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Season 2

November 2023 - Episode 5

Beyond Turnstiles: Seeking Justice in Transit, Not Just Fares

A local bus or train ride usually costs between one and three dollars. But many Americans living in public transportation-dense cities choose to evade paying for transit tickets when possible. They get on the bus through the back door and avoid the driver. And in bigger cities, it’s common practice to hop the turnstile on the subway.

Fare evasion can cost transit agencies across the country tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars. It affects their ability to provide consistent bus and train service, which in turn affects riders on their way to work, school, home, or wherever they need to go.

On the other hand, enforcement of fare evasion has historically been racially targeted. When police stop people for hopping the turnstile, there is a heightened opportunity for violence against riders of color. This method of enforcement also ends up discriminating against people with lower incomes. If cities are going to enforce transit fares, it must be done in an equitable way.

We spoke to Ben Brachfeld, a transit reporter for amNewYork; Haleema Bharoocha, Policy Advocate at the Anti Police-Terror Project and author of the article, Op-Ed: Why Is Fare Evasion Punished More Severely than Speeding?; and Dr. Sogand Karbalaieali, a transportation engineer and author of the article Opinion: Fights Over Fare Evasion Are Missing the Point.

Charles Brown:
Every day, hundreds of people in New York City hopped the turnstile to get on the subway for free. Police often patrol stations and stop turnstile jumpers. The voice you’re about to hear is one such person who evades the train fare.

Woman:
I take the train daily. I go to work, go out to bars and stuff, just anywhere and everywhere. I do not always pay the fare. I know one time I tried to buy a ticket and they didn’t take cash, They also didn’t take cards, so I’m like, how am I supposed to get through? It’s like, you’re setting me up. You’re setting me up right now. Then the police were right there too. I’m like, okay, I’ve been stopped maybe like twice, maybe more than that, I’m not sure. I feel like they shouldn’t even stop people from hopping. They should be stopping people from doing more. There’s so many times someone’s wilding out on the train or wilding out on the platforms and I don’t see them stopping them, but they always stopping someone from hopping. I don’t get it.

Charles Brown:
A local bus or train ride usually costs between $1 and $3, but many Americans living in public transportation dense cities choose to evade paying for transit tickets when possible. They get on the bus through the back door and avoid the driver. In bigger cities, it’s common practice to hop the turnstile on the subway.

Fare evasion can cost transit agencies across the country tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars. It affects their ability to provide consistent bus and train service, which in turn affects riders on their way to work, school, home, or wherever they need to go.

I just want to make it clear. I do not support fare evasion, but I understand that it is a tricky problem to address. There’s not a lot of data about who avoids paying for public transit or why, and the conversation around fare evasion has become quite a political issue. Some people feel safer with police in train stations checking that everyone pays for a ticket.

On the other hand, enforcement of fare evasion has historically been racially targeted. When police stop people for hopping the turnstile, there’s a heightened opportunity for violence against riders of color. This method of enforcement also ends up discriminating against people with lower incomes. If cities are going to enforce transit fares, it must be done in an equitable way. My name is Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility.

New York City has the biggest public transit system in the country, and for a variety of reasons, it also has the biggest problem with fare evasion. I spoke with Ben Brachfeld, a reporter for AM New York, who explained the challenges facing the MTA, which is New York’s transit authority.

Ben Brachfeld:
My name is Ben Brachfeld. I live in Brooklyn and I am the transportation reporter at AM New York.

Fare evasion, it’s not a fake problem so to speak. It cost the MTA a lot of money every year. This past year, they said it costs them $700 million. The MTA says that about 13.5% of subway riders and 37% of bus riders don’t pay the fare on average, and they say that this impacts the way they can provide service.

