Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Edgar Sandoval, New York Times, April 13, 2019
Transit officials recently announced a remarkable figure: One in five bus riders in New York City does not pay the fare. The statistic stunned even Andy Byford, the leader of the subway and bus system, who said it was “wholly unacceptable” and at least double the rate of other cities across the world.
“We look at what other transit authorities are suffering, and this now really stands out as an outlier,” Mr. Byford said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees the subway and buses, says fare evasion is on the rise on the subway and buses, costing the system $225 million in lost revenue last year. But the problem is far worse on buses, where nearly 22 percent of riders do not pay, compared with 3.4 percent of subway riders.
An informal survey on several routes found that fare evasion was widespread and the reasons varied. Riders did not have exact change. They knew they would not get in trouble. And some simply felt no obligation to pay for a transit system plagued by unreliable service and constant fare increases.
Cities across the world are grappling with fare evasion, though it is far worse in New York. In Paris, the fare evasion rate for buses is 11 percent, while in Toronto it is 5 percent, according to the local transit agencies. The Paris transit system has 1,200 staff members dedicated to the problem and hands out about one million fines each year.
In London, where riders face fines as high as $1,300, the fare evasion rate on buses is only 1.5 percent. But in Washington, where about 14 percent of bus riders do not pay, the D.C. Council recently went in the other direction, approving lighter penalties because of concerns about targeting low-income riders.
Andy Byford, who oversees the bus and subway system, has suggested sending police officers onto buses to tackle fare evasion.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the transportation authority, has pressed transit leaders to tackle fare evasion as part of his plans to address the system’s financial crisis. On the subway, loud alarms were installed at some emergency exits to dissuade riders who use them to sneak inside. New signs warn: “Fare Evasion Will Cost You.”
On city buses, which carry more than two million people each day, Mr. Byford suggested sending police officers onboard to enforce the rules.
But his comments drew an immediate backlash from critics, who said the move would “exacerbate the over-policing of communities of color.” Fare evasion arrests have disproportionally targeted black and Hispanic men.
Transit advocates say the prevalence of fare evasion reflects how many New Yorkers struggle to pay for the basics, like subway and bus fares. After intense lobbying by advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a discount program this year that provides half-price MetroCards for poor New Yorkers. But it included far fewer people than expected.
For bus drivers, striking the right balance between enforcing the rules and avoiding conflict with riders is difficult and, sometimes, dangerous. In 2008, a bus driver was stabbed to death by a rider who did not pay his fare — the first slaying of a city bus driver in more than 27 years. In response, the authority offered classes to drivers on defusing tense situations and added plastic partitions between drivers and passengers.
When a passenger refuses to pay, transit officials say the bus driver should politely say the price. If that does not work, bus drivers are told to press the F5 button and continue boarding other passengers.
Some transit advocates question the M.T.A. statistics and say officials are inflating the problem. The figures are based on observations along 140 of the 317 city bus routes that are extrapolated for the entire system. The agency does not even use the tally from bus drivers pressing the F5 button — that figure is used only to identify “hot spots” for fare evasion.