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New York’s Growing Free-Rider Problem

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New York’s Growing Free-Rider Problem

Subway farebeating is on the rise, and it’s making all the MTA’s troubles worse. December 21, 2018
New York
Infrastructure and energy
Public safety

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-controlled entity that runs New York’s subways and buses, has had a rough few years. Even with recent improvements, passengers on 51,964 weekday trains suffered delays in November, up from 33,423 five years ago. Among the MTA’s various crises—chronic delays and disruptions, failure to build projects on time and on budget, and an as-yet unfunded need to modernize subway signals—the problem of fare evasion may seem insignificant. But stealing fares is a serious matter. In addition to costing other passengers money, the people who enter without paying their way cause bigger problems underground.

For a few years, passengers have noticed the problem: more people, across age, race, and sex, are entering the subway through exit gates. Subways chief Andy Byford says that 208,000 subway riders are evading the fare daily, up from 109,000 five years ago. Bus-fare evasion is worse, with 348,000 riding without paying each day, up from 210,000 five years ago. Overall, the MTA will lose $215 million to fare evasion this year, up by $110 million since 2015.

One obvious reason that people are evading the fare is less enforcement. The MTA notes that fare evasion “spiked” in mid-2017, after Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance said that he’d no longer prosecute it, in most cases. Even before Vance’s announcement, the vast majority of low-level offenders in the subway system faced a civil summons, not arrest. If the city prefers to adjudicate more such cases in civil court, not criminal, it would make sense for civil summonses to rise as criminal arrests fall.

Yet both numbers are way down; through November 2018, the NYPD has arrested 5,586 people for fare evasion, down from 16,886 last year. Officers have given out 47,196 civil summonses for such “theft of service,” down from 51,665 last year. (The NYPD has seemingly reversed part of this strategy in the last couple of months, giving out more summonses this November, for example, than last year.)

Even before Vance pulled back, a first-time fare evader was highly unlikely to get caught. In 2016, for example, with 266 “total enforcement actions” daily in the subway, whether arrest or summons, a fare-beater had a one-third of 1 percent chance of getting caught on any particular day. By the first half of this year, the risk of arrest or civil fine to any one fare evader on a given day had plummeted by 80 percent.

Fare evasion means lost revenue to a struggling system; it’s also patently unfair to paying riders, who already have to deal with crowded conditions, made worse by nonpaying passengers. Next year, the MTA proposes to raise fares by 4 percent; such an increase will bring in $316 million annually, two-thirds of which could be consumed by fare evasion. A counterargument, of course, is that many fare-stealers would not ride if they had to pay. That may be true, but if they won’t pay, then they can’t ride.

Increased fare evasion also repels riders who have other options. Vagrancy and begging have increased in the subway system. As advocates for the homeless often point out, vagrants and beggars are disproportionately likely to have failed to pay the fare. While it’s arguably unproductive to arrest a person who repeatedly jumps a turnstile because he has no other options, it’s also inhumane to allow the subway system to be a shelter of last resort—and doing so drives away riders who can afford a more pleasant alternative.

In November, 12 of the MTA’s 67 “major incidents”—disruptions of 50 trains or more, at once—concerned people on the tracks. The “unusually high number” included “at least four involving homeless persons,” the MTA says, along with three incidents “where an individual was observed riding on the outside of a train”—subway surfing—“before fleeing to the roadbed.” The MTA wants help from the NYPD in stopping this “extremely . . . dangerous behavior.” But as then-transit police chief William J. Bratton demonstrated in the early 1990s, the easiest way to catch people breaking laws against trespass in the subway is to catch them in their first violation—at the turnstile or gate.

Stopping fare-beating stops more serious crime. In 2008, bus driver Edwin Thomas, 46, confronted a fare thief on a Brooklyn bus route; the fare-beater, Horace D. Moore, murdered him. This year to date, the NYPD has taken 156 knives and five guns from apprehended fare-beaters. Last year, cops took nine guns and 243 knives. Unless people have suddenly stopped carrying illegal weapons into the transit system, it’s reasonable to conclude that fewer arrests are leading to greater potential danger underground. Indeed, this year so far, assault and robbery are up throughout the transit system, by 5.6 percent and 5.1 percent respectively. Above-ground, the same two crimes are down—by 0.9 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.

The spike in farebeating suggests that even some people not engaged in other criminal activity are so fed up with poor subway performance that they’ve decided, when they think they can get away with it—and they increasingly can—not to pay. But contempt for a public service is not a mitigating factor; it’s worrisome.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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