The dawn of Fair Fares should bring fresh enforcement of fare evasion
Soon, New York City will let its poorest residents ride the buses and subways for half price. Under the new Fair Fares program, possibly as many 800,000 New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line — about $25,000 for a family of four — will be eligible to buy discounted rides. The city has funded a six-month pilot program, costing $106 million. The plan is in line with the kinds of equity-focused progressive initiatives that Mayor de Blasio has defined his administration around.
Meanwhile, the city’s subways and buses have been swamped by riders who seem to think that paying the fare — any fare — is unfair. According to an MTA survey, fare-beating has more than doubled in the last 18 months, and more than 200,000 daily subway fare evaders cost the system $215 million in lost revenue in 2018.
At a time when the physical structure of the subway system is in dire shape and employee and retiree health-care costs are soaring, every penny counts. People who don’t pay their fare are stealing from the system, and making suckers out of everyone who does.
Yet starting at the beginning of 2016, the NYPD relaxed enforcement of fare-beating, prioritizing summonses over arrests. According to Mayor de Blasio, enforcement of the law was biased, because 90% of the people being arrested for fare-beating were black or Latino. The number of daily arrests for “theft of service” has dropped about 80%, though there has been a recent uptick in summonses.
The Fair Fares initiative — championed by Council Speaker Corey Johnson — was presented as a way to help poor people. Despite the mayor’s long insistence that fare-beating is an anti-social activity that is not driven by economic need, advocates for Fair Fares specifically said that the high price of a transit fare is what drives people to evade it.
Councilmember Ben Kallos praised the program for “making sure New York City’s working poor can afford to get to work without begging for a swipe or having to jump the turnstile.” Longtime de Blasio ally Bertha Lewis commended the mayor, saying “for too long, poor New Yorkers, especially black and brown individuals, have been criminalized because they could not afford the price of a MetroCard.”
So now that Fair Fares is being rolled out, shouldn’t the city resume strict enforcement of the law against fare-beating, which is endemic?
Yet de Blasio, who compared to many uber-progressives is a relative hawk on farebeating — he actually believes in some enforcement — won’t even acknowledge that the crime is on the rise. Asked about the MTA’s report, he all but dismissed the analysis, saying “I’m not going to accept face value any other assessment unless it comes from the NYPD.”
But you don't have to trust the MTA; just use your eyes. Ask any straphanger what he or she sees with regularity in the subway stations every day: groups of people — of all races and types — waiting by the exit door to enter for free, and people stepping over the turnstile as nonchalantly as if they were swiping a farecard.
Fair Fares may make life easier for poor people who have to get to work, go to the doctor or take their kids to school. But it also takes away the justification for fare-beating that many criminal-justice advocates and elected officials have made in referencing the alleged “criminalization of poverty” that enforcement of the law represents.
Let’s see an end to rampant fare evasion, and a fair system for everyone.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Seth Barron is an associate editor of City Journal and project director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty