David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Last week, the New York City Transit President, Andy Byford, used an MTA Board meeting to announce new fare evasion data showing increases in recent months on both subways and buses, along with a new plan to crack down on scofflaws.

Mr. Byford acknowledged that service issues continue to plague the public transit system, drawing the ire of riders on a daily basis. Even so, he also implied that an “equal” issue was that of people choosing to not pay the fare. To support this argument, the MTA presented data showing fare evasion trends for the past five years (the first time this data has ever been shared). Unfortunately, the MTA, of which I am a board member, released very limited information on its methodology, making it impossible to assess whether the data released does indeed indicate rising fare evasion or is driven by decisions about which subway stations and bus routes were sampled and at what times of day.

One explanation offered by the MTA for the rise in fare evasion: Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s decision last year to not prosecute arrests for the crime. This is ludicrous.

When DA Vance announced that his office would no longer prosecute most instances of subway fare evasion, issuing civil summonses instead, I applauded him. Prosecuting even a low-level offense like fare evasion can create spiraling negative consequences for those charged – including a permanent criminal record and, for undocumented residents, potential deportation – and does not make our city safer.

But even if we take the MTA’s data at face value, it does not support Mr. Byford’s argument. First, the trends show a much larger increase in fare evasion on buses than on subways, and, second, they show that the highest bus fare evasion rates are in the Bronx and Staten Island. These increases would not be caused by a change in prosecuting fare evasion in Manhattan subways.

A summons for fare evasion carries a $100 fine – a lot to pay for bypassing a $2.75 fare, particularly for people who could not afford that fare in the first place. Still, in pursuit of increased MTA revenues, Mr. Byford has proposed increasing these fines, not arresting more people, suggesting he thinks civil penalties can be an effective deterrent.

He also says he wants to work with the NYPD to send new enforcement teams to stations and routes they identify as having the most fare evaders. Our own research has exposed troubling practices with how the NYPD enforces fare evasion, often focusing on poor communities of color. Given the discriminatory history of NYPD fare evasion enforcement, any efforts to intensify it in certain locations should first be justified by data to support the need for it. Otherwise we create an open invitation for the NYPD to continue to target lower-income communities of color.

Transparency on how it polices fare evasion has not been the NYPD’s strong suit. In fact, earlier this year my organization joined Queens City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council’s Committee on the Justice System, in a lawsuit against the NYPD for failing to comply with Local Law 47 mandating quarterly reports on fare evasion arrests and summonses by race, age, gender, subway station and neighborhood. We don’t yet have the data; the suit continues.

While it is a good thing that Mr. Byford’s enforcement plan says police officers will be posted outside of the turnstile in plain view, rather than their historically preferred method of hiding behind doors and columns, this does nothing to address the root causes that make it hard for impoverished New Yorkers to pay the fare.

Lest we forget, a signal issue here is transit affordability, not a flagrant flouting of the law. It’s worth noting that the biggest jump in subway fare evasion rates came in 2017 following the fare hike that went into on March 19th that year. The rollout of `Fair Fares’ —the half price MetroCard plan that was approved by Mayor de Blasio for all New Yorkers at or below the poverty line—in January of 2019 should be a big help in decreasing the need for low-income New Yorkers to jump the turnstile.

Creating more ways to access the system, with a focus on ensuring working MetroCard vending machines, eliminating long lines or creating other points of purchase especially for boarding buses could help as well.

There is no doubt that fare evasion is a real issue. Everyone who uses mass transit should pay their fair share. That said, poverty is a massive underlying factor. The cost of living is rising far faster than many New Yorkers’ paychecks. Yet everyone still needs to get to work, school, daycare, and medical appointments. We should not criminalize hard choices, but instead reduce the need to make such choices in the first place.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years, and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.