfortunately, most of the systems that fit that definition are rather new.

The NYC subway is, unfortunately, a hodge-podge of old technology, old physical assets, high legacy costs, and accumulated system damage. Simply put, it’s beyond fully depreciated.

What SHOULD happen to such a system is that after fares are used to offset its initial cost, and as the assets depreciate, it should become free to all and maintained through public subsidies as an ongoing benefit to the economy of the city. We have done the opposite, leveraging the system’s debt and claiming that it should be “run as a profitable entity”, which is hogwash.

Hence the death spiral the system faces. The responsibility for this mismanagement is ideological and hits both Rs and Ds, although I think it took on a new level under Pataki, and now the bill is coming due.

Tweaks won’t cut it. Cuomo needs to use the new political reality in Albany to step up and do something more than change fare enforcement.

Most people don’t KNOW these things, but they FEEL them in some way. Allowing our system to get as bad as it is today is an injustice.

Yes, put the alarms back on the doors and put station agents back in to at least scare people away from trying, but fare evasion is still a red herring.

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AMS January 2, 2019 - 11:30 am

Two of the past three times I’ve taken a bus, the driver didn’t even attempt to collect a fare because the bus was broken (machine to dip the metro card in was taped up and closed). The driver just waived passengers on. How does the MTA classify this?

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Bobbo January 2, 2019 - 11:51 am

Does the MTA count the number of riders who swipe into the system and then choose to or are forced to leave a station due to the train not arriving? I have had more than a few experiences on the way to work in the past year of finding myself part of an exodus of hundreds of riders out of the station who swiped to get in and never actually got the ride they paid for. Sure I’ve seen riders jump the turnstile or enter through the emergency door, but these few experiences make me think that the opposite phenomenon (paying for a ride that you never get) may take a bite out of the MTA’s fare evasion statistics.

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Alrmmm January 2, 2019 - 12:04 pm

Jumped the turnstile for the first time in my life Saturday night at the 14th St 2/3 station not a single machine was working so I couldn’t refill my card ? priorities….

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sonicboy678 January 2, 2019 - 9:10 pm

Did you bother to try the other parts of the complex, or one of the other stations along that very street?

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Billy G January 2, 2019 - 1:18 pm

Oh, the poor, sad, young urban folk with their iPhone 8s, Air Jordans, and flatscreen TVs should be excused their trespass in thieving of the already under-valued and un-zoned subway transport fare. Woe be for them who are poor because they make poor decisions, we shouldn’t be piling more terrible, awful, criminal penalties onto those narrow shoulders. They did not do anything wrong! (despite the video evidence)

Their mother said so!

RACISTS!

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sonicboy678 January 2, 2019 - 9:11 pm

What.

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Ben M January 2, 2019 - 3:19 pm

MTA Buses and Subways could be free. Congestion Pricing along with the existing tax structures that pays for almost half of the MTA could be modified to cover the costs entirely.

Between the cost savings on the fare control, and the general environment benefits, there is little reason not to push for this in a progressive state.

Interesting article on MTA Budgets:
http://interactive.nydailynews.....a-funding/

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Larry Littlefield January 2, 2019 - 3:40 pm

Reminds me of the GOP attitude toward taxes, starting in the 1990s. There shouldn’t be any, because government is unnecessary theft. But the Democrats won’t let us get rid of them.

So we’ll attack the IRS and encourage tax evasion instead. A back door way to reduce revenues.

Don’t worry, taxes are going up. But not for services, which will be cut.

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Pedro Valdez-Rivera January 2, 2019 - 10:49 pm

It will be worth the investment if the NYCT are spending hundreds of millions of dollars by replacing the turnstiles with the ones on the PATH. In a couple of years time, fares would be paid with either a contactless smart card or an app on the smartphone reduce fair evasion on all buses and trains.

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Wanderer January 3, 2019 - 2:55 pm

The road to free (really fully taxpayer funded) transit does not run through fare evasion. I sincerely think medical care should be free to the patient, as it is in many developed countries. But my doctor won’t take that analysis in lieu of a co-pay.

That said, the notion that MTA’s (or any other transit agency’s) financial troubles primarily stem from fare evasion is simply not credible.

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Thelonious_Nick January 15, 2019 - 10:33 am

Here’s an interesting recent article discussing how Dutch rail systems are dealing with fare evasion. One city has a good idea–the “fine” is buying a 10-trip card (albeit at something of a mark-up, 35 Euros vs. 12.50 Euros at the regular price), thus hopefully making a regular, paying rider out of the fare evader.

https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/01/fare-calculator-dutch-transit-enforcement-rail-bus-tickets/579715/

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