MTA Backtracks on ‘Bus and Frisk’ Plan After Advocates Condemn ‘Cops on Buses’ Comment

Instead of targeting vulnerable transit riders, advocates want the agency to focus on improving fare payment technology and bus service more generally.

Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann
Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

So much for “bus and frisk.”

Facing an outcry from transit and equity advocates, the MTA on Wednesday walked back a plan to target fare evasion by putting “more cops on buses” — a comment that raised the specter of the NYPD’s reviled, repudiated and ultimately rejected stop-and-frisk program from the Bloomberg Administration.

“We are absolutely opposed to unfair enforcement, which is why our efforts are so focused on prevention and deterrence, not arrests,” MTA spokesman Maxwell Young told Streetsblog. “We have proposed a wide range of solutions that include enhanced video technology, additional New York City Transit personnel in fare-paying areas, all-door boarding through our new fare payment system and more.”

Young’s comments were designed to calm a firestorm of protest after New York City Transit President Andy Byford said on Monday that fare evasion had reached “wholly unacceptable levels” requiring the enforcement effort of the NYPD.

“Going forward into the future, the big thing that is missing is we need cops on buses,” said Byford, a London native who came to New York only last year after stints in Canada and Australia and might not be fully aware of the NYPD’s legacy of racially biased enforcement. Under the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, in 2011, 685,724 people were stopped on the street, the vast majority people of color — the vast majority of whom had done nothing wrong.

The MTA board’s interim chairman Freddy Ferrer is quite aware of the stop-and-frisk back story, having once called it “racial profiling” in a mayoral debate. As such, he also walked back Byford’s comment — as did Byford.

Andy Byford in a file photo.
Andy Byford in a file photo.

“The point is not to have a police officer on every bus — to criminalize everything,” he said. “The point is to try to enforce the law. The object here is… to get people to comply. It’s not like when you go to a museum and there’s a suggested donation.”

“If what we do… by positioning staff, maybe police officers, as a deterrent, means that people then don’t chance it, don’t evade the fare, fantastic,” Byford told reporters following Ferrer’s comments. “I’d love it if no one actually got caught. I would rather if just the deterrents and the cameras and everything else we’re talking about actually meant that everyone pays their way.”

Byford’s original comments addressed a growing concern. On Monday, the MTA issued new findings that one in five bus riders avoid paying fares [PDF]. Combined with subway turnstile jumpers, who accounted for 3.4 percent of riders in the fourth quarter of 2018, the MTA estimates losing $225 million per year as a result of farebeating.

The call for more police presence on local buses earned kudos from MTA board members, who must close a growing operating deficit. But it drew ire from advocates for the poor, several first-term lawmakers, and transit riders themselves — all of whom stressed that the overwhelming majority of people arrested for fare evasion are people of color. Stop-and-frisk also suffered from that bias. Seventy-five percent of bus riders are people of color, with a median income of $28,455, statistics show.

“We need mass transit that moves people, not one that seeks to lock them up,” Bay Ridge Senator Andrew Gounardes said in a statement. “Rather than criminalizing poverty and placing already overburdened police officers on already overcrowded buses, the MTA should be focusing on expanding all-door boarding options on all bus lines, which has already been shown to limit fare evasion on SBS routes.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos of Jackson Heights added in a tweet: “We do not need more police. We need good jobs. Stop criminalizing the poor!”

Byford had not anticipated those concerns during his 15-minute fare evasion presentation on Monday — but by Wednesday morning’s MTA board meeting, they were front and center. Gounardes and Ramos’ comments were echoed by transit advocates, who stressed that the MTA’s fare evasion strategy should be focused on moving past archaic Metrocard technology, not punitive measures.

“Sharpen your focus on improving bus service and bringing riders the faster and more reliable bus service they deserve,” TransitCenter Deputy Executive Director Tabitha Decker told board members.

Decker pointed to the importance of all-door boarding and modern fare-card technology in incentivizing riders to pay their fares. Evasion rates are significantly lower on Select Bus Service routes, where fares are collected off-board and enforced by non-NYPD security agents.

“Buses are not working. They’re failing riders. Bus service has been neglected for years,” added Riders Alliance senior organizer Stephanie Burgos-Veras. “Let’s invest our energy wisely. Let’s focus on improving the lives of our bus riders and not [on] criminalizing poverty.”

