Free fares would be difficult to sell in New York, considering the current financial and political distress the MTA is embroiled in.

In recent weeks, city straphangers may have noticed a familiar sound as they pass through the subway turnstile: the shrill blare of an alarm whenever someone opens the station’s emergency exit gate. Though the MTA disabled the alarms a few years ago, it turned them on again recently in a handful of stations at the request of the NYPD—an effort to deter riders from sneaking through the gates without paying, a New York City Transit official explained in a series of tweets.

The noisy warnings are part of a renewed effort by the transportation authority and police to crack down on fare evasion, which New York City Transit President Andy Byford described at a December board meeting as “an increasing problem” for the MTA: Turnstile jumpers had cost the cash-strapped transit agency an estimated $215 million in 2018, he said. The MTA’s other recent tactics include posting anti-fare evasion posters throughout the system, deploying more “Eagle Teams” to enforce payments on bus routes, and randomly setting up “revenue protection blockades” in subway stations, staffed by transit officials, to discourage fare beaters, Byford said.

This renewed attention on fare evasion has some advocates worried. Many of them deem it largely a crime of poverty that should be enforced with civil, not criminal, penalties—and turnstile arrests, they point out, tend to disproportionately impact people of color. “[It’s] sort of this classic political tactic where you blame marginalized people or poor people for problems, because they’re an easy target,” says Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project.

Along those lines, many advocates have long held that the most effective way to combat fare evasion is to address its affordability: lowering fares for low-income riders who otherwise might be forced to jump the turnstile because they can’t afford to pay. This was the sentiment behind the hard-fought campaign for Fair Fares, an initiative to provide half-priced MetroCards to New Yorkers living below the poverty level.

With an MTA fare hike imminent, potentially making transit less affordable for even more New Yorkers, some have wondered whether the Fair Fares concept could be taken even further: Could dramatically reduced-cost, or possibly even free public transit, ever be a reality in a city like New York, thereby reducing the need for fare collection and enforcement altogether?

The costs of fare beating

Last year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced it would stop prosecuting most fare evasion cases, and the NYPD adjusted its policy in favor of issuing summonses instead of arrests in most instances.

Recent NYPD transit statistics reflect these policy shifts, as fare evasion arrests are down significantly. However, a racial skew remains. During the second quarter of 2018, people of color accounted for almost 94 percent of fare evasion arrests for which race was known, a Community Service Society of New York report says.

Each arrest represents real costs: to the system, for performing the arrest and processing the arrested person, and to that person, in terms of lost work, missed school, childcare problems and, if convicted, potential long-term impacts to career and family life.

There are costs on the other side of the ledger as well. Lisa Daglian, director at the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC) to the MTA, agrees that fare evasion can’t be ignored—especially as the transit authority continues to grapple with serious budgetary issues.

“The MTA is in dire financial straits, and every dollar counts,” she says. Riders who skip the fare not only deprive the agency of the owed $2.75, but they disrupt its ability to accurately assess ridership numbers, and “as ridership numbers go down, there is less investment in the system.”

“It’s not harmless, benign,” she says, theorizing that people jump the turnstile for all kinds of reasons. “Some people beat the system because they like to, some people beat the system because they need to, some people beat the system because they’re really fed up with poor service and feeling like they’re not getting their money’s worth.”

It’s that second factor—because riders need to skip the fare out of economic necessity—that the Fair Fares initiative was intended to address. Pushed for by transit advocates and championed by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the campaign scored a victory last year when the city budget carved out $106 million to pay for half-priced MetroCards for low-income residents.

The de Blasio administration was slow to implement the program. When Fair Fares finally launched in early January, many were disappointed to learn that it would be rolled out in phases, with only 30,000 out of the estimated 800,000 people eligible able to enroll for the first four months.

“If the people that can’t afford or struggle to afford transit, if we lighten the fare burden for them, that should decrease fare evasion,” says Harold Stolper, an economist with the Community Service Society who’s authored several reports on turnstile enforcement and transit. “When Fair Fares is [fully] implemented, we’ll be able to see the impact that that has. We’re still waiting for that to happen.”

Even when Fair Fares is fully implemented, it will still only be eligible to residents living below the poverty level, and there are plenty of New Yorkers who earn more but still find transit costs unaffordable, experts say.

“Fair fares is a positive step, but it’s not a solution and it doesn’t get fully to the heart of the problem,” says Gangi. “The city should institute policies that enable poor people to take the subways and buses without any kind of hassle, without any kind of hesitation due to finances.”

Not being able to afford transit can limit people in other ways, like being able to work and earn money, or visiting doctors and taking care of their health.

“Economic mobility, upward mobility, requires physical mobility, and people depend on subways and buses for that. It is a necessity,” says Stolper, who adds that many consider affordable transit policy to be a “gateway anti-poverty policy.”

Going free?

If that’s the case, then, why aren’t more public transit systems free to use? A few are, and others have tried.

A number of cities in the U.S. and abroad have experimented with free public transit, to mixed results. Paris will soon offer free fares to kids under 11 and those under 20 with disabilities, according to reports, while the small European country Luxembourg plans to make transit free for everyone next year in an effort to combat congestion and take cars off the road.

Such an idea would be difficult to sell in New York, considering the current financial and political distress the MTA is embroiled in, but it’s not impossible to imagine a move towards free or cheaper fares someday in the future, says Rosalie Singerman Ray, a PhD candidate in urban planning at Columbia University who’s studied low and no-cost transit initiatives in other places.

“Never say never,” she says. “There’s no inherent reason to big cities that says it can’t work here.”

More than a decade ago, urban planners even pitched a proposal to eliminate New York City’s subway and bus fares altogether: known as the Kheel Plan, it was done at the behest of late environmentalist Theodore Kheel and aimed to combat traffic congestion in Manhattan.

The plan proposed making bus and subway fares free, and offsetting that lost revenue by imposing fees on cars: It would charge drivers $16 at all times to enter Manhattan’s central business district (trucks and commercial vehicles would be charged $32); taxis would be required to pay a surcharge tax, while the cost of curbside parking in Manhattan would be hiked.

The plan, first released in 2008, estimated these fees—combined with the money saved from no longer needing to collect transit fares—would raise $4.2 billion a year and speed up vehicle speeds by 10 percent. But the Kheel Plan, like then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s own congestion pricing proposal at the time, never went anywhere. And today, one of its authors no longer thinks free fares is the best public policy.

“I educated myself,” says transportation economist Charles Komanoff, who helped craft the original Kheel plan as well as another 2009 study he dubbed the Kheel-Komanoff Plan, which was similar, but would have kept subway fares in place during peak travel hours. “I got schooled in the profoundly complex and kind of vulnerable edifice of taxes, fees and other subsidies that are required to pay the operating and capital costs of the New York City transit system.”

Part of what helps pay for those operating and capital costs comes from the five boroughs, but also from the seven suburban counties in the MTA region— “non-New York City residents, most of whom have little direct daily contact with the subways and buses,” Komanoff says.

Asking those suburban counties to continue to kick in revenue, or potentially contribute more, to a fare-free public transit system they don’t really use is “just politically a huge non-starter,” Komanoff says.

Other solutions

Some of the other goals of free transit, like getting cars off the road, could today be achieved through different measures, like congestion pricing.

“It’s far more important to charge driving into and within the heart of Manhattan, congestion pricing, than it is to lower the price of buses and subways for everyone,” Komanoff says. “It’s far more effective public policy, especially since a good number of people who take the trains and buses everyday can afford to do that. If we were to eliminate the fare of those who can afford it, what’s the point in that?”

And Komanoff says that if he were running the subways, his first focus would be on improving service, as he feels fare evasion is at least in part “a syndrome of frustration” with the system.

“When buses don’t really go faster than walking, at least a lot of the time, and when trains are just chronically delayed with little or no warning, it’s not surprising that people will take the opportunity if they see it to ride without paying,” he says.

New technology could improve the rider experience. The MTA says it plans to soon offer all-door boarding on buses, a move Komanoff says would help eliminate the long bus lines caused by fare collection, and speed up travel times—one of the primary problems fare-free buses was looking to solve.

Komanoff stresses, though, the importance of making transit cheaper for those who can’t afford it, saying the de Blasio administration dropped the ball in its rollout of Fair Fares.

“Let’s revisit the fare evasion rates after Fair Fares has really gotten distributed in the way that Corey Johnson and Riders Alliance and Community Service Society intended,” he says.

Other cities have been testing out initiatives similar to Fare Fairs, or even more robust versions, says Ray, the urban planning doctoral candidate and a contributor to the book “Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators.” Portland’s TriMet system, for instance, recently changed its fare evasion policy to offer offenders a 90-day window to resolve their citation outside the court system, and those caught skipping the fare are also given a chance to enroll in a reduced-fare program if they’re eligible.

The MTA already offers reduced fares for seniors and riders with disabilities, while most young children can ride for free. In addition to Fair Fares, lawmakers have proposed offering discounted MetroCards to veterans as well as CUNY students.

PCAC and other transit advocacy groups have long pushed for the MTA to make some of its fares more affordable. The group proposed the concept of the Freedom Ticket, which would reduce the fare for riders within the city to travel on Metro-North and LIRR lines; the MTA adopted a similar initiative based on that model this past spring.

Untapped potential

Ray says that the way some cities and towns have achieved fare-free transit systems is by rolling out programs like Fair Fares on a piecemeal basis: first offering discounts or free rides to one demographic, like seniors and children, and expanding from there.

“The more or more of the population that’s already riding without fare, the easier it is [to go fare-free],” she says, adding that the piecemeal approach also allows for more flexibility in cobbling together revenue streams to cover the cost of the lost fares, as each individual group can be funded “with different pots of money.”

New York’s public transit would face a number of hurdles in going fare-free, Ray says, including its large size: systems with fewer riders can justify free rides on the basis that collecting fares can sometimes costs as much, or more, than what it earns in fare revenue. But the MTA earns a substantial amount of its operating revenue from the farebox—about $6.2 billion annually, according to a Daily News analysis last year.

“That’s big gap for either the state or the city or some kind of combination to cover,” Ray says.

Still, she does not think it’s impossible for free fares to succeed in New York—someday. She sees “a lot of untapped” revenue sources that could potentially help cover the costs of free or discounted fares, primarily in the form of taxing the institutions that benefit most from public transit, such as private universities, businesses or real estate interests.

London’s Crossrail, for instance, was funded in part by taxing London businesses in areas benefited by the network, she says, while other places have instituted similar fees on property owners based on how close their buildings are to public transit stations.

“Thinking about it in terms of who benefits from transit, rather than who uses transit,” Ray says.

Still, she predicts any move towards free transit in New York would have to happen on a “a much more incremental process,” and come at a time when the MTA is in better place, both financially and politically.

Gangi, of the Police Reform Organizing Project and a former candidate for mayor, sees a space for free public transit in the bigger debate about the role government should play in citizens’ lives—a debate that’s been reignited recently by progressive lawmakers like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as they champion causes like free higher education and Medicaid for All.

“That was part of the spirit of the 60s—was to have this grand vision of a better and more just place, and that being an essential part of public discourse faded over the years” but is coming back, he says. “Free fares could fit into the framework of that discussion.”