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The MTA’s Farebeating Crackdown on Buses Is a Mess

When paying your bus fare isn't enough to make sure you don't get kicked off the bus.

An OMNY reader on a M15 SBS bus. (Hell Gate)

Alix Kozin was getting on the M15-SBS bus in the East Village last week when she did what she had done 12 times before during the past seven days—she tapped her phone on an MTA OMNY reader. Kozin's trip was free, because she had reached her fare cap for the week. Her mother, who was visiting from Long Island to accompany Kozin to a LASIK appointment, also paid by tapping her phone. When they reached 28th Street, however, their bus journey came to an abrupt end. Members of the MTA's fare enforcement unit, known as the Evasion and Graffiti Lawlessness Eradication (EAGLE) team, as well as uniformed NYPD officers, boarded the bus, and demanded to see proof that Kozin and her mom had paid for the trip. 

"They were going around, asking people to pull up their Apple Pay, their credit card account if they tapped, or if people had receipts for paying outside," Kozin recounted. 

Kozin said the officers took out a machine that scanned her phone, but it didn't appear to be working. She explained that she had hit her fare cap, which appeared to agitate the EAGLE team and NYPD officers, she remembered. One of the EAGLE team members told Kozin they were familiar with the idea of a fare cap but that they didn't really know how to verify rides when people hit it, and so they had to pull them off the bus. 

"It was so embarrassing and disruptive," she told Hell Gate of being ordered to get off the bus, which drove off without them. Eventually, an EAGLE team member handed her a $100 ticket and told her to take it up with the MTA's Transit Adjudication Bureau, which handles tickets. 

Kozin and her mother took an Uber to the LASIK appointment instead. "My mom told me she's never taking the bus again in New York," Kozin said. "She was absolutely horrified."

Out-of-service SBS ticket machines on 34th street. (Hell Gate)

Kozin is one of the many New Yorkers who have been caught up in the MTA's hamfisted attempt to crack down on fare evasion on the City's buses, an effort that has been made even more chaotic due to the uneven and failing rollout of its OMNY payment system on the bus network. OMNY was meant to speed up and simplify the ways in which transit users board the City's subways and buses. But in the process, it has created a patchwork system of fare payment that has allowed law enforcement officials, empowered to stamp out fare evasion even as they rely on technology that they clearly don't have a handle on, to hand out tickets to and harass riders like Kozin.

Last August, the MTA began rolling out buffed-up EAGLE teams, meant to enforce the payment for fares on the City's buses. In justifying the EAGLE teams, the MTA noted that the agency had lost $315 million over the past year to fare evasion on City buses. 

"We estimate 30 to 35 percent of our bus customers are getting off free every day, which means 66 percent of New Yorkers who are paying their fare are getting a raw deal," NYC Transit President Rich Davey said announcing the new EAGLE teams. 

But the fare evasion crackdown has led to people who have paid being pulled off buses and made to prove they've paid—often using technology that either doesn't work or that EAGLE teams don't know how to use.

Ben Levine took the SBS M15 each day to his job at the United Nations, using OMNY. His commute, he told Hell Gate, would often come to a standstill as EAGLE teams and NYPD officers piled onto the bus, checking if people paid their fares. He said he was pulled from the bus three times after he'd already paid, but EAGLE teams were unable to properly use the scanner they'd been given to confirm he'd tapped his phone. 

"They kept saying—angrier and angrier—that I need to just put my phone up to their scanner like I would on the bus itself, but I'm doing it and nothing is happening. And I handed it to them and told them to scan it, and they told me, 'Oh no sir, it's not my responsibility,'" Levine recounted of the first time he got pulled from a bus. Eventually they were able to confirm he'd paid, but the bus had already left him behind. 

Like Kozin and Levine, OMNY has left a lot of riders behind. Part of the plan for OMNY was that it would speed up the City's notoriously slow bus service, by enabling all-door boarding instead of having riders line up at the front of the bus to insert their MetroCard. Riders would be able to tap their credit cards, OMNY cards, or phones on readers at the back of the bus. Instead, the MTA contends, this only led to a massive rise in fare evasion. Along local bus routes, the back door OMNY readers, installed in 2020, were never even turned on, and can now only be found along Select Bus Service routes, which had all-door boarding even before OMNY readers were installed. The MetroCard was originally supposed to be phased out in 2023, but the MTA announced last summer that it would stick around indefinitely

On Monday, the variety of ways that people could (or could not) pay for Select Bus Service was on full display as Hell Gate rode several SBS bus lines. Some riders had used their MetroCards to get a payment receipt at a sidewalk kiosk while waiting for the bus. Others tapped their credit cards or phones or Apple Watches or OMNY cards at the OMNY readers at the front, middle, or back of the bus. And still others just walked in and sat down on the bus. But figuring out exactly who used which method of payment for the bus—MetroCard with receipt, OMNY (via Apple Pay, the OMNY app, an OMNY card, or a credit card), or no payment at all—would be nearly impossible to pull off without going one-by-one through the entire bus and deciphering how each person paid, which is exactly what the EAGLE teams do.

Levine recounted that when an EAGLE team and the NYPD would get on a bus he was riding, an atmosphere of hostility would begin to pervade the space. "It feels weird to be accosted, even if you've paid, because the assumption is you haven't, and the aggressiveness of cops is a threat of violence," he said.

Some elected officials have called for doing away with bus fares entirely. On Tuesday, elected officials led by Astoria Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani held a press conference calling for $45 million in new funding to expand the City's fare-free bus pilot, which has led to a ridership increase of up to 20 percent on five free routes introduced this year (the pilot is set to expire this March). The legislators also rallied for more funding to increase bus frequency ahead of the implementation of congestion pricing. 

In response to Hell Gate's questions, which included the details of what happened to Kozin and her mother, the MTA denied that their EAGLE teams have any problems verifying customers who paid for the bus fare, including those who hit the OMNY fare cap.

"Highly trained NYC Transit inspectors use technology programmed to determine whether a rider has paid their fare, and in rare instances where a dispute arises, inspectors are instructed to remove the rider and continue any discussion off the bus so as not to delay other passengers," MTA spokesperson Kayla Shults wrote in a statement. "Fare evasion is a real issue with multiple solutions—including education, equity and enforcement—recommended by a diverse blue ribbon panel seeking to preserve funding necessary to pay for service."

Kozin, who has since recovered nicely from LASIK surgery, said she'll fight the $100 ticket she received—but that she's drawing the line at going into the Transit Adjudication Bureau for a hearing, as they requested when she called them the day after she received her ticket. She sent in her OMNY account details through email and received an auto-reply that the TAB would look into it. 

As someone who relies on the bus and subways, Kozin thought that hitting her fare cap was something to be admired—but not anymore. 

"It was just like everybody on the bus had done something wrong and everybody was in trouble," she said. "It was just like everybody on the bus was a criminal, just for taking the bus." 

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