On Monday, Byford also announced plans to test-run having the “Eagle” teams that enforce on SBS also patrol local routes.

A closer inspection of New York City Transit’s fare evasion data raises more questions than it answers. The data do show a clear increase in fare evasion — but only as the MTA measures it, through visual surveys of key bus routes and subway stations. That data is then extrapolated for the entire system.

That method is unsatisfactory in showing the actual extent of the problem, according to an official privy to New York City Transit’s fare evasion discussion.

“Given the methodology … for the most part, we know that, yes, the fare evasion rate probably went up,” the source told Streetsblog. “But if you really look at the survey, you can’t look at the data and make bold pronouncements from them — you can’t. But timid pronouncements don’t move things politically.”

Meanwhile, the agency has not measured whether using police to hunt down fare evaders would even re-coup the money the agency supposedly loses.

It also has no data on when fare evasion occurs, where fare evasion occurs, or the demographics of fare evaders — key factors that would shape the impact and ramifications on an increase in enforcement. Students, for example, pile into buses en masse in the hour before school starts, obscuring access to the fare machine and forcing riders to enter through the back door.

“Byford is missing an essential part of what it’s like to try to ride a bus in the hour before school begins,” said Seth Pearce, a public school teacher in Brooklyn. “He is suggesting police, when what we really need is more busses, more often.”

Facing massive budget shortfalls, the MTA is scraping for money — and fare evasion is an easy scapegoat.

“You see this in a lot of places. Theft of services becomes an issue to explain away structural issues,” said CUNY professor Kafui Attoh, who has researched transportation access for the poor in other cities.

Byford, however, is resolute. Here was his full response:

I think the impression given is that we’re only focusing on evaders. That’s simply not the case. One full quarter of Fast Forward is devoted to improving the bus service in this city… That’s my focus. A positive focus. But I don’t see these two things as binary. It’s not either fare evasion or improve the bus network… It’s not binary. I just don’t think it’s right to let over $250 million of revenue, which could into putting in elevators, improving service, myriad other things — improve cleanliness. We can’t just ignore that. If anything, we probably underplay the amount of fare evasion with the techniques that we’ve got. You only have to ride the system, as I do every day, to see people pouring up. And I’m sorry I don’t actually buy the fact that it’s because is necessarily round. People just get on the back door sometimes when actually the bus isn’t that full.

I would love it if no one was found guilty of fare evasion. If what we do… by positioning staff, maybe police officers, as a deterrent, means that people then don’t chance it, don’t evade the fare, fantastic. Job done. Right? Because then no one get criminalized. We don’t want that. All we want, because it’s fair to the majority. We want people to pay their fare.We heard that loud and clear at the fare [increase] meetings. People said, I’m fed up with this, I pay my fair, why shouldn’t other people. That’s all we’re talking about, right? I’d love it if no one actually got caught. I would rather if just the deterrents and the cameras and everything else we’re talking about actually meant that everyone pays their way.

  • On Monday, the MTA issued new findings that one in five bus riders avoid paying fares

    Let’s compare that with the 99.9999% (my estimate, likely at least as reliable as the MTA’s here) of bus lane blockers who avoid paying fines.

  • iSkyscraper

    Could have used a cop on my M57 bus this morning. Full bus at 8th Ave, last guy on is a white guy in his 60s clutching a beer. He’s chatty at first but at the next stop, everyone wanted off (the bus was stuck in heavy traffic) and no one could get by him as he was planted right by the front door. When someone asked him to move, he screamed “I’M A VETERAN” and started swearing at everyone, nearly starting a fight as he lurched at people.

  • foody4booty

    This is ridiculous. MTA is not criminalizing poverty, they’re criminalizing theft (criminalizing crime). The fare beaters should be given a ticket and only arrested if they fail to pay 3 or more tickets. But advocates saying that the MTA can’t police fare beaters are sanctioning theft of government services.
    If you can’t afford something, that doesn’t mean you can just take it.

  • Seymour Butz

    cry babies should shut up, why should 20% of the riders do so for free b/c there isn’t a police officer on board to discourage the theft?