What the MTA often tends to do is they connect fare evasion to more violent crime, more serious crimes. Last year, there was a month where I think it was October of last year, where just a shocking number of people got murdered in the subway system, like more than in any month than in living memory. What they did was they drastically increased the number of police officers in the system to establish something that they called omnipresence. This kind of thing has happened a lot over recent history. Headline grabbing crimes increase the number of cops in the system, so they’ve upped their presence in the system quite a bit over the past year.

Part of that is they’ve very aggressively upped their enforcement against fare evasion, also known as turnstile jumping. Basically they have cops stationed outside the turnstiles. They’ve also hired unarmed guards to deter people from jumping the fare, although they can’t make arrests. For a very long time, it’s been noted by all sorts of people that this is extremely racially targeted, which it is. Historically, the percentage of people arrested for fare evasion in New York who are black or Latino, almost always exceeds 90%, which is well in excess of their share of the population in New York. The share of white people being arrested for fare evasion is well below their share of the population, although there isn’t really evidence that black and Latino people are doing it more. That’s never been proven and I doubt that it could be.

When they started this latest crackdown, the MTA said that they were going to try to correct that. For a long time, the fare evasion enforcement was concentrated in some of the subway stations that are in the blackest neighborhoods of the city, East New York, Jamaica, Brownsville. They have changed that a little bit. They’ve started to focus enforcement more in the most populated, the busiest stations, especially in Manhattan. But the numbers, the racial demographics of who they’re enforcing against are still pretty similar.

Charles Brown:
The most recent available numbers from the second quarter of 2023 show that the NYPD issued 33,000 summons for fare evasion. 67% of them were given to black or Latino people. 19% went to white riders. Now they only arrested around 1,300 people. 88% of them were black or Latino, and only 6% were white. Obviously there’s a big difference in those numbers. Ben explains why some fare evaders receive summons and some are arrested.

Ben Brachfeld:
The cops used to arrest a lot more people for fare evasion and drag people to court and read them criminal charges. That doesn’t happen as much anymore because the DAs said that they were going to mostly stop prosecuting fare evasion cases. Most people who get stopped for it get a summons, which basically just means you got to go to court and at the end of the day, you’re probably going to pay a fine. The fare is $2.90, but the fine is $100. But they’ll stop people and what the cops will usually do is they’ll check if this person that they just stopped has open warrants against them, and if they do, they’ll arrest them and they’ll also arrest them if they find a gun or a knife or something like that on them.

I’m a reporter. I get a lot of emails from PR people who want me to write about what they want me to write about. Anytime they stop someone for fare evasion and they find a gun on them, they immediately tell all the reporters, and they basically say, this proves that our approach to fare evasion is working, but it’s really like a needle in a haystack. The vast, vast majority of people that they stop do not have a gun, do not show any apparent danger to the public. For the most part, they don’t have the money to pay the fare or for whatever reason.

There’s also people who might see the emergency exit gate being opened and they’ll just go through. There’s people who their train is showing up and their MetroCard’s not working, so they’ll just jump the fare. I’ve done that a couple of times. Don’t arrest me, please. There’s different reasons that people evade the fare. At the end of the day, I don’t think this has ever been quantified, and I’m not sure it can be quantified, but it seems safe to say that a big bulk of the people who are jumping the fare is they’re deciding whether to pay for the MTA or to pay for food or to pay for rent.

Charles Brown:
People who make a lower income by comparison sometimes have to make choices about which essential services and resources they can afford. It’s not hard to see why a single working mom might want to save her cash for diapers instead of buying a bus ticket. New York City is not the only place in the country where this is an issue. In California, a recent bill attempted to decriminalize fare evasion. Haleema Bharoocha from the Anti Police Terror Project wrote an op-ed advocating for this bill.

Haleema Bharoocha:
My name is Haleema Bharoocha. I currently live in Oakland, California, and I’m a policy advocate and social impact consultant. I wrote the op-ed on fare evasion as a time sensitive call to action. There is a bill on the governor’s desk called AB819, and it was a bill that proposed decriminalizing fare evasion and removing the misdemeanor charge and the jail time possibility from fare enforcement.

