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MTA Again Floats Back Door Boarding Once Students Get OMNY

Back-door bus boarding is back on the table.

Photo: Josh Katz|

Riders line up to get on an MTA bus, because the agency doesn’t allow back-door boarding.

MTA leaders could finally allow New York City bus riders to board through the back door, after they roll out OMNY for students later this year, officials said Monday. 

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has for years stalled all-door boarding by not activating the OMNY readers on almost all of its buses, fearing more fare evasion, despite the measure being key to speeding up the nation’s slowest people movers.

“Once we get most or all of the [student] population on OMNY, it is one way we could comfortably start to use the validators at the back door,” MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber told MTA board members at a committee meeting on Monday. 

The MTA plans replace student MetroCards with OMNY cards in September, before transitioning to smart devices once the agency's contractor Cubic reconfigures the contactless payment software. Transportation bigs hope the upgrade will curb a spike in fare evasion — really non-swipes — that happens daily around school dismissal time, according to the agency.

“The software is not cooked for it to go onto the ... student phones yet, so this coming school year will be OMNY cards,” said Lieber. “After that, for the future, it’ll be all on the phone.

“They sometimes struggle to find their MetroCard, but they know where their phone is,” he added.

The MTA press office declined to provide a more detailed schedule for activating back-door OMNY readers.

Advocates have long yearned for all-door boarding as one of the main benefits of modernizing the city's fare-payment system, but the effort has been delayed repeatedly. Lieber has dismissed the benefits of all-door boarding as a “hypothesis,” but the approach has shortened bus loading and unload times at many more advanced bus systems — including on the MTA’s own Select Bus Service, which has offered back-door boarding for 16 years.

Former New York City Transit President Andy Byford promised all-door boarding six years ago when he launched his “bus action plan” to turn around the Big Apple’s beleaguered surface transit system. 

For now, bus boosters were cautiously optimistic, but wary that MTA bigs will find another excuse to hold off on the crucial upgrade.

“It’s better late than never,” said Danny Pearlstein of the advocacy group Riders Alliance. “But we’ve heard promises like these before, and given the ongoing challenges with OMNY, it’s all too easy to see another delay on that side being used to further delay all-door boarding.”

City students currently get MetroCards with a limited number of daily trips, and some don’t swipe into the transit system because they think “it’s free anyway,” according to the “Blue Ribbon Panel on MTA Fare and Toll Evasion,” from a year ago. 

“Fare evasion is its highest right after school gets out around three o’clock,” NYC Transit President Richard Davey said last month, citing data on subway fare evasion from the panel's report. “One of our hypotheses is actually fares aren’t being evaded [but] students aren’t swiping.”

Subway fare evasion by time of day shows a spike around school dismissal time. Graph: MTA

But if students are not swiping, other straphangers may be encouraged to do the same, said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, an in-house rider advocacy arm of the MTA.

“It’s not free, you’re enabling other people to also evade the fare,” said Daglian. “That’s the opportunistic fare evader.”

The MTA deployed OMNY readers to all buses by late 2020, but has stubbornly refused to turn them on at the rear doors, forcing riders to line up at the front. The agency floated a modest pilot on 10 routes in 2021, but then mothballed it fearing it would harm the recovery of revenue collection on buses, which went fare-free for nine months earlier on in the pandemic and continue to have higher rates of unpaid fares than the subways.

Allowing riders to board at the back also encourages more people to switch to OMNY, Pearlstein said.

“The best incentive would have been opening up the back door to everyone using OMNY,” he said. “There’s no reason not to provide that to riders just because some people are not paying the fare. It isn’t fair to the millions of people who ride the bus every day.”

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