Two cities on opposite coasts may be experiencing the gentrification of fare evasion. Janno Lieber, head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, recently complained that security cameras had captured among the 12.5 percent of riders who don’t swipe at subway turnstiles “countless images of people in designer clothes, carrying $7 lattes, waltzing through emergency gates at Wall Street or on the Upper East Side.” Fare evasion could cost the MTA as much as $500 million this year, Lieber noted. The complaint echoed that of Peter Rogoff, the chief of Seattle and Tacoma’s Sound Transit, who recently singled out riders who paid for seats and $13 beers at a Mariners game but didn’t pay their fares afterward. Rogoff recently said Sound Transit was facing insolvency and was on a “financially unsustainable” trajectory.
Covid-19 can’t shoulder all the blame for the revenue trouble. To be sure, revenue fell from about $100 million in 2019 to $30 million in 2020 as ridership plummeted. But Rogoff estimated that as many as 40 percent of riders may not be paying fares, and Sound Transit’s goal of having the farebox cover 40 percent of costs has been achieved only once in its nearly 20-year existence.
Meantime, Lieber says that fare-beaters cost Gotham about $180 million in the last six months. The MTA suspects that in the fourth quarter of 2021, about 7.9 percent of riders did not pay, during which time bus nonpayment was anticipated to be more than 26 percent. Both Lieber and Mayor Eric Adams have observed that a small number of evaders are stopped and even fewer are issued summonses—in no small part because the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys refuse to prosecute these cases.
The MTA is the largest public transportation agency in North America. Its almost 7,000 subway cars in 2020 carried more than 2 million people daily to and from its 472 stations. New York City Transit, the MTA’s largest constituent agency, operates more than 5,000 buses on more than 300 local, select, and express routes throughout the five boroughs. Sound Transit, officially the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, operates Seattle’s and Tacoma’s light rail systems, a regional commuter rail line, and an express bus service. Seattle’s Central Link light-rail operates from Seattle–Tacoma International Airport to downtown, while the Tacoma Link runs for less than two miles. Before Covid-19, in 2019, Sound Transit, the seventh-busiest light rail system in the U.S., carried about 26 million passengers annually through its 25 stations.
Why would two systems—about 3,000 miles apart and so different in size and scope—act as if they had just discovered fare evasion and then single out riders who appear able to pay? One theory is that their leaders intend to deflect criticism of rising transit crime. Former mayor Bill de Blasio removed police from the subways and disbanded an antigun unit, while Adams’s Subway Safety Plan, which focuses mostly on homelessness, has been overshadowed by serious crimes, from riders being pushed onto the tracks to a mass shooting.
Incidents of violence also occur regularly on Sound Transit, where robberies on trains and shootings in downtown stations have been rising since 2019. Drug use on buses and trains is no rarity, and some drivers have been assaulted by passengers high on drugs. While most of Sound Transit’s crime problems occur on light rail, crime and disorder have also increased on city buses. After two shootings along a busy bus corridor, Seattle police added bike patrol. In early April, a bus stop that had been relocated in 2015 was moved again to minimize its reputation as an open-air drug market. This followed the March arrest of a suspect for pushing a 62-year-old woman down a flight of stairs at the Chinatown-International District rail station. The alleged offender is suspected of an earlier stabbing at a downtown bus stop.
Yet Sound Transit replaced all its King County sheriffs’ deputies and contract security officers with unarmed ambassadors in the summer of 2021 in response to anti-police sentiment. Lacking either citation or summons authority, they remind patrons to pay the fare and provide educational material on how to pay and on available discounts. But the problem isn’t that people don’t know how to pay—it is that they choose not to. A low-income household patron explained why some days he pays and others he doesn’t: “There’s a lot of other places that people want to put their money during a pandemic, so I can see if there’s not a lot of enforcement here, people can easily save pennies there.” Rogoff seems to agree. Recognizing the lack of enforcement, he noted: “When you’ve got a situation with a 98 percent chance . . . of not being contacted by anybody . . . that just lends itself to further noncompliance. We need to get back to . . . passengers honoring the honor system that we’re using.”
Each city, though, resists restoring fare enforcement in the face of concerns by social justice advocates that enforcement is racially biased. Studies in several cities—publicized by the Washington, D.C., Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs—have found that black riders were disproportionately cited for fare evasion. In Washington, D.C., 91 percent of fare-evasion citations or summonses were issued to black riders, with almost half going to black males under the age of 25. A Seattle study found black riders, particularly young men, received a higher percentage of citations than their percentage of riders despite what appeared to be a neutral system of having all passengers tap farecards into a reader to indicate payment.
None of the studies speculate about different levels of fare compliance. Yet despite this limitation, they likely played a role in Lieber’s “Fareness” Blue-Ribbon Panel, which is tasked to find ways to reduce fare evasion on MTA properties: subways, buses, commuter rail, and bridge and tunnel crossings. Lieber wants to focus on encouraging payment through education, equity, and enforcement, and consider technological, design, and personnel solutions to limit evasion. He is apparently looking for options other than citing, summonses, or arresting those who fail to pay the fare.
But before moving from a policing model in favor of softer enforcement, the MTA should consider that even a light touch is likely to result in political and legal challenges. Two lawsuits, one resolved and one pending, question the legality of on-board checks on riders rather than turnstiles or barriers denying entry to nonpayers. In Washington, the state supreme court is expected to decide by year’s end, in State v. Meredith, whether by boarding a bus, a rider who provided a false name during a ticket inspection and was subsequently identified through a fingerprint check consented to a search that resulted in his arrest for existing warrants. In State v. Carter, decided in January 2021, a patron challenged fare enforcement in Baltimore’s barrier-free light-rail system. Ruling against the Maryland Transit Administration, the court found that routine ticket-check sweeps by police officers were a warrantless seizure that passengers were unable to reject, making further actions by the police unlawful. If the Washington case is decided in the plaintiff’s favor, then that verdict, along with the earlier ruling in the Maryland case, is likely to undercut attempts to increase fare collections not only from the affluent but from all members of the riding public.
In any case, the principal culprit for fare evasion is clear: lack of enforcement. Not just New York and Seattle but also Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon, have reduced or withdrawn enforcement efforts. Some cities have replaced police officers and fare-compliance officers with outreach workers and fare ambassadors. Refusing to enforce the law on the transit system is a recipe for declining fare revenue, increasing fare evasion, and skyrocketing crime.
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