Beyond the Swipe: Fare Evasion in New York City

It’s a common sight to see in the subway stations of the Five Boroughs: someone jumping over turnstiles, another prying open the emergency exit door.

Fare evasion has been an issue that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has been trying to tackle, as it has been facing financial problems for a while now. Since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been decreased ridership on New York City’s buses and trains. This is because there is the perception that the train is unreliable and inconvenient. Whenever one rides the train, there are constant delays and shutdowns. If one is planning a 30-minute trip, they may need to account for delays. Additionally, they also need to check to make sure that the trains are running their appropriate lines and are not skipping stops. For example, the 4 train might be running the 2 or 3 train route, so they would need to look out for the appropriate train.

Mayor Eric Adams’ budget cuts have also affected the transit system greatly, with $600 million being slashed from the budget in 2023. There have been budget cuts affecting other city services, such as libraries and park services. City parks are now only cleaned once a week, and libraries have suspended Sunday service indefinitely. Education is also affected, with the city’s schools also losing almost $600 million due to these budget cuts. However, it seems that we residents are now paying the price.

One new plan that was recently announced is the Manhattan congestion tax. For the first time in New York City’s history, residents will be charged to enter Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD). Any car entering Manhattan below 60th Street must pay a price of $15. For trucks and buses, these fees can be anywhere from $24 to $36. These fees are supposed to be in effect from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.“They just want to tax everything they possibly can,” states one commuter. This congestion tax is also a ploy to incentivize people to ride the train or bus into Manhattan instead of driving—thus improving transit ridership.

But transit riders are also seeing a price hike. This September, the MTA announced the reinstatement of its 25-cent biannual price raise, with the fare going from $2.75 to $2.90. However, riders are not sure if the fare rise will lead to increased profits for the MTA. “It’s going to create even more fare evasion,” one rider states.

One looming concern for residents is the police presence in stations and trains. “I know all the stations on my line that have increased police presence,” one rider says. “It’s more rare to [not see guards] than it is to see them.” Even though the main purpose of the police is to serve and protect, their mere presence can make riders feel uncertain and uncomfortable. Additionally, there is the problem of marginalized riders facing the brunt of police interactions.

Taking a step back from fare evasion for just a moment, let’s look at the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) statistics for stopping and frisking. Stop-and-frisk is the practice of questioning, detaining, and/or searching civilians and suspects for contraband. For anyone who lived in NYC during the Bloomberg years, this may bring back clear memories, as the majority of the city’s stop-and-frisks were done during his administration; around 97%. However, during Adams’ first year in 2022, New York saw a little over 15,000 stop-and-frisks, the most since the Bloomberg administration. Out of these stops, 59% were Black and 30% were Latine.

The increase of police on public transportation brings back this legitimate fear that stop-and-frisk is on the rise. The fear is that this issue of fare evasion might be used as an excuse to practice this controversial policy. “When it comes to those who are most targeted by the police, it’s POC [people of color],” a rider states. They’re not wrong either— if we look at the stop-and-frisk trends, it’s not unreasonable to think that Black and Brown riders would be stopped more often than White riders.

There are also additional concerns that these fare hikes can affect low-income riders. “$3 may not seem like a lot, but that can be one-fifth of someone’s hourly wage,” a commuter says. Likewise, these $3 can add up if one has to make multiple trips a day. Not to mention, the rising cost of living in New York City. Rents are steadily increasing year by year, and necessities like food are also becoming increasingly expensive. On average, one needs to make almost $2,000 monthly to live comfortably in the city—this excludes rent. This also doesn’t account for any emergencies that may pop up, such as health problems or a natural disaster.

So, New Yorkers often help each other with evading or paying fares. People often share Metrocards, physically help each other step over turnstiles, and open the emergency exits for each other. It’s a way to show each other that we are looking out for one another. New Yorkers understand that others may be going through tough times and cannot pay for the fare. But, that may not always be the case.

Fare evasion is also seen as a sign of resistance. It’s a symbolic way to show others that you don’t care about the police and what they may do to you. “People don’t like police officers. I know that if I’m in a pissy mood, I’ll jump because I don’t care,” a rider states. The NYPD is known for having extreme reactions to fare evasions, often chasing turnstile jumpers down platforms and onto trains. Others fare evade due to the constant delays and shutdowns that the trains and buses have. So, because there is inadequate service, some people do not think that public transportation is worth paying for. But for others, fare evasion reflects their belief that it shouldn’t be a thing. The train should be free.

To some New Yorkers, the train should be free because we pay taxes for it. Some commuters expressed concern about where their tax dollars are going if the MTA is constantly facing a fiscal crisis. Others have voiced their worries about the budget cuts plaguing the MTA and other city institutions. “Why do we keep paying taxes if they are just going to cut it from things like public transportation and libraries?” a rider questions. Likewise, many in the city are worried about Mayor Adams’ pending investigation into his campaign money being mishandled. Some think that he may not be the best person to make the city’s budget.

The issue of fare evasion requires a holistic approach, as there are many factors tying into what motivates people to do it. Fare evasion is also tied to other issues in the city, such as budget cuts and unfair policing policies. One thing is for sure, though— the culture of fare evasion shows how resilient, resourceful, and community-based New Yorkers are.


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