Will NYC’s Next-Gen Fare System Come With Saner Fare Enforcement?

A switch to citywide proof-of-payment on NYC buses should also entail a rethinking of fare enforcement. Photo: Stephen Miller
A switch to citywide proof-of-payment on NYC buses should also entail a rethinking of fare enforcement. Photo: Stephen Miller

To turn around NYC’s sluggish surface transit, the MTA will have to switch to a citywide proof-of-payment fare system on buses. By eliminating on-board fare collection where every passenger pays one by one, proof-of-payment speeds up the boarding process and total travel time. Transit advocates have been urging the MTA to commit to this best practice when the agency moves beyond the MetroCard and adopts a new fare medium in the next few years.

One question that arises with proof-of-payment is how to handle fare enforcement. This is especially fraught in New York, where the MTA says it’s concerned about fare evasion under a hypothetical proof-of-payment system, while pressure is mounting on law enforcement to scale back arrests for not paying the fare.

As with other aspects of fare collection, New York should look to cities that have refined their proof-of-payment systems for guidance on how to handle enforcement.

As things stand, NYPD’s fare evasion arrests send tens of thousands of people — disproportionately people of color — through the criminal courts each year. Police arrest every person who doesn’t carry valid ID or who has a court warrant. The court warrants are typically not for serious crimes, but for petty ones like having an outstanding fine. It’s an excessively punitive process.

Two legislative efforts are underway to reduce the burden of prosecution and deter NYPD from over-policing fare evasion. City Council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Rory Lancman have introduced a bill that would require NYPD to regularly report fare evasion arrest data to the MTA, including a racial breakdown to monitor bias. In Albany, State Senator Jesse Hamilton and Assembly Member Tremaine Wright intend to introduce a bill to decriminalize fare evasion.

There is also some movement at the prosecutor level. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced two months ago that he would stop prosecuting fare evasion for first-time offenders, and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez followed suit. However, Vance’s office says he only intends to end prosecutions for turnstile jumping. Passengers caught without a ticket on Select Bus Service would still be susceptible to criminal charges.

The notion that criminal penalties would still apply to SBS fare enforcement is troubling. SBS routes are the only MTA bus routes that use proof-of-payment now. A transition to citywide proof-of-payment would deliver big performance improvements for bus riders, but a situation where riding the bus still exposes transit riders to the threat of criminal prosecutions would be a perverse outcome. That’s not how it works in cities with proof-of-payment that has been well thought-out.

Cities in the German-speaking world have long track records with proof-of-payment systems and provide some good models for fare enforcement reform.

One reason fare evasion remains uncommon in these cities, even with proof-of-payment, is that the fare structure encourages monthly passes. In Berlin, a four-ride ticket is €9 and a monthly pass is €81. A monthly pass that costs just 36 times as much as a single ride is a relative bargain. While Berlin has a subculture of people who ride without a ticket (known as Schwarzfahren), the fare evasion rate of 3 to 5 percent is not high by American standards.

In Switzerland, the ratio is even lower. A single trip in Basel costs 3.80 Swiss francs, while a regional monthly pass costs 105, or about 28 times as much.

In New York, however, a 30-day MetroCard costs 44 times as much as a single fare. There are reasons of fairness for the higher ratio, since affluent people will tend to opt for the higher upfront cost of a monthly pass, but it also creates some perverse incentives. If a pay-per-ride MetroCard runs out and a train or bus is coming, for instance, the passenger has an incentive to hop the turnstile or board Select Bus Service without paying.

Other differences involve policing, not fare policy. Germany avoids problems of excessive force and police militarization by not treating every issue as a grave criminal matter. It treats fare dodging as a civil infraction rather than as a criminal offense. While German transit agencies still want to minimize the revenue hit from fare dodging, there is no attempt to use fare inspections as a “broken windows” program.

In Berlin, the fare inspectors are civilians who work on consignment, so they have an incentive to check the routes with the most fare evasion. Inspections are frequent, but the fines are low, just €60.

In New York, meanwhile, NYPD still treats fare enforcement as a kind of dragnet to catch more serious violations like weapons possession. Thousands of people face criminal penalties for the sake of catching a few people with guns. Whatever the merits of that approach might have been in the early 1990s, it is not useful for the situation in New York today. The crime rate is low, and transit is overcrowded rather than abandoned.

