The Case for Leaving Fare Beaters Alone and Making Public Transit Free

Chances are everything you think you know about fare evasion is wrong.
Fare beating maybe should not be illegal.
Collage by Emily Bernstein

If you live in a city, you've probably seen a fare beater. They might have even pissed you off.

In this scenario, you, a Dutiful Citizen, have paid your fair share to use public transit. But the person who jumps or dodges the turnstiles at your local subway station hasn't. Perhaps your initially modest resentment simmers until the next time you see one, and then it cooks into righteous anger. They’re getting away with what might be a literal crime. Where are the police to prosecute these freeloaders?


Soon you rejoice, for the cavalry has arrived. In San Francisco Bay's BART system, it comes with "a show of force" and higher fare gates. On the other coast, it's 500 officers patrolling for scofflaws. Live anywhere in between, and if you haven't already, you may see the same sorts of tactics when fare evasion becomes a social crisis in your neck of the woods. It's an ostensible public scourge that, if intermittent panic is to be believed, can only be handled with the brunt force of the law.

But if you believe those things, a bevy of experts and advocates on transit in America would argue, almost everything you think you know about fare evasion is wrong.

Fare beaters aren't who you think

Fare evasion becomes a news story whenever transit agencies decide to make it one.

They lob numbers to media organizations about how much money the system—our system—is losing. People evading fares on BART, according to BART, costs $15 to $25 million annually. Riders evading fares on New York's MTA system, according to the MTA, costs hundreds of millions of dollars. The subtle threat in these reports is that if the evasion isn't stopped, the transit system will go bankrupt and collapse—but before it does, you'll have to pay more. In that context, cracking down on evasion makes some logical sense, though perhaps only if you believe those who evade fares simply choose not to pay out of selfishness, or worse.


That is not the reality.

“A large number [of fare evaders] are those who intend to pay, but they're stymied by the poor design," said Steven Higashide, director of research for TransitCenter, a public transit advocacy organization. The card-scanner doesn't work, or the payment system's broken, or there's a back-up at the gate and you're going to miss your train unless you slip through the emergency exit. Money isn't necessarily the consideration as much as time and ease, both of which are design flaws.

For instance, in New York City’s borough of Staten Island, only three official locations have Metrocard vending machines to serve the roughly half-million people who live there. That design has, perhaps not so coincidentally, been followed by an evasion "epidemic"—and at least 5,000 civil summonses being handed out to alleged fare beaters between November 2018 and April 2019 on a handful of bus routes in that borough and the Bronx, among other locations. Another solution might have been, you know, to install a few more vending machines. (Back in 2016, the MTA responded to a complaint by a city council-member about the lack of machines in the area by citing the cost to add more, and also the plan to shift from papexr cards to a tap-to-pay system. That technology just started rolling out this spring.)

"Talking more about fare evasion is one way to create a villain that is not the transit agency itself," Higashide said.


Then there are the evaders who have the money to pay, but the cost is high enough that evading is worth the gamble. For instance, take Noah—who requested his last name be withheld to discuss legally dubious transit behavior. While living in Washington, D.C. during the mid-2000s, when he was in his mid-20s working for a non-profit, Noah evaded fares on the Metro daily. "My round-trip commute cost $7 a day," he said. "Even when I began receiving transportation benefits, I still had to pay about $50 out-of-pocket a month to cover the balance. The cost/benefit of fare evasion was an easy choice."

But some evaders simply don't have the money. According to data compiled from public defenders by the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) in 2017—a low-income advocacy group that's suing to compel the NYPD to release more robust fare evasion data—more than one in four low-income New Yorkers said they could not afford to pay for public transit. The group also described a large number of evasion arrests taking place in high-poverty neighborhoods (the lack of official data makes it tricky to paint a complete picture). "It's a crime of poverty, not a public safety problem," said Harold Stolper, senior economist at CSS, "and so the solutions should be affordability, not enforcement."

Enforcement has consequences

Racial profiling in America is as old as the country itself, so it's not surprising that similar dynamics might play out when fares are policed.

According to the same report by CSS, Black and Hispanic people made up 84 percent of evasion arrests in Brooklyn, compared to just 12 percent for white folks. In D.C., 91 percent of citations or summons related to fare evasion between 2016 and 2018 were issued to Black people, according to police data obtained by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. In a two-week period in the Bay Area last July, African-Americans received 41 percent of the tickets for evasion on BART, despite historically making up only 12 percent of the ridership.


In other words, more fare evasion policing means more people of color getting fines and being submerged in the criminal justice system.

Another population that must reckon with the impacts of evasion crackdowns are those with disabilities. "The New York City subway is a challenge for everyone, but mine begins with purchasing a ticket," Sinéad Burke, a teacher who is about three-and-a-half-feet tall, recently told New York magazine. In San Francisco, the latest BART fare gate comes with a second level of doors that, ostensibly, thwart turnstile-hoppers. But they also have reportedly had the effect of clamping down on wheelchair users. "It startled me, so I pulled forward," [Tara] Ayres told the San Francisco Examiner. "It shook me, it scared me. If it had slammed forward when I was another six inches further back, I could've been badly hurt."

