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.
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.
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.