  • motorock

    NYPD’s notorious “stop and frisk” is infamous globally and someone like Byford would have surely known about it. It was probably his privileged white male mentality that did not make him question what he was asking for. Perhaps the MTA solely consulted the NYPD who have a reputation of just giving out tickets and harassing the poor and POCs. The same people who lost a $375 million class action lawsuit for similar behavior while handing out fraudulent tickets to meet their “quotas”. Also the force that has more NYC non-residents in its rolls, the reason they are not invested in the local communities and also not trusted.

  • bggb

    That 20% number is a joke and hasn’t been independently verified by anyone.

    It’s nearly meaningless.

  • AMH

    “the MTA estimates losing $225 million per year”

    I’ve said this before, but if that number is the result of multiplying the perceived number of fare evaders by $2.75, it’s bogus. If someone is transferring to or from the train, or has an unlimited Metrocard at home, lost revenue is ZERO. And if someone is skipping the fare because they don’t have the money, lost revenue is also likely near zero.

  • foody4booty

    It’s MTA official numbers, not meaningless. Where else should we get these statistics?

  • Poochie

    Agreed. But shitty service attracts shitty customers! Maybe if the buses were more reliable…

  • Steven Craig

    So, we have no real enforcement or even the will to enforce the systematic and deliberate epidemic of lawlessness. I ride a bus line where over 50% do not pay and will never pay unless there are real consequences. Those transit advocates who feel that ” a free ride” is there right are out of sync with reality.
    Enough, making fools of those who pay.

  • motorock

    Their surveys and studies have not been verified. Whoever has seen them says it is problematic. Do we know someone who is an expert and hha verified these numbers? Easy to do surveys if there is no peer review.

  • bggb

    Independent auditing. They’re a public entity.

    The idea that 20% of bus riders don’t pay their fare is a joke.

  • Joe R.

    And if someone is skipping the fare because they don’t have the money, lost revenue is also likely near zero.

    Exactly. Most likely if these people couldn’t evade the fare then they either wouldn’t take the bus for the trip, or just wouldn’t make the trip at all. You can’t assume every person seen evading the fare is lost revenue for the MTA. It’s much like poor people shoplifting. If enforcement were heavy enough that they couldn’t get away with it, you can’t assume they would purchase the item they’re stealing. They would just opt to not have it.

    The primary difference here is an incremental bus passenger who doesn’t pay the fare isn’t costing the MTA anything extra (since we assumed they just wouldn’t ride if they had to pay the fare), whereas a shoplifted item costs the store owner whatever they paid for that item.

    Or put another way, I only consider it “stealing” when someone is made measurably worse off by avoiding payment. Certainly that’s the case with shoplifting, but not necessarily with fare evasion.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Actually, “fair fares” eliminated fare evasion. Didn’t it?

    People who feel entitled to get something for nothing at the expense of the losers will certainly pay once they get a deal — or at least hear that poor people will get a deal.

    Just as tax evasion by the rich disappeared after the Trump tax cuts, despite all the cuts the IRS.

    Just get on with the service cuts to close the deficit, now that everyone is speaking out in favor of having the MTA do so.

  • Joe R.

    I can’t recall seeing any fare evasion, either. Maybe I might miss seeing the occasional kid get on without paying, but if 20% weren’t paying their fare as the MTA says it’s something I certainly would have noticed.

    Also, as me and others have said below, the fact someone is evading a fare doesn’t imply the MTA is losing money. They may well have opted not to make the trip at all if enforcement were high enough that they couldn’t evade the fare. Enforcement costs money also.

    The only real cost to the MTA in many (most?) cases of fare evasion is the incremental cost of carrying another passenger, which is practically nothing. Let’s say the fare evader weigh 150 pounds and travels 2 miles. Their added weight increases the rolling resistance of the bus by about 0.007*150 = 1 pound. 1 pound over 2 miles is 10560 foot-pounds, or 13.57 BTU, of extra energy required. Let’s assume the bus is only 10% efficient converting fuel into mechanical energy. Therefore, enough fuel to provide an extra 135.7 BTU is burned. A gallon of diesel has 139,000 BTU. So that’s an extra 0.000976 gallons of fuel burned. At $4 per gallon, the incremental cost to the MTA for that passenger is only 0.44 cents. There is probably a little added wear and tear on the bus, but even if this equals the cost of fuel burned, the MTA is losing less than a cent for each passenger who evades the fare. If we take the MTA’s 20% figure at face value, then 20% of the ~2 million daily bus riders don’t pay. These 400,000 non-paying riders cost the MTA perhaps a few thousand dollars daily, going by my previous calculations where each rider costs under one cent. In a year that’s perhaps $1 million, give or take. Not pocket change, but certainly not the ~$400 million the MTA might claim it loses by making the erroneous assumption these people would all ride the bus even if they couldn’t evade the fare. That’s not even getting into the 20% figure, which is probably at least an order of magnitude too high. That brings the real cost to the MTA of fare evaders to perhaps $100,000 annually. One cop to catch fare evaders will cost that much. Really, trying to enforce fare payment on buses is a losing proposition any way you look at it.

