Last week, NYC Transit chief Andy Byford detailed plans to reduce fare evasion — and progressive lawmakers responded as if the mild-mannered Brit were suggesting all poor people go to prison for life. Behind the artificial controversy is a difficult truth for fare-theft defenders: Better technology will make it easier to catch persistent fare trespassers.
Byford had bad news: Subway fare theft has stabilized at 3.2 percent of rides, more than twice the historic average. And bus-fare evasion is soaring. On local buses, nearly a quarter of passengers were boarding without paying at the end of last year. “Most of it appears to be happening in the a.m. peak,” said Byford — people taking advantage of the rush.
The lost revenue is now running at about $225 million a year.
The MTA knows how to tackle this problem, and the solution doesn’t involve mass arrests. Already, 22 MTA “Eagle” teams, which give out civil summonses, patrol the MTA’s “select-bus routes,” on which customers pay at curbside machines and have to show proof-of-payment during trips.
Unsurprisingly, evasion on these 17 routes is comparatively low — just 2.3 percent. Now the MTA is expanding Eagle coverage to regular-bus routes. It has already issued 5,000 summonses ($100 each) this year, up from a “negligible” number last year.
Overall, in January and February, fare evaders received 14,338 summonses on subways and buses, nearly twice the number of last year’s comparable months.
But though most enforcement doesn’t involve an arrest, a small percentage does. Farebeating arrests — a total of 760 for January and February, down from 2,096 for those months last year — are still necessary.
A month ago, Brooklyn cops stopped a would-be fare evader and found, as he tried to flee, that he was carrying an illegal loaded gun. It is highly unlikely his aim was to keep fellow riders safe.
A month before that, police, perhaps because of pullbacks in evasion arrests, apparently missed a chance to stop a murder. Though the person who allegedly shot 20-year-old Abel Mosso to death on a subway platform in Elmhurst in January paid his fare, his two alleged accomplices did not. If police had disrupted the trio, they could have headed off the reputed MS-13 members’ movements.
And just this weekend, cops busted an 18-year-old for jumping a turnstile; he was wanted for a murder last summer in a Queens housing project.
So Byford acknowledged the obvious: “The big thing that is missing is that we need cops on buses,” he said. “If you don’t know if there is a plainclothes officer on our bus, you are less likely to evade the fare.”
Byford wants cops to act mostly as a deterrent. Nevertheless, a couple of politicians pounced. Jessica Ramos — the state senator who represents the district where Mosso was shot to death on the platform — tweeted, “We do not need more police. We need good jobs.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told NY1: “There are other things you can do to create equity and justice . . . besides hiring more police officers to criminalize more people.”
Johnson knows that’s not how it works. In 2015, he himself earned a summons for walking between subway cars, a dangerous activity that can result in a “person on the trackbed” — the cause of 505 delays last month.
In all of the crocodile-tears complaining, the missed news is that while more cops are needed, the future of fare enforcement is technology — and, done right, it could be revolutionary. The MTA’s next generation of “tap” cards, Byford said, means that “at any time . . . in your journey . . . we will be able to ask you for proof of payment.”
That means enforcement officers on subway cars could come through with a fare machine and ask everyone — the woman in the suit and the man with a shopping cart of belongings — for an electronic “receipt.”
Enforced humanely (with accompanied transportation to nearby drop-off centers for people who aren’t actually going anywhere but need mental help or a place to stay on a cold day), it could transform transit into what it is supposed to be. That is, a way to get around, not a refuge for people whom the city’s government prefers to forget.
The camera technology the MTA is installing all over its system, too, can pinpoint which stations are rife with evasion, more objectively directing resources. Eventually, though the MTA doesn’t say so, ever more “intelligent” cameras could identify repeat trespassers by face.
A couple of lawmakers are making old arguments, but the future isn’t free rides.
This piece originally appeared at New York Post
Photo by Kit L. / iStock