Can New Subway Turnstiles Stop Fare Evasion? Not Anytime Soon
The MTA's "blue ribbon panel" on fare evasion finally releases its report.
6:33 PM EDT on May 17, 2023
A year after the MTA convened a "blue ribbon panel" to address fare evasion, the group released their much-delayed report on Wednesday. Their main finding: The single most significant thing the agency could do to cut down on fare evasion is install new gates in the subway—a process that would take years and cost billions of dollars.
To mark the occasion, the MTA invited the makers of these exotic fare gates—you know, the plexiglass ones you pass through when you shell out more than $8 to get on the AirTrain to JFK Airport—to exhibit "prototypes" in Grand Central's Vanderbilt Hall. But as MTA CEO Janno Lieber told the assembled press, these gates will not be in subway stations anytime soon, if ever.
"Obviously, that kind of a move at that kind of scale is going to take awhile," Lieber said of installing new gates in all 472 subway stations. After all, this is an agency that is still in the process of spending nearly a billion dollars to implement a years-delayed OMNY tap-to-pay system on their current turnstiles. (Would they replace the readers? Reconfigure them for the new gates? Who knows! The MTA is currently "in discussions" with these companies.)
In the meantime, Lieber pointed to some low-tech fixes the agency has recently implemented, like the civilian "guards" who stand at the gates of around 30 stations (the cost: $1 million a month), and making it considerably harder to exit the system using the emergency exits, the latter of which makes sense if you're the agency trying to collect more money but doesn't sound too good if you have a genuine emergency during rush hour.
"As of now, we're going to be implementing delays on certain of those exit doors. When you push the push bar and try to go out and open that gate, there's going to be a delay of 30 seconds-plus," Lieber announced. "It has to do with the fire code—we're in negotiations with the code authorities in New York."
The panel, made up of a mixture of former law enforcement officials, nonprofit executives, and Department of Education Chancellor David Banks, released their work as the City is in the midst of a massive crackdown on low-level offenses in the subway system, which now has more police than ever before.
"Fare evasion enforcement should not be a means of criminalizing poverty," the panel's co-chair Rosemonde Pierre-Louis told reporters, before adding that another one of the panel's major recommendations was doubling the eligibility window of the City's Fair Fares program that gives half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers, something the City Council's leadership is currently fighting for in this year's budget. We asked the Mayor's Office about their position and they have not yet responded. (Shouldn't all mass transit be free? "That debate is not the topic of this report," the panel writes.)
But if the status quo of fare evasion in the system is some $690 million lost in 2022—$315 million lost on buses, $285 million on subways, $46 million from toll evaders, and $44 million on commuter rail—it is also a policing model that overwhelmingly targets people of color in poor neighborhoods. In the last quarter of 2022, 93 percent of the people arrested in the system for fare evasion were Black or Latino.
The report does not meaningfully engage with the NYPD's role in perpetuating this kind of enforcement, other than to say it shouldn't happen. When Hell Gate asked at the press conference if this state of affairs was acceptable to the MTA's leadership, we were directed to the group's recommendation to expand Fair Fares eligibility. Another reporter asked if the MTA would tell the NYPD to "back off," given how much they have ramped up enforcement. "No, I mean, to the contrary," Lieber replied. "The [NYPD] Transit Bureau under Michael Kemper is very forward-thinking and a great partner for us."
The report also identifies different types of fare evaders—opportunists; riders angry about a broken MetroCard machine; poor New Yorkers; students; and "the determined evader," who should be the target of "precision policing," according to the panel—but does not break down what percentage of fare evasion can be attributed to each type, probably because that kind of analysis is impossible with the methodology of how they came up with their figures in the first place (10 observers spread across the system conducting 600 one-hour surveys every quarter). "While poverty is certainly not the only reason people evade, research and common sense confirm that there is indeed a connection between poverty and fare evasion," the report states (emphasis theirs).
According to the report, fare evasion rates are highest on the bus system—some 37 percent of riders don't pay. Data from the Riders Alliance shows that bus riders in New York City tend to be poorer than their peers who use other forms of mass transit—they have an average income of less than $30,000 a year, and more than half are immigrants.
Yet these riders are treated to the slowest buses in the country. We asked if improving service might convince more riders that their fare was worth something other than reliably interminable, sometimes life-altering delays.
"We don't need fare evasion as a motivation to offer first-class service, we're at the best subway performance in 10 years," Lieber replied, before noting that indeed, the bus system needed more work, and that the agency was trying to target "things that block bus speeds."
One thing the panel did not really consider: Is spending all these resources on stopping fare evasion really worth it? Couldn't we try shifting money from policing to housing or education or literally anything else? Not according to the panel. "Anyone advocating for increased civilianization of evasion enforcement—as we do—should not expect it to lower the cost of policing," the report says on one of its final pages, under the heading "A Note About ROI."
The report continued, "The 'ROI' from civilianization is that police can spend more time addressing serious crime when they spend less time on evasion enforcement."
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