  • Joe R.

    The thing is you most likely won’t get that 50% to pay. What will happen if there’s heavy enforcement such that fare evasion is difficult is that most of that 50% will just not ride the bus. So what happens now? The MTA will be paying for enforcement. On top of that, it will see a 50% drop in ridership on that particular line. It may well conclude that it should decrease the frequency of service, perhaps even stop running that line altogether. That’s the possible unintended result of more enforcement.

  • Larry Littlefield

    So eliminate the fare and cut service by the amount funded by fare revenue. If one excluded fixed costs such as the retired what would that be? Half?

    Make everyone happy.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    I’ve seen a lot more turnstile jumping at subway stations recently also.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The problem with “Fair Fares” is that it was targeted to the wrong people. It isn’t “the poor” who are evading the fares. It is “the assholes.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    I haven’t seen that yet where I am.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The only real cost to the MTA in many (most?) cases of fare evasion is the incremental cost of carrying another passenger.”

    So if fares are voluntary, shouldn’t they be eliminated so some people aren’t unfairly made to pay just because they are less selfish?

    And service cut to whatever can be provided after the UFT, PBA, health care system and pension systems take their cut?

    Not for the subway. That’s essential. But it that’s what the politicians are going to support, the only response is to slash bus service.

  • Carl S

    I see many well dressed people walking through subway entrees near City Hall without paying fares most every day. I used to also see this behavior at Union Square and noticed that it stopped once they reactivated the alarms on the doorways. If people really can’t afford to pay fares then they should sign up for the Fair Fares program and get discounts rather than breaking the law and enticing others that can afford the fares to do the same.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Reagan said tax revenues would soar after his tax cuts because rich people would stop evading taxes once they perceived taxes to be “fair.”

    Since the federal government wasn’t bankrupt after the first time did it, they’ve tried it twice more. And now we have MMT, the Democratic something for nothing, cash in the future answer for the Laffer Curve.

  • AMH

    Without buses sitting still for Metrocard dips at every stop, you could probably cut runs and still have a comparable level of service because the buses would move so much faster.

  • AMH

    I might agree if wealthier scofflaws who skip tolls and park illegally were treated the same as turnstile jumpers.

  • Joe R.

    My point in going through that calculation was to show that any attempt to force people to pay the fare would be self-defeating in that the expenses would exceed the additional fare collected because most likely those who don’t pay now just would stop riding the bus AND their cost to the MTA now is minimal. The point of getting people to pay the fare is to bring in additional revenue to the MTA, isn’t it? Since most likely the reverse will happen here, why bother with enforcement?

    A better idea here, especially since some large percentage of bus trips already don’t bring in additional revenue (because they are linked trips) is to just make the buses free. There will be time savings since people won’t have to swipe their Metrocard. And ridership will most likely increase, allowing the MTA to justify increasing service in some cases, attracting yet more people to the bus. The net benefit of free bus service and more bus riders is to get cars off the road. That certainly seems worth whatever making the buses free will cost.

    As an aside, have any of the geniuses at the MTA figured out one possible reason for some of the fare evasion might be that the fare boxes don’t take bills. Who has $2.75 in spare change all the time? If you ride buses infrequently, you might not bother to have a Metrocard because there’s a chance it will expire before you use all the money on it. So you pay with cash. If the fare boxes took dollar bills and made change, this would be much easier. Put in 3 bills, get back a quarter.

