Bus abuse: fare beating has become an epidemic

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It’s a familiar sight to regulars. It’s rush hour, and a long line of riders are waiting to board the stopping bus. Once the back door opens, a number of people slip on without paying, taking the few open places to sit.

“You pay and you don’t get a seat,” said Rosa Perez as she waited at the bus stop at West 231st Street and Broadway.

Regular Bronxites aren’t the only ones noting fare beaters. Analysts from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have been riding along, so to speak, keeping tally at peak and off-times of how many people board without paying.

Last month, the MTA reported that one in every four local bus riders skip paying their fare over the first three months of 2019. While local bus fare evasion is widespread, it’s worse in the outer boroughs like the Bronx and Staten Island, according to New York Transit Authority president Andy Byford.

Fare evasion is up more than an 18 percent compared to the year before, representing a loss of $36 million.

That’s a steep number for an agency already plagued with budget problems. Extensive capital improvement needs, public opposition to fare increases, and excessive employee overtime are just some of the MTA’s ongoing money problems. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also held back state funding for Byford’s improvement plans. Fare evasion makes reaching revenue goals that much harder.

The MTA board estimates fare evasion cost the agency $218 million in 2018, much higher than the $100 million considered normal for a system of the same size.

There have been several suggestions for preventing fare beaters. Earlier this year, Cuomo called for 500 additional police officers to patrol subway stations. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance also pledged $40 million to combat the problem, including replacing emergency gates in newly renovated subway stations that are easily opened from the outside. Transit police issued 21,000 citations through March.

The MTA also has pitched new plans to fight evasion, such as education campaigns. Expect to soon see more signs in buses and subway stations warning would-be fare evaders of the $100 fine for not paying.

Board chairman Lawrence Schwartz suggested the MTA post surveillance footage of fare beaters on social media “to embarrass those people and perhaps deter them from doing it again,” according to the MTA board minutes from a recent meeting.

But most of the proposed measures only make the problem worse, Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein said. The falling ridership numbers reported by the MTA is evidence that unreliable service and slow bus speeds factor into lower revenues.

“Arrests and public shaming do nothing to address the core problems with the transit system,” Pearlstein said. “It doesn’t address the real problems the MTA needs to fix. All it does is unfairly target low-income people.”

There’s also a racial element to enforcement. MTA board member David Jones noted in a meeting that 87 percent of people arrested for fare evasion were African American or Latino, no matter the local demographics. His sentiment was echoed in comments by board member Sarah Feinberg who said she wanted to develop a “meaningful plan to address fare evasion and racial disparity” in the future.

Advocates hope the MTA’s new tap-to-pay system One Metro New York, or OMNY, will solve some of the problem, Pearlstein said. Once fully implemented in 2021, the system allows riders to use a bank card or a digital wallet on a smartphone (like Apple Pay or Google Pay) instead of a physical MetroCard. Riders can pay per ride at all bus doors, eliminating the need to reload MetroCards before riding.

OMNY will “requires proof of payment throughout the journey,” Byford said, making inspection and enforcement easier.

Locally, riders feel not enough has been done to deter flagrant fare evasion. Most riders who diligently pay for the service feel its unfair, but the right solution isn’t immediately clear.

“I would think maybe cameras with a timestamp,” Ed Smith said. “But what good does that do because you’ll be seeing backs and hats, and how do you even know who these people are?”

The MTA could assign someone to watch every turnstile and bus door, he said, but the agency lacks the manpower.

“Why is this door just left open?” said Miriam Allen, pointing to the bus’s rear exit, which allows some to board without paying.

Methods like installing barriers and regular ticket inspection are common in European mass transit systems. Riders must pay before boarding — similar to the Select buses — and evasion is punished with a hefty fine.

Allen suggested having riders insert their fare card when exiting a bus to prove they’ve paid, similar to London’s Underground system.

Riders ponder the answer although there’s no perfect solution in sight.

“It’s a good question, a tricky question to answer,” Smith said. “If I had ideas, I’d be running for office. City council or something.”

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