Last month, the MTA announced $215 million in losses to fare evasion on subways and busses in 2018, in a transit system that can’t afford to lose a nickel. Subway riders are increasingly sneaking in through emergency gates, the agency says, a problem which has been attributed partly to a move by the Manhattan D.A.s office to decline to prosecute many arrests for fare evasion.
But with so much attention on the costs of fare-beating, we should also consider the many costs of fare control.
In the early 1990’s, the MTA recorded subway fare evasion rates of about six percent. The MetroCard was introduced in the early 1990’s to finally put an end to decades of struggle against slugs. Turnstiles introduced at the same time were designed to make it much more difficult to jump a turnstile or crawl under its barrier. At least according to the MTA’s numbers, the new system was wildly successful in those first years: As the MetroCard and new turnstiles were phased in, fare evasion rates took a steep drop.
But the MetroCard and new turnstiles didn’t come cheap. From 1991 to 2010, the MTA paid more than $1.5 billion in today’s dollars to Cubic Transportation Solutions, the company which engineered the fare control system. And the expenses keep coming. Last year, the MTA’s purchases from Cubic included subway booth keyboards at $19,000 each; a $79,000 credit card reader, and two MetroCard booth machines at more than $400,000 apiece.
The indirect and social costs of fare control, however, are even more significant.
When the MTA commissioned those turnstiles from Cubic decades ago, the agency asked for devices which would most hinder turnstile jumpers while still allowing paying riders through. Cubic responded with turnstile designs based on bodily measures of active-duty members of the U.S. military. Cubic was not asked to consider the everyday paraphernalia of New Yorkers, the headaches of urban parenting, or the needs of people who use a mobility apparatus. If riders think the turnstiles are barely useable, it is because they were designed to be usable, but just barely. And people who push strollers, rely on crutches, or haul groceries in and out of subways have been paying the costs of the MTA’s fare control approach for many years.
More than a decade ago, the MTA began to close token booths and get rid of what had once been 24-hour subway station staff under the rationale that MetroCard vending machines and “High Entry/Exit Turnstiles” (HEETs, the ones that look like garlic presses) guard subway entries just fine. We can’t know how many people got home safe over the years because station staff kept a watchful eye on passengers in otherwise-lonely subway stations. My educated guess, based on a study of subway workers I conducted in the mid-2000s (with fellow sociologist Harvey Molotch) is that there are many. As we learned, station staff routinely make subtle interventions to promote safety and calm, such as by using their ability to remotely control certain turnstiles to give a head start to those walking away from trouble. That kind of prevention can’t be directly measured, but vending machines in exchange for thoughtful people deeply familiar with a station environment and its rhythms have been a bad trade.
In the early 2000s, even while the MTA was busy telling passengers to say something if they saw something, the agency was also doing much to undermine the possibility of orderly, safe evacuations from a system that everyone feared might be a terror target. We’ve known for about 40 years that airborne toxins can be spurred by the movement of trains to spread fast, far and unpredictably through the subway system. But when the MTA closed token booths and eliminated station staff from many subway entrances, the service gates they controlled were left locked. Passengers fleeing the system would be confronted by HEETs, which can handle no more than 30 (calm) passengers per minute.
Back in 2005, members of the City Council saw the problem, and took the MTA to task over HEETs, noting that fire codes require revolving doors to collapse like a closed book to allow unobstructed emergency egress. MTA leadership was largely dismissive of their concerns, citing intercoms through which straphangers were supposed to ask that the service gate be unlocked as an adequate emergency provision. Never mind that, as advocates for the disabled noted, those intercoms often didn’t work, leaving wheelchair-bound passengers stranded. In correspondence with MTA director Katherine Lapp, the chairs of the Council’s Transportation and Public Safety committees commented that they could “think of no other location where a large crowd fleeing a potentially deadly hazard is forced to locate a call button that may or may not be in working order and then request permission to exit from a booth clerk who may or may not be able to respond.”
It turned out that, as pressure was mounting from the City Council, the MTA was working on the side to request retroactive fire code variances from the State for the HEETs already installed all over the city. The Division of Code Enforcement of the Department of State, which oversees such matters, is allowed to skip a public hearing before a board of review when the variance requests are “routine.” While there was nothing routine about a device which violates fire code standing between millions of subway riders and open air, the Division employed the bizarre logic that, if public hearings were held for each HEET entrance, the issues involved would become routine, and thus held no public hearings over HEETs at all.