Making all fare evasion a civil violation and removing NYPD from fare inspections would be fairer to communities that are currently overpoliced, and make people of color and immigrants more at ease on the transit system. There are good models for how to do so in the countries that have perfected proof-of-payment enforcement — and even in some American cities as well. New York should learn from these examples.

  • urbanguy

    As opposed to what this article says, Select Bus Service enforcement is by civilian MTA employees. If you don’t have your SBS ticket it is not a criminal offense, you just pay a $100 fine.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Or give a phony name and address, and don’t actually pay the ticket.
    But perhaps the proliferation of phone cameras and face recognition could provide an alternative.

    If they don’t have valid ID, take a picture. If the fine doesn’t come in, put it online with the date, time and location of fare evasion. Match up pictures with computers to identify repeat offenders, and maybe arrest them — along with serial toll cheats.

  • Alon Levy

    Yeah, I know. (It was really unclear when I was interviewing people, and I had to do followups during editing. Vance’s office’s response really didn’t help. I thought I put the clarification into the edited version, shit.)

  • Alon Levy

    …or ask trick questions (“what’s your astrological sign?”), as the inspectors in Basel do.

  • Sunset Park

    It is handled by the Eagle Team, a unit that is largely composed of retired NYPD and works closely with the NYPD. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-transit-security-boss-forced-resign-nepotism-probe-article-1.1799625

  • Larry Littlefield

    My impression was that the fines for fare evasion in Germany were quite steep. Or perhaps that’s just what they tell visitors to the country.

  • You Know!

    What is the fare evasion rate here now? You’ve mentioned the rate for Germany.
    If the proof of payment system is implemented would fare evasion rate decrease?
    Normal thinking says that it will increase exponentially! You Know!

    Why does your article mention that colored folks are disproportionately prosecuted for fare evasion. Demographic (2008)profile of New York claims that the black/brown population at 42%. Maybe less folks in that category pay their fare.

  • Alan

    I dont know about the city but when I used to ride the River Line in NJ I saw about half the passengers leave the vehicle quickly when fare enforcement got on…

  • cjstephens

    I’m barely aware of any attempts to discourage fare evasion in NYC. On 125th Street, I see passengers enter through the back door of the (non-SBS) bus pretty much every day. Since the author can’t even cite what the rates of fare evasion are here in NYC, all of his virtue signalling is pretty much worthless. “Earth Destroyed by Meteor: Women, Minorities, Hardest Hit”.

  • DWORLD 2018

    CJ that was a very clever visual analogy depicting earth’s destruction but not applicable to the issue of a flawed payment verification system. I’ve observed people of all backgrounds board the SBS (without paying) rather than miss the bus. However, high crime neighborhoods have EAGLE TEAM Fare Enforcement (retired police) randomly stopping black passengers. As right as your aforementioned analogy, and this fare evasion issue sounds to you, looking down on earth from your lofty perch does not make it less significant to improving or reducing loss of revenue.

    Everyone has a cell phone with Bluetooth capability. We can turn on a speaker without touching it, yet, we are too clever to collect a fare wirelessly and save the transit system money and efficiency. Everyone who opts out of wireless replenishment should only need a one-time registration to use the transit payment system -rather than having to get a metrocard every time/day they need to use public transportation.

    If the MTA is not equipped to handle the financial transactions of this level of sophistication, Citibank or Chase (or some other financial institutions or agencies) would gladly accept the task of compensation for a fare payment system contractually. The city/state does not necessarily have to pay monetarily: there are tax and other business incentives appealing to businesses in NYC.

    These are meant to be solutions of equity and efficiency rather than the “too bad for you” dismissive tone inferred at marginalized groups. You statement smells distinctly like class privilege and lacking empathy rather than developing a constructive solution for all the city’s inhabitants.

  • cjstephens

    My “lofty perch” would be on the same level as “where people pay bus fare and don’t cheat the system”. There are lots of us here, rich and poor, white and black. And watching people sneak on the bus through the back doors drives us nuts.

    While I made it perfectly clear in my comment, I was referring to enforcement on non-SBS buses. When I do ride the SBS bus, there’s no way for me to tell who has or hasn’t paid the fare. When the enforcement team boards, I’ve never seen them randomly stop black passengers. I’ve only ever seen them ask for receipts from every single person on the bus. I’ve also seen plenty of white people get taken off the bus when they can’t produce a receipt. Save the racial anger for real racism.

    Should the MTA come up with a 21st century solution to paying fares? Of course they should. We’re decades behind other major cities. But please don’t assume that everyone who rides the bus has a smart phone. That really does reek of class privilege.

  • DWORLD 2018

    You’re very clever Mr. Stevens because not once did I mention race. I did infer discrimination as to the MTA’s own independent audit. I will not argue the merits of your assumptions. As far as the classism you are erroneously alleging, it tells me you are not prepared to address the issues. It is no wonder people with your mentality are the authority on decision-making at that agency. You see the fare-evaders as the problem and not the faulty honor system.

    Rich or poor, black or white, no one does banking on the honor system. Private industry has known that that assumption is not conducive to profit and efficiency. Your analogy suggested that it is merely certain marginalized groups making it worse for people that pay their fare. So I have prepared an analogy of my own.

    Banking institutions would not bet against obvious patterns of human behavior for those that are fair nor those that steal: they elected to have a vault and security system instead. They don’t have to argue the merits of the foolishness you or the MTA suggest. The money and personnel spent on the Eagle Team (retired police officers) is not about efficiency; it’s about favors to maintain the status quo.

  • cjstephens

    Yes, you did mention race. You claimed that the Eagle Team was “randomly stopping black passengers.” As for the rest of your comments, I can’t tell if you’re in favor of the honor system or against it. In any case, my point was, once again, that there’s precious little fare enforcement even when the honor system isn’t in play, as on the non-SBS buses.

  • DWORLD 2018

    I believe your reading comprehension level is not sufficient to continue this conversation. If you wish to suggest to me that law enforcement in America is not guilty of racial profiling despite all the evidence to the contrary that’s one thing. Unfortunately, that was never my argument; that is what you inferred from my statement which I referenced from the article.

    My introductory paragraph in my first reply states clearly that anyone that believes fare evasion is causing the problems of inefficiency and loss of revenue are not focused on the real problem. Each paragraph that I wrote thereafter was about improving efficiency and preventing the loss of revenue instead of blaming the repeat offenders of fare evasion you’ve observed on 125th street. That is your issue; stuck in your head. You have never mentioned how long it takes the Eagle Team to check each person on the bus (you suggested it was payment verification for everyone). I never resisted your premise but instead suggested we focus the MTA’s resources on those two viable solutions (efficiency and revenue loss prevention).

    This is what the article we read suggested should be our main focus and what people with better understanding of reading comprehension contributed to these replies. The few people of your ilk are the only ones here suggesting that those two problems be ignored in favor of what you observed. It is you that mentioned 125th, women and minorities, blaming the lack of attempts to discourage fare evaders in NYC as the problem. Further, you state the author can’t cite proof of the virtue signaling suggested about targeting black people. There again you got the wrong inference because the article said the same thing that I suggested -and most reasonable thinkers agree- focus on the system and not the fare evaders.

    I mentioned that I observed all passengers of all backgrounds engaging in “cheating the system” (your words) when the choice is either to miss the bus or pay their fare and be late. That was not alluding to a race issue as you attempt to obfuscate; that is a psychological dynamic of human behavior regardless to race or class -or any other baited misdirection you try convincing us of being intelligible.

    Therefore, I see no need for me to engage in such futility as your narrative and premise will not change in spite of all the evidence your conclusion does not solve the MTAs problem. However, i’m sure the backwards ass MTA agency would hire someone that makes “the people that pay their fare” feel good about themselves rather than fix the inefficiency and reduce loss of revenue.

  • DWORLD 2018

    My comment was so on target without profanity or accusations that it mysteriously disappeared. ?? clever indeed.

  • cjstephens

    Nothing to do with me, I swear. I hate it when comments get deleted. But I did see what you wrote, and whatever moderator intervened was doing you a favor.

  • DWORLD 2018

    It’s all good Mr. Stephens. ? Respect! ??

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