Unfortunately, the governor vetoed the bill citing that he was concerned that by supporting this bill, there might be an increase in criminal behavior on public transit. This in itself is a logical fallacy. The fact that people are connecting and associating fare enforcement with somehow being able to screen for criminality or for violence does not add up logically. All fare enforcement does is confirm if you have paid your fare or not. It is not checking to see if you have weapons. It is not checking to see if you’re prone to violence. I think what it does do is screen for if someone paid their fare or not, and by doing so is disproportionately targeting and impacting people of lower socioeconomic status. We’ve also seen not only in California but in other states that there has been a disproportionate enforcement on black and brown riders.

What we’ve started to see transit agencies across the country do such as TriMet and King County Metro is to take active steps towards decriminalizing fare evasion and offering alternatives and recognition that not everybody can afford to pay the fare. On top of that, not only do people struggle to pay like a $2.50 bus fare, but they may also on top of that, be unable to pay the fine. In my op-ed, I talk about the fine ranges currently for fare evasion, which right now it ranges between $250 to $400 in the State of California. We looked at a Federal Reserve study that found that 40% of adults have trouble covering a $400 emergency expense or an expense that they did not expect to see coming or did not plan for.

So even a $400 fine could really throw someone off financially, and so transit agencies like TriMet are offering alternatives. First, making this a civil charge instead of a criminal charge, and on top of that, offering community service as an alternative to paying the fine or providing a free or reduced subsidized voucher program for people who cannot afford the fares, so trying to get more to the root cause of why is someone evading the fare.

Charles Brown:
In New York, a program called Fair Fares also provides subsidized tickets for riders facing financial or other challenges, but these discounted fares have not been distributed very smoothly. Ben Brachfeld describes the shortcomings of the program.

Ben Brachfeld:
There’s a program called Fair Fares in the city, which provides a half price MetroCard for people who are low income. There’s also programs like that for seniors, people with disabilities, students get free MetroCards, but in a classic bit of bureaucratic silliness, Fair Fares is run not by the MTA, but by the city. It’s run by the same agency that doles out food stamps and cash benefits and the rental assistance and stuff like that. That agency is extremely understaffed. People have been not getting their food stamps on time, so they have not done a good job of publicizing this program, of getting people to sign up for it.

But also what I think is the key reason for its shortcomings is the threshold to be eligible for it is absurdly low. It just got raised this year from 100% of the Federal poverty line to 120%. That means you’re making $17,000 a year in salary if you’re an individual, $36,000 for a family of four. I don’t think I need to tell you that in New York City, people who are making much more than $17,000 a year are struggling to get by.

The MTA and the City Council and a whole lot of advocacy groups were trying to get it raised to 200% of the Federal poverty line this year. But Mayor Eric Adams, he balked at that and in the final budget, it came out to 120%. Basically, not a whole lot of people are even eligible for this. People who make more and are still struggling are not eligible for the benefit of a half-price MetroCard, so if they can’t do that and they have to either pay $2.90 to get on transit or rent or eat food, that’s an obvious choice for a lot of people.

Charles Brown:
Economics and a lack of financial resources definitely play a role in fare evasion, but the most detrimental part of this issue is what happens after people evade fares. Haleema talks about how the consequences of enforcement contribute to racism, classism, and arrested mobility.

Haleema Bharoocha:
In many cases, those who need public transportation the most, who are low income, who might be younger people, who might be undocumented, people who don’t have a license, people who can’t afford a car. These are all the people who absolutely rely on public transit to get around, and if they rely on the system to get around and they can’t afford it and they’re getting on anyways and then are being cited for that, or criminalized, put in jail for that, or now have a criminal record as a result, that is extremely detrimental to their ability to access their work, their education, healthcare, community resources, just so many things because public transportation ultimately is a lifeline.