Through this ugly sleight of hand, the MTA received variances for HEETs, provided the agency proceed with a plan to install passenger-controlled “panic bars” on the service gates. According to the MTA, the bulk of current fare evaders pass through these service gates, Still, even the widest of these gates can handle no more than 110 passengers per minute, and we all live under the risk of being the 111th passenger when every minute counts. It’s time to say something about this grievous subway safety threat we can all see.
The costs of criminal justice enforcement of fare control are also significant. While the Manhattan D.A. won’t prosecute fare evasion arrests these days, the arrests are still very real, as are the attendant searches of an arrestees’ pockets. New York policing apologists have long claimed that stopping turnstile jumpers leads to arrests of “real criminals” but the NYPD has neither accumulated, much less shared, sufficient data to support those claims to the satisfaction of social scientists. Most likely, policing fare evasion leads to the discovery of petty amounts of drugs, or of people who failed to pay a prior ticket for fare-evasion. * Meanwhile, absolutely everyone on probation or parole caught evading a fare will also be considered a transit recidivist, and may indeed stand to go to prison for a little wrong they commit while, most likely, needing a subway or bus ride to honor employment, civic, or familial commitments. Fare control enforcement saps police and other criminal justice resources, and saturates the lives of many with complications which far outweigh the gravity of the offense.
While anyone, rich or poor, can evade a fare, the best available data indicates that those who end up in the criminal justice system crosshairs are indeed poor, and disproportionately minority. Researchers with the Marshall Project recently found much higher rates of fare evasion arrests in police precincts serving predominantly black or Hispanic communities. The City Council passed a law in 2017 requiring the NYPD to regularly turn over data indicating the locations and demographics of fare evasions arrests. So far, the NYPD has refused to comply. According to a lawsuit brought over the issue by Councilperson Rory Lancman of Queens, the NYPD has claimed, somehow with a straight face, that such arrest data must remain secret because subway stations “at which there were few arrests or summonses could lead prospective terrorists to believe there is limited police presence at those stations.”
Other fare-enforcement strategies most certainly fall on the shoulders of minorities. A 2005 State law made it a misdemeanor to “sell swipes”, a practice which emerged after riders discovered that bending a used up MetroCard just so could get you an extra ride. Data I obtained from the state criminal history database showed that, from the law’s inception to the end of 2012, 94 percent of arrestees, and 97 percent of those convicted under the law, were Black or Hispanic.
We see a very similar pattern in the case of much more serious charges used against swipers: felony forgery. The Manhattan D.A.’s office welcomed these charges and defended one, Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the 2nd Degree, before the highest court in New York State. From the early 2000s through 2014, the NYPD Transit Bureau issued felony charges for making or possessing a forgery to accused swipers more than 11,000 times. An astonishing 92 percent of those defendants were Black or Hispanic.
What these numbers tell us is that one way or another, nonwhites bear the burden of policing the fare. Even while we cannot know exactly what percent of fare-beaters or swipers are white, Asian, or whatever, we must question how fare evasion or selling swipes became matters of such intense concern by police, and what communities end up under scrutiny under enforcement initiatives. Given how our criminal justice system operates, enforcing fares on subway lines is another way of enforcing inequality on color lines.
In 2017, the MTA committed another $675 million to a new contract with Cubic to develop a “contactless” fare system to replace the MetroCard. Yet the contactless fare system will undoubtedly have unanticipated consequences and vulnerabilities of its own and is unlikely to resolve the century-long quagmire agaisnt fare evasion. Instead, it is time to send the transit fare control apparatus off for recycling, replace it with nothing but open corridors, and ask our police to find new roles for themselves in the subway environment. As others have argued, make the subway free (and busses, too). Not only because it is right, but because fare control has produced so many wrongs.
Noah McClain is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Illinois Tech in Chicago. He has investigated issues related to subway policing, fare-control technology, and security for more than a decade.
* Correction: The original version of this op-ed reported that the Manhattan district attorney would prosecute people the NYPD designates as “transit recidivists.” That is not the DA’s policy, however.