New York Transit Agency Intentionally Slowing Buses to Punish Riders for Fare Evaders

The slow buses will continue until fare compliance improves.

May 23 2022, 1:00pm
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

Every New York City bus has at least two doors, one at the front and one in the rear. Longer articulated buses also have a center door, which functions like a second rear door. Passengers board at the front, where they pay the fare. They exit (usually) through the rear door. This is how the bus has worked for decades. And it made some sense in the days of physical fare payment systems like coins, tokens, or by dipping their MetroCard in the machine. 

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But, today, it’s a flawed system that slows down buses. If more than one person is boarding the bus, a line must form to pay the fare. The rear door goes unused while people wait at the front to get on the bus. It is also a system that encourages people to not pay the fare since it is faster and easier for some people to go through the rear door. And the only fare enforcement mechanism is the bus driver, who isn’t in a position to act as a fare enforcer.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this, enabled by modern ways to pay fares like tap-to-pay systems: Install payment readers at all doors or somewhere else on the bus, like they do in many other countries. Should fare evasion be a concern to the powers that be, employ fare checkers to spot-check riders. If fare evasion is as big of a problem as the transit agency thinks it is, the fare-checkers will at the very least pay for themselves. It’s the way fare payment works on transit systems around the world. 

But New York City’s transit system, run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is doing a peculiar thing. It took the time and money to do the hardest and most expensive part of this improved system, mainly installing payment readers at all doors of every bus in the system. But it is refusing to turn on the ones at the rear doors. “FRONT DOOR ONLY,” these readers say. 

The MTA is doing this because it’s worried about fare evasion. The MTA was supposed to test 10 local routes for all-door boarding but has since backpedaled. The MTA is doing this even though all-door boarding has been proven to reduce fare evasion, and also makes bus trips faster and thus better. 

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Last week, eight local politicians sent a letter to MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber expressing “concern” that the MTA is still not allowing all-door boarding. “All-door boarding has been shown to be an effective tool to reduce dwell time at bus stops, and must be a strategy we employ to speed up our buses, improve on-time performance, and improve ridership across the board.” 

The letter acknowledges—and the MTA does not dispute—that the main reason for this is because of high rates of fare evasion. “We appreciate that the Council Members and Borough President understand our concern with fare evasion on a system where currently one out of three bus riders evades the fare,” MTA spokesperson Michael Cortez said in a statement. “We look forward to working with them on impactful measures that will increase bus speeds including new bus lanes, camera enforcement and route redesign.” 

Fare evasion has been an MTA bugaboo on and off for several decades, popping up when the city gets swept up in the latest crime wave or quality-of-life fever or when the MTA needs to deflect attention from its own systemic mismanagement. This is unfortunate because, in this case, the thing the MTA isn’t doing because of fare evasion is actually a proven solution to fare evasion. All-door boarding exists in New York City already, albeit only on the 20 Select Bus Service routes, which have existed with all-door boarding for 15 years. According to the MTA’s own metrics, those Select Bus Service routes have lower fare evasion rates than all other buses, and those rates actually fell over time—to just 2.2 percent in 2018—compared to the rapidly rising fare evasion rates on local buses. It is worth noting that the SBS operates essentially on the honor system, with fare inspectors occasionally checking for proof of payment at certain stops. The MTA’s own 2018 study on fare evasion concluded the supposed spike in fare evasion had nothing to do with rear door boarding. “The majority of the [fare evasion] increase is due to more front door evasion,” it found.

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But one doesn’t have to dig into obscure years-old reports buried on the MTA’s website to know this. In a list of “On Background” points sent to Motherboard—a provision Motherboard never agreed to and will therefore be quoting as it is central to the issue this article is highlighting—Cortez acknowledged turning on the rear-door payment readers would help reduce fare evasion. “The fare payment area on buses is currently adjacent only to the front door. Individuals who may enter the rear door when it is opened to allow customers to off-board do not have ready access to a fare payment, which observations have shown makes fare payment less likely.” This is common sense: More people will pay the fare if they can actually, physically pay the fare.

The MTA says it will roll out all-door boarding on all buses when the full OMNY rollout, the agency’s new fare payment system, is completed and accommodate all types of fares and payment options. But there’s no reason to wait. Just look at the subway, where OMNY readers were installed at every turnstile. Anyone who doesn’t want to or can’t use OMNY can still use a MetroCard like they have for decades. Likewise, anyone who still relies on MetroCards can still board at the front of the bus. Or look at the commuter railroads which the MTA also runs. They have been operating on a “proof of payment” system with all-door boarding where ticket checking is sporadic at best. 

In fact, the commuter railroads are illustrative of how fare evasion is little more than a societal construct. It is close to impossible to evade the fare on the commuter rail lines in any criminal sense. If the ticket checker comes through and you haven’t bought a ticket, you can simply buy a ticket from them, or pull out your phone and buy a ticket using the mobile app, which the ticket checker will then scan. No such option exists for buses. Of course, New York City’s buses are primarily ridden by people of lower income, people of color, immigrants, and the elderly, while commuter railroads mostly serve middle-to-upper-middle class suburbs.

What the MTA’s nonsensical and self-contradictory anti-all-door-boarding policy amounts to is punishing all bus riders with slower buses for the behavior of a minority. The MTA fully admits it could turn the rear door payment readers on if it wanted, but it is mad at some bus riders, so it won’t.

"We can't say concretely how enabling all-door boarding would affect the MTA's interpretations of fare evasion, but we do know that it would make service faster and easier for people who rely on the bus, in addition to improving operator safety,” said Ashley Pryce, Advocacy and Organizing Manager with the New York-based nonprofit TransitCenter. “With OMNY readers now installed on all buses, MTA has the infrastructure in place to make trips more seamless. It's a waste of money not to use it when the benefit for riders would be so great." 

Will the MTA actually enable all-door boarding when the OMNY rollout is done, likely in 2024? If all-door boarding would supposedly lead to more fare evasion now, why wouldn’t it in two years? In late April, the MTA announced the creation of a Blue Ribbon Panel to study the issue of fare evasion. The MTA’s announcement says the panel will “develop recommendations to reduce fare evasion.” Perhaps it will recommend doing something that has already worked, right here in New York: letting people pay at all the doors.

Tagged:

MTA, Moveable , NYCT, Better Buses

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