Manhattan Institute

Stealing Bad Service

Farebeating exacerbates—and reflects—the MTA’s woes.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-controlled entity that runs New York’s subways and buses, has had a rough few years. Even with recent improvements, passengers on 51,964 weekday trains suffered delays in November, up from 33,423 five years ago. Among the MTA’s various crises—chronic delays and disruptions, a failure to build projects on time and on budget, and having no idea where the billions to modernize subway signals will come from—the problem of fare evasion may seem insignificant. But stealing fares is a serious matter. In addition to costing other passengers money, the people who enter without paying their way mean bigger problems underground.

For a couple of years, passengers have noticed increased fare evasion: more people, across age, race, and sex, are entering the subway through exit gates. Subways chief Andy Byford said that 208,000 subway riders are evading the fare daily, up from 109,000 five years ago. Bus-fare evasion is worse, with 348,000 riding without paying each day, up from 210,000 five years ago. Overall, the MTA will lose $215 million to fare evasion this year, up by $110 million since 2015.

One obvious reason that people are evading the fare is less enforcement. The MTA notes that fare evasion “spiked” in mid-2017, after Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance said he’d no longer prosecute most evaders. Even before Vance’s announcement, the vast majority of low-level offenders in the subway system faced a civil summons, not arrest. If the city prefers to adjudicate more such cases in civil court, not criminal, it would make sense for civil summonses to rise as criminal arrests fall.

Yet both numbers are way down; for the year through November, the NYPD has arrested 5,586 people for fare evasion, down from 16,886 last year. Officers have given out 47,196 civil summonses for such “theft of service,” down from 51,665 last year. (The NYPD has seemingly reversed part of this strategy in the last couple of months, giving out more summonses this November, for example, than last year.)

Even before Vance pulled back, a first-time fare evader was highly unlikely to get caught. In 2016, for example, with 266 “total enforcement actions” daily in the subway, whether arrest or summons, a fare-beater had a one-third of 1 percent chance of getting caught on any particular day. By the first half of this year, the risk of arrest or civil fine to any one fare evader on a given day had plummeted by 80 percent.

Fare evasion means lost revenue to a struggling system, and is patently unfair to paying riders. Next year, the MTA proposes to raise fares by four percent; such an increase will bring in $316 million annually, two-thirds of which could be consumed by fare evasion. A counter-argument, of course, is that many fare-stealers would not ride if they had to pay the fare. That’s fine, but then they should not be slowing already crawling buses or crowding onto packed trains, harming service for paying customers.

Increased fare evasion also repels riders who have other options. The subway system is suffering more vagrancy and begging. The people so engaged are disproportionately likely to have failed to pay the fare, as advocates for the homeless often point out. While it’s arguably unproductive to arrest a person who jumps over a turnstile because he has no other options for the night, it’s also inhumane to allow the subway system to be a shelter of last resort—and it drives away riders who can afford a more pleasant alternative.

In November, 12 of the MTA’s 67 “major incidents”—disruptions of 50 trains or more at once—were due to people on the track. The “unusually high number” involved “at least four involving homeless persons,” the MTA says, along with three incidents “where an individual was observed riding on the outside of a train”—subway surfing—“before fleeing to the roadbed.” The MTA wants help from the NYPD in stopping this “extremely … dangerous behavior.” But as then-transit police chief Bill Bratton demonstrated in the early 1990s, the easiest way to catch people breaking laws against trespass in the subway system is to catch them in the first incidence of trespass—at the turnstile or gate.

Stopping fare-beating stops more serious crime. In 2008, bus driver Edwin Thomas, 46, confronted a fare thief on a Brooklyn bus route; the criminal, Horace D. Moore, murdered him. This year to date, the NYPD has taken 156 knives and five guns from apprehended fare-beaters. But last year, the figure (for the whole year) was nine guns and 243 knives. Unless people have suddenly stopped carrying illegal weapons into the transit system, it’s reasonable to conclude that fewer arrests are leading to greater potential danger underground. Indeed, this year so far, assault and robbery are up throughout the transit system, by 5.6 percent and 5.1 percent respectively. Above-ground, in the rest of the city, the same two crimes are down 0.9 percent and 7.3 percent respectively.

Farebeating is an ominous sign that some people not engaged in other criminal activity are just so fed up with subway service that they’ve decided, when they think they can get away with it, not to pay. But public contempt for government is not a mitigating factor; it’s worrisome.

More from Manhattan Institute

Manhattan Institute3 min read
If You Improve It, They Will Come
Several Midwest cities are pursuing innovative mass-transit plans—with encouraging results.
Manhattan Institute3 min readPolitics
The Redistribution and Regulation Party
During a recent visit to Toledo, Ohio, to speak at a local school, I saw remarkable signs of an improving economy in this Rust Belt city. My taxi driver from the airport boasted that he could leave his position tomorrow and have his pick of other job
Manhattan Institute4 min readPolitics
For-Hire Backfire
California’s new regulation on Uber and Lyft risks harming a huge segment of the economy—and misses a chance to define a new category of worker.