Better than Boston? A tour of fare evasion

Ahead of Wednesday’s MTA vote on the authority’s precarious $17 billion budget, New York City Transit president Andy Byford last …

Ahead of Wednesday’s MTA vote on the authority’s precarious $17 billion budget, New York City Transit president Andy Byford last week dipped his toe into tricky waters: fare evasion in NYC.

Hopping turnstiles. Slipping through the emergency exit. Going onto a bus via back door. You’ve seen it before.

Byford called fare evasion “an increasing problem” that cost the subway and bus system around $215 million in 2018.

That number was part of a nine-slide PowerPoint presentation that included some limited information on how the transit system counts fare evaders, like staff observational visits to 180 station control areas and 140 bus routes that are extrapolated more widely.

The report uses that to estimate that subway evasion has been around 3.2 percent so far this year, and 17.2 percent on buses.

The complicated part about all this is the historical significance of hopping turnstiles. NYPD leaders like former Commissioner Bill Bratton focused on that infraction during the 1990s as a way to enforce order underground and also as a way to nab people committing bigger crimes. That broken-windows policing philosophy spread to the city at large. In recent years, it has come under fire as data has shown unequal enforcement, with the vast majority of those arrested for fare evasion being black or Hispanic. Some city leaders have pushed for non-criminal sanctions for fare evasion. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance stopped prosecuting most such cases this year, timing that corresponded with more evasion, according to the MTA.

Enter Byford, tasked with saving a transit system that is looking at various stopgap ways to cut spending or raise money (i.e. fare increases) plus tens of billions in capital needs. He has stressed that fare evasion isn’t the only issue and that the city shouldn’t unleash arrests “on an unfair basis.” But the new chief couldn’t help pointing to his numbers, which said the system is losing out on real money and could lose more.

Underscoring the point, his PowerPoint has two slides comparing the city’s rate of fare evasion to rates in other peer systems. The slides show that NYC’s rate is now worse than the average of those peers.

But the data on the “peers” is murky.

MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said the peer numbers come from the Community of Metros, or CoMET, “an international benchmarking organization, which used data from some of its members, which include other international cities like New York.”

CoMET did not share its data or methodology, but we reached out to some of the big American systems to get their rates directly.

Most systems are understandably worried about fare evasion — merchants tend to be against shoplifting — but the knowledge about how much evasion is actually happening varies widely. Take San Francisco, whose BART system “currently” does not look at evasion as a percentage but estimates yearly losses of $15-25 million.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority couldn’t provide an evasion rate for the entire network, despite some studies of small individual portions of the system.

DC’s system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, might have the best data, because its buses have automatic passenger counters and also buttons that can be pressed by operators to mark someone evading the fare, according to a spokesman. That has led to a 13 percent evasion rate on buses in September — still lower than New York’s estimate.

The MTA did not mention similar use of technology in their evasion report. The limits of the staff-counting estimates are clear: they can’t be parsed to more specific levels, like particular stations or lines, one difficulty if you’re relying on the data to create policy.

Tarek, the MTA spokesman, says the fare evasion comparison to other systems was in the report just for academic purposes.

“What matters is that it was on the rise here in New York,” he said.

This is Byford’s main argument: that he’s just focused on the health and validity of the ailing system and fare evasion is one issue that must be combated. But he has also floated the possibility of an anonymous survey to try to find out more about why people evade fares: Because they can’t pay? Because they’re protesting bad service? Because they believe service should be free?

Maybe the findings would help direct policy. But maybe not. If survey results find people want service to be free, don’t hold your breath.

Mark Chiusano