  • john steinberg

    THE pols and, disappointingly, transit advocates, bleating about penalizing the poor is pure bullshit. everybody must pay their fare, period. if you institutionalize ‘liberal’ excuses for freeloading, you are sowing the seeds of class resentment and backlash vs the poor. there cant be two classes of citizens when using public services.

    listen to a respected outsider: mr. Byford is 100% right.

    and what a crock about stop and frisk. nobody is being stopped illegally when she boards a bus and steals the fare. she’s committed a crime and must pay the consequences, whether a criminal complaint or a civll fine or if she can’t pay that let her do real comunity servie, like cleaning the street

  • Larry Littlefield

    Evidently there is extensive fare evasion by Whites on Staten Island, and no one did anything about it.
    So why is the solution to allow non-Whites to evade the fare? How about stopping fare evasion on Staten Island.? Or raising property taxes and making all the buses free?

  • Steven Craig

    You clearly are joking. Theft is theft. the 50% thay don’t pay can find another means of transport, more seats.

  • Joe R.

    The only money the MTA loses here is the incremental cost of transporting another passenger. I calculated that at well under one cent per rider. You’re assuming all of that 50% would be able and willing to pay the fare if there was enforcement. In all likelihood the majority of those people just won’t ride the bus if they had to pay. You say that’s good because it means more seats. The MTA doesn’t look at things your way. They will just cut service when they see a 50% ridership drop. Therefore, those non-paying riders are of value to you, the paying customer, in that they boost ridership numbers, and force the MTA to run more buses to comply with their crowding standards.

  • Steven Craig

    Totally disagree. The people I see, for the most part, all have expensive phones, nice clothes, jewelry and tattoos. They are so used to grifting without consequence that they look upon free transportation as their right. Others pay, they don’t and have, in my opinion, no intention of doing so UNTIL the day their life is inconvenienced by more than a summons which they will ignore.Unfortunately the current Mayor and pandering political hacks that are now District Attorneys simply have empowered them. One look around and it is clear NYC is rapidly going back to the “Bad ole days “.

  • Joe R.

    How much money they have, or whatever fancy gadgets they have, has nothing to do with it. They just don’t consider the $2.75 they would have to pay for the bus to be a good proposition. They don’t pay, and if there were enforcement, they just wouldn’t ride. I totally understand that type of thinking. Back when we had two fare zones taking the bus to/from the subway cost me an extra fare. It wasn’t worth it to me, therefore I walked instead. When they got rid of two-fare zones, I started taking the bus. In theory I could have evaded the fare back when there were two-fare zones but this was in the 1980s and 1990s. Fare evasion wasn’t easy back then because the drivers actively enforced it. If you got on without paying, they kicked you off the bus. Now if the MTA wants to empower its drivers to do that, I’m OK with it as it doesn’t represent spending any more money to enforce fare evasion. For some reason they don’t want to do this. I’m against using extra personnel to enforce fare evasion because the money spent on these people most likely will be less than the money gained. The purpose of enforcing fare evasion is to increase revenue for the MTA. If that doesn’t happen, what’s the point of enforcement?

  • dan williams

    Its probably way higher than 20% I ride the ride the 9 bus and the 32 in the Bronx and it more like 40%. If we want to make transit free then make it free, but why are 60% of us paying while the other 40% could care less.

  • keckus

    The mta are a bunch of corrupt criminals, the nypd are their cash generating goon squad. Their own little army. Useless for much anything else. The NY transit system is one of the worst in the Western world and it continues to decline while fares go up and service worsens. Many people simply can’t afford it anymore. We should support fare jumpers over the criminals running this mass transit sham. Swipe people in when you can and F%#k the mta!

  • turkkl

    Yeah, we get it. All white people are scum that should burn in hell and the root of every problem known to man. Next…

  • 187h

    Fare Fairs are only aimed towards folks who are next to destitute. It’s great for illegals, foreigners and the very bottom of the food chain but doesn’t really serve those who are struggling and just getting by.

  • Midge

    Yeah, maybe it has something to do with raising the fares to begin with. And frankly, considering how lousy the service is, I don’t blame anyone for doing it! I will gladly swipe folks in. The mta experience is pure misery. One has to cross their fingers that they’ll even get to their destination these days.

  • peters

    Why should anyone but the mta give a crap about who is jumping fares? Do you people really want to put more money in their corrupt pockets? The have the police for that. Are they that dear to you? The mta are a disgrace of an organization, a disservice to New Yorkers. Swipe people in when you can.

  • clutch

    Ah, fuck the mta! These scum bags deserve to lose money for their pathetic service and the misery they bring to New Yorkers.