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Fare evasion

Bus Ridership is Near 2019 Levels (If You Count the People Who Don’t Pay)

In September, bus ridership was close to 2.3 million people — near the totals in the pre-pandemic halcyon of 2019 — if you include riders who didn't pay.

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman|

It’s Bus Week in Albany.

It's Bus Week!

Welcome to the latest installment in Streetsblog's annual "Bus Week," where we explore why New York City buses are so horrible and what Mayor Adams is or is not doing. Today, we'll look bus fare evasion. For prior "Bus Week" coverage, click here.

Bus riders have come back, but the MTA isn't counting all of them.

The MTA's daily ridership figures show bus ridership has flatlined at about 60 percent of pre-pandemic ridership, about 1.2 million to 1.4 million riders per weekday. But data that the agency publishes in its Board books every month reveals that total bus ridership is surging.

In September, it was closer to 2.3 million people — near the highs in the pre-pandemic halcyon of 2019 — if you include riders who didn't pay:

Figures from the MTA's October's Board book. Chart: MTA

So, no, neither the MTA's blue ribbon panel nor stated commitment to making fare enforcement a part of the agency's core identity has stopped the gratis groundswell. But does it matter? After all, people who don't pay for the bus are people who are just trying to get somewhere, too.

"These are people going to work, they're going out to jobs, to shop or going to a doctor's appointment," said Transport Workers Local 100 Vice President JP Patafio. "They've gotta get where they've gotta get to, and public transportation is generally the best way to do that. And they don't have the fare, they're short two bucks, you're gonna jump on the bus. So I think it just shows the need for a robust transit system."

The unofficial rebound of bus ridership comes as the MTA works to win back riders to public transit in numbers closer to before the pandemic, and leaders in the city and state debate whether transit will ever make it all the way back (or if "Friday is dead forever," as the saying goes).

With total, albeit not officially recognized, bus ridership back to baseline figures, pro-transit legislators are calling for faster and more reliable bus service.

"We are hitting numbers that we are not recognizing, because our focus has been on fares," said Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani (D-Astoria), who spearheaded a push for an MTA rescue package and a free bus pilot this past spring. "But our focus needs to be on what the intended outcomes are of providing this kind of service."

The data also creates an awkward financial situation for the MTA, which got a rescue package from Albany this year. Through September, the MTA's expected revenue from bus ridership was $28.2 million short of projections (Bus service in New York City is provided by both New York City Transit and the MTA Bus Company).

A graphic showing the expected and actual revenues taken in by the MTA's various agencies, including NYCT Bus and MTA Bus Company. Graphic: MTA

And the fare evasion numbers also skew the agency's recovery picture. Subways and commuter rails are routinely breaking 70 percent of pre-pandemic ridership, while official bus ridership is stuck in the high 50/low 60 percent recovery range — in other words, at the low end of the ridership projections McKinsey and Co. did for the agency.

A chart showing total MTA ridership and the projected ridership put together by McKinsey and Co. Graphic: MTA

The MTA's Blue Ribbon Panel on fare evasion noted that bus fare-hopping is more common than its cousins at the subway turnstile or at bridge tollbooths. This summer, the agency began deploying its anti-fare evasion EAGLE Teams to local bus hubs as an education and deterrence effort to both remind people to pay the fare to get on the bus, and to tell riders about the half-price Fair Fares program that's funded by the city.

"Counterintuitively, doing less intense anti-fare evasion efforts, while at the same time making paying the fare as easy as humanly possible and expanding the Fair Fares program, all that is going to help," said Stephen Maples, who worked on fare evasion analyses at the MTA before leaving the authority in 2022.

The more targeted efforts to encourage fare payment have been a bit hampered. A push to expand the half-fair Fair Fares program from 100 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $14,580 for a single person, to 200 percent of the poverty limit or $29,160, stalled with an agreement to add funding to bring in people making 120 percent of the federal poverty limit, which is $17,496.

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

And right now, the MTA is hampered in its own efforts to fight fare evasion on local bus routes by the fact that the rollout of the OMNY system has fallen off schedule and is only used by about 30 percent of bus riders.

OMNY is necessary for all-door boarding, itself an advancement in bus operations that's been kiboshed by the MTA because of fare evasion concerns. Widespread adoption of OMNY could also allow local buses to use the European-style proof-of-payment model, which the agency uses on Select Bus Service, thanks to off-board fare payment.

The ridership rebound suggests that the demand for bus service remains as high as ever, which also means that the city and the MTA need to ensure that bus priority projects keep moving forward and that efforts to speed up buses with things like all-door boarding and bus redesigns need to be finished as soon as possible. Good service after all, could not only attract more riders, but could get lapsed fare payees to pay for the bus.

"We should be thinking of this in a way that centers service because if we're focusing on service and making service better, I think over time, people will be more willing and likely to pay the fare. I think a lot of times people feeling the pinch and feeling like the service isn't awesome, so they just say 'Nah.'"

"This is an excellent indicator that people want to use public transit to get where they need to go, and it's a call to our political leadership to figure out a better a better way forward," said Maples.

For Mamdani, the fare evasion numbers show a need to keep pushing forward on expanding the free bus pilot that the MTA began in September. One bus route in each borough is currently free to ride, and Astoria lawmaker said that the program is getting good reviews from riders and drivers.

"I'm not naive to the fact that there is an economic necessity, in terms of how the MTA does its budgeting, where fare collection plays a significant role in allowing operations to continue," he said. "However, what we need to do is replace the source of the generation of that revenue from riders to the wealthiest New Yorkers and New York institutions that we have across this state. And what this data shows us is that we are missing the forest for the trees."

A report earlier this year from the city's Independent Budget Office pegged the cost of fully free local bus system (local, limited and SBS buses) at $652 million per year, though MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber has said he thinks the agency would lose $1 billion per year if the buses across the city were free.

Patafio also praised the free bus pilot and said that the question is not one of how to do better fare enforcement but how to best prioritize what New York State puts its money towards.

"The average bus rider is making $30,000, $35,000. When you think about who's taking the bus, that's the working class. The buses are essential to them, and they don't earn a lot of money. So we've got to figure out, do you want to fund war or stadiums or do you want to fund public service that's essential for New York City?" he said.

A leader of the MTA's panel on fare evasion said he was confident that the agency was working to institute the ideas the body had recommended to fight fare evasion.

"Improving fare compliance on buses is key to a healthy transit system that all New Yorkers can depend on," said Roger Maldonado, the co-chair of the Blue-Ribbon Panel on MTA Fare and Toll Evasion. "Our report found that buses have become the MTA’s single biggest fare evasion problem – both the highest cash loss and the highest evasion rate – and that’s why we made specific recommendations for reducing bus evasion. We know the MTA team is hard at work on this and we look forward to seeing their progress.

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