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Restoring Order on BART

eye on the news

Restoring Order on BART

In its transit system, at least, San Francisco may be rediscovering what New York City learned a generation ago. July 11, 2019
Cities
California
Public safety

Three months ago, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that serves San Francisco and surrounding counties began a “blitz” to deter morning rush-hour fare evasion at four downtown stations. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the first month’s results were startling: proof-of-payment citations rose 13 percent, new ticket sales rose 10 percent, add-value transactions to existing tickets rose 29 percent, and—most significantly—average weekly calls to police dropped a remarkable 45 percent. This rapid turnaround in behavior was achieved simply by staffing the stations with extra police officers, fare inspectors, and BART managers wearing bright yellow vests so that anyone trying to jump a fare gate or use a bypass door saw their way blocked by an official.

These results should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Broken Windows theory of policing developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The theory’s simple premise: responding proactively to minor crime (vandalism, disorderly behavior, and fare evasion) also reduces serious crime, including violent crime. Before he made New York City the safest large city in the country as commissioner of its police department, William Bratton put Broken Windows into effect as the head of the New York Transit Police, directing his officers to focus on fare evasion. The effect of the policy—first in the subway tunnels and then on the streets of New York—is now legendary.

San Francisco’s BART “blitz” demonstrates the effectiveness of Broken Windows. Just by putting people at the gates who looked to be in charge—neither the fare inspectors nor the yellow-vested managers were badged police officers—BART was able to cut crime in those stations almost in half. Exactly as Broken Windows predicts, those willing to commit serious crime often start by committing minor crimes, like fare evasion. Keeping such people out of the transit system means that everyone paying the fare is safer.

The data also put to rest two common arguments against fighting fare evasion—and, by extension, against Broken Windows policing. Advocates claim that enforcing laws against fare evasion criminalizes the poor. People don’t evade fares out of malice, the argument goes, but because they’re struggling and can’t spare the cash. But the more than 600 additional fares bought during a recent month show that fare-jumpers can pay—they just chose not to do so, knowing that they faced no consequence. Furthermore, the large increase in add-value transactions demonstrates that it’s not only poor people who jump the turnstile. People who already have a ticket or transit card are more likely to be regular riders, perhaps commuters, who figured that they may as well skip paying the fare since no one was watching. Jumping the gates instead of buying a valid fare remains a choice, not an involuntary circumstance.

Another argument against Broken Windows policing is that monitoring petty transactions is a waste of resources because the money spent paying public employees to do this exceeds the revenue from fines or additional tickets. Some of the police officers involved in the new BART policy worked overtime, and their additional salary may have exceeded the value of fines and extra fares. But this argument discounts the cost of the approximately 40 police calls that did not occur as a result of stationing guards in the stations. Each response to a crime is expensive in terms of officer time, the potential deployment of medical personnel, and justice-system costs—but the social benefits of establishing public order are incalculable. Letting people get away with jumping turnstiles leads to a deterioration of the transit environment. When some commuters become cheats, some cheats become thieves—and some thieves become muggers, a progression that Broken Windows seeks to interrupt.

BART has seen ridership drop by almost 8 million in two years, a loss of tens of millions of dollars of revenue driven in part by the drug use, litter, and even mass robbery plaguing the system. For every potential cheat who turned around when seeing an official at the turnstile, thousands of paying customers saw a transit agency finally in charge of its own stations and trains. Reinforcing law and order in San Francisco’s transit system can help bring those lost riders—and their money—back, but only if BART stays the course. BART needs to make fare enforcement more like San Francisco’s famous fog—an ever-present reminder in the city.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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