These are built-in side-effects of policing and security. While the BART police "blitz" was said to lead to a 10 percent increase in ticket sales, one question to ask is if that covers the cost of the additional police presence, financial and otherwise. After all, "there is no evidence" lighter penalties or enforcement leads to fewer payments or revenue loss for transit agencies, according to TransitCenter, but there is definitely a cost to added security.

Punishment for fare evasion can be harsh

In fact, it's regularly harsher than punishment for similar automobile violations. Park illegally, and you may get a ticket that’s around $25-$50. Miss a toll, and often there's a chance to pay by mail afterwards without further penalties. But public transit fare evasion can come with a $100 or more fine and, in some cases—like when people lack identification—may be upgraded to a misdemeanor.

Some transit agencies have tweaked how they punish evasion to make it more equitable. Last year, D.C. decriminalized fare evasion—rather being entered into the system, alleged evaders are given a $50 civil fine, which are never really enforced anyway. Portland, Oregon's TriMet system altered its rules so anyone caught evading can resolve their fine within 90 days, perhaps by signing up for low-income fare assistance. Meanwhile, Tiffany Cabán, who may be the new district attorney for Queens (her race was stuck in a recount), made a campaign promise that her office—one of the largest in America—would not prosecute fare evasion.


But are these tweaks enough? Probably not, critics say. The only real way to end the scourge of fare evaders is the simplest method, many advocates argue: Just get rid of the fare.

Cities could reward the act of taking public transit by making it free

What should public transit be? Is it a public benefit like a park or a library, designed for everyone's use because we believe it's in our collective benefit to live amongst an educated population that has regular access to outdoor space? Or is it like a public pool, where initial funding builds and fills it, but modest fees pay for upkeep and perhaps other essentials like lifeguards? Or is it more like a carnival ride, where thrill-seekers pay to get a single use, with the price entirely dependent on the ride?

For decades, America has oscillated between the last two, designing transit so that, after an initial massive investment, part of its annual operating cost is recouped by user fees. The terminology for this is "farebox recovery ratio." According to New York’s MTA 2018 adopted budget, the agency—which includes bus and train service in the greater metro area—had such a ratio of about 36 percent in 2017, meaning that well over half of its money came from sources other than fares. San Francisco's BART has often led the country with a recovery ratio around 70 percent.

What these numbers really show is how much funding for transit comes from places other than fares, usually taxes. This isn't unusual, as virtually every form of transportation infrastructure is funded at least in part by public money. But culturally, we tend to focus on transit riders paying their fare share while mostly ignoring car drivers. (Did you pay a toll to use your street today?) "There's an overemphasis on transit having to pay its own way when that's not at all how we treat other transportation," Higashide said.


There's also the argument, long-percolating, that in a time of climate crisis, cities should reward the act of taking public transit. Its use reduces the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels—according to the Federal Transit Administration, "subways and metros produce on average 76 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile" than a mile traveled in a "single-occupancy vehicle." If you want to get anthropological about it, having people from different walks of life smashed together in a single transport pod may also nurture the benefits that come with a so-called melting pot society.

So, why do we discourage ridership by having fares? Why, when UN experts say we have less than 12 years to turn around climate change, does it still make more economic sense for two people to drive across the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco ($7) than it does for the same two people to take round-trip BART rides ($13)?

The good news is that public transit isn't priced by the marketplace, but by human beings who want your vote.

"In practice, transit is priced by politics," said Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at Baroch College. "And the fare is enforced by politicians, and for political ends."

While the costs of operation are real, the price to the riders is, quite frankly, made up. Fares are decided on by transit boards, each city's composed differently; BART has a nine-person board of directors elected by voters, while the MTA has a 17(-ish) member board appointed largely by the governor, in some cases in consultation with other elected officials. These board members ultimately vote on budgets, including fare hikes. (New York's MTA approved its latest fare hike in February.) And budgets often have to be reconciled with actions taken by state or local legislators, who help determine how much non-fare money transit agencies have at their disposal.

This all means that the fare recovery ratio can be lowered if a larger chunk is funded through taxes on real estate (which profits from the proximity to transit hubs), corporations (which use public transit to bring workers and clients to the office), professional sports teams (which use public transit to bring fans into their stadiums), and other profiteers of gentrification (which has pushed lower-income people further from city centers, forcing them to rely on public transit more). In the eyes of transit fare skeptics, there is no magic fare recovery ratio, no ideal cost that a rider should pay to use transit. All that's really needed is political will to make free transit a reality.

Best of all, the thinking goes, the closer we drop that ratio down to zero, the less you, our Ideal Citizen, have to be menaced by turnstile-hoppers. If only because there won't be a need for turnstiles to hop over anymore.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Rick Paulas on Twitter.