There’s a Harvard study that found that access to public transportation is one of the indicators of being able to break out of the cycle of poverty. There’s a lot of interconnections there, and the way in which fare enforcement has been used is to have a reason to say, “Hey, I suspect you of evading the fare and I’m stopping you as a police officer and I need you to give me your proof of payment. If not, I can cite you. I can give you a ticket. I might even give you 90 days jail time,” which under California law is something that could happen.

They might also say, “Oh, now that I’ve stopped you for fare enforcement, I might also want to check your backpack or show me your documentation status.” This can very quickly spiral and have fatal consequences, and there have been instances where police stopped someone for fare enforcement because they suspected it or they were certain of it and resulted in that person being killed. Nobody should be dying over an unpaid fare. Nobody should go to jail because they didn’t pay a $2.50 bus fare.

For me, my op-ed was asking, why is fare evasion punished more severely than speeding? We can all agree that speeding is for sure more dangerous than evading a fare on public transit, and yet you can get 90 days jail time or a misdemeanor criminal charge for evading the fare, but not for speeding and putting others in danger.

I think there is something to be said about the proportionality of the punishment, and again, once you contextualize this in the history of the United States, it becomes clear that this is targeting low income BIPOC communities. It is limiting their ability to move. It is creating a sense of fear, and it is also giving transit agencies the ability to continue to surveil and police us, which I think is also very harmful. Just the presence of police officers at a station waiting to check your fare can be frightening for many of us.

Charles Brown:
In many cases, police officers in New York just tell fare evaders to go back and pay the fare. But as the end of the month approaches, you might be more likely to be stopped and given a ticket, which can also lead to an arrest. Ben Brachfeld explains how quotas in the NYPD have shaped policing in the streets and subways of New York City.

Ben Brachfeld:
Plenty of cops have gone on the record and they’ve even filed lawsuits to say that the NYPD keeps arrest quotas. Basically, you got to arrest X number of people by the end of the day. They’ve never admitted it. They probably never will admit it, but the NYPD, it’s common knowledge that they do have arrest quotas. If you have an arrest quota, it’s a whole lot easier to get away with shitty arrests in neighborhoods where people tend to be poorer and have darker skin and are less likely to sue the city for wrongful arrest and get a big settlement. Or where people are maybe less likely to know a reporter and call them and be like, this is ridiculous.

It also could come down to faulty thinking by people at the top there. I remember there was a famous video of Mike Bloomberg, former mayor, where he excused the numbers on stop and frisk, which at its height it was about 700,000 people were stopped. 90% of them were black and Latino and 90% of them had not committed a crime, but they were stopped without probable cause, and this practice was eventually ruled unconstitutional.

But when Mike Bloomberg was running for president a few years ago, he answered a question on stop and frisk by saying something like that 95% of crime is committed by black and Latino people. No evidence of that whatsoever. But that kind of thinking basically drove policing policy throughout his tenure as mayor. It can come down to individual level police officers. It can come down to some of the most powerful people in the city.

Charles Brown:
In 2012, a New York transit cop named Michael Birch sued the City of New York. He was pressured to stop more black and Latino people in the subway. When he refused, he said that he was penalized by the police department. You’re about to hear audio that Michael secretly recorded while wearing a wire. The first thing you’ll hear is Michael’s superior officer, a captain. The captain asked Michael, “Who usually commits the crime in the city?”

NYPD Captain:
Who usually commits the crime in the city?

Charles Brown:
Michael Birch responds.

Michael Birch:
Who commits the crimes? It’s mostly teenagers, anywhere between the ages of 15 and 19, mostly male, black and Hispanics.

NYPD Captain:
Okay, who are you stopping?

Michael Birch:
Everybody. I stop everybody. I’m not targeting anybody.

Charles Brown:
The captain says, “But you just told me who the bad guys are.” He is labeling black and Hispanic teenagers as bad guys.

NYPD Captain:
You just told me who the bad guys are.

Michael Birch:
Yeah, I know that. But