(Written by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Edgar Sandoval)
One woman was late to work. Another was rushing to class. A man who just moved to New York had trouble swiping his MetroCard.
All of them broke the law: They sneaked into the subway without paying.
While there have always been riders who try to avoid paying, the practice has become so widespread in New York City that it is costing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority about $215 million in lost revenue this year, prompting subway officials to announce a crackdown.
Fare evasion has nearly doubled — from 1.8 per cent of riders in recent years to 3.2 per cent this year, contributing to the agency’s worsening finances, which could lead to fare increases or service cuts.
But it has not been clear exactly why fare evasion is up. New Yorkers, it turns out, have many reasons for not paying.
“I don’t feel like going all the way there to put money on my card,” Aicha Makanera, 18, of Brooklyn, said one recent morning as she walked in through an open emergency exit gate at the busy Times Square station, where The New York Times assigned a reporter to monitor fare beating at one series of turnstiles.
The nearest MetroCard vending machine was a block away.
“Sometimes it’s easier to use the door,” she said. “I don’t feel bad.”
During one hour that morning, someone entered through the emergency exit every minute, on average. Some were caught by police and received a summons with a $100 fine.
Jamar Hester’s MetroCard was not working, so he followed other commuters through the exit gate. He got caught.
“I saw somebody else go through the gates so I walked right through there, too,” said Hester, 26, who recently moved to New York from the suburbs of Washington.
Transit systems across the world deal with fare evasion. But there is a growing sense that New Yorkers are feeling more emboldened to skip paying because the trains have become so unreliable. The subway fell into crisis last year and continues to be plagued by delays. And yet the fare could rise again in March.
The aggressive enforcement of fare evasion has also drawn criticism nationally over concerns that arrests target black and Hispanic riders.
When the Washington City Council recently approved lighter penalties for fare evasion, over protests from the city’s transit agency, one councilman said: “I’m sad that Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.”
In New York, fare evasion was widespread in the early 1990s, when William J. Bratton, then the transit police chief, said it was “very, very pervasive, particularly in some of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city.” Police cracked down on it as part of their “broken windows” strategy, believing it would help curb more serious offenses.
The MTA, which oversees New York City’s subways and buses, released a report this month saying that about 208,000 people take the subway each day without paying. Using an emergency exit to avoid paying the fare has quadrupled since 2011, officials said.
The situation is even worse on buses: Nearly 350,000 people take the bus each day without paying, or about 16 per cent of bus riders.
“Just like paying for goods in a store, paying the fare is not just a suggestion,” said Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the MTA. “Fare evasion is unfair to the vast majority of customers who do pay, and denies the MTA critical funds needed to improve the system.”
The agency’s eight-page report was quickly criticized by prosecutors and transit advocates for blaming poor New Yorkers for the agency’s mounting problems and for not providing more details about how the agency calculated the figures.
But the MTA’s acting chairman, Fernando Ferrer, said at a recent board meeting that riders could see the problem firsthand.
“You cannot deny the evidence of your own eyes,” he said after the meeting. “You see this all the time. This is a growing problem. It’s worrisome and it’s having a financial impact.”
A recent video on the news site Gothamist showed MTA footage of a parade of riders brazenly jumping and crawling under turnstiles with varying degrees of finesse.
The head of the subways, Andy Byford, suggested surveying New Yorkers to find out why they ride without paying.
“Is it some sort of protest vote?” he wondered. “Is it because you can’t afford it? Is it because you fundamentally disagree that you should pay for transit in the first place? Is it more of an opportunist thing — you didn’t set out that day to evade the fare, but because the gate happened to be open, you followed a bunch of people through?”
The rate of fare evasion on transit systems of similar size was typically between 1 per cent and 7 per cent, subway officials said, putting New York City’s current rate of 3.2 per cent near the middle.
Last year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office decided to stop prosecuting most people arrested in fare evasion incidents, a policy change that transit officials say has contributed to the increase.
Another factor: Subway emergency exit gates used to have loud sirens, but they were silenced in 2014. This seems to have led more people to leave via the exit gates, providing more chances for fare beaters to sneak in.
There are also fewer station agents — about 2,500 down from 3,500 in 1995 — now that vending machines handle most MetroCard purchases.
Getting caught jumping the turnstile can still have serious consequences for poor New Yorkers. Even if they are not arrested, they can receive a civil summons that carries a $100 fine. Or if someone lacks valid identification or has a history of similar arrests, they can be booked on a “theft of services” charge, a misdemeanour carrying up to a year in jail.
At the Times Square station the other day, a fashion student was left in tears after a police officer gave her a summons on her way to class.
“I’ve never done this before,” she said, declining to give her name. “I said I would go back and put in the money. He said, ‘No, what’s done is done.’”
A commuter who gave her name only as Janet was also unhappy after receiving a summons. She said she was late for work and it seemed easier to use the emergency exit.
“I wish they were as vigilant when it came to fixing all the issues they have, like delays,” she said. “They ruined my mood, but I did it. I won’t do it again.”
During the evening rush hour, a stream of riders entered through the emergency exit. At least 61 people were spotted in an hour. A 42-year-old Brooklyn woman scolded her daughters, aged 12 and 13, for sliding under the turnstile. “Don’t do that!” she said in Spanish.
“They were just acting silly,” said the woman, who also declined to give her name. “I’m trying to lead by example. They usually don’t do that.”
That morning, so many people had entered through the emergency exit that one woman trying to leave was blocked by three entering commuters in a row. Eventually, she raised her hands in frustration and left through a turnstile.
Keon Malon, 22, of Brooklyn, said he received a summons for opening the emergency exit for a woman with a suitcase, even though he paid his fare. He plans to appeal the fine.
“They have nothing better else to do,” he said. “Next time I’m not opening the door to no one. It’s not worth it.”
At the customer service booth, a woman complained that she had purchased a $10 MetroCard but it showed only a $3.75 balance. An MTA employee told her she had to mail in the card for a refund and instructed her to enter through the exit gate.
“See? This is why people do it,” she said, fuming. “But I’m only going here because she told me I could. It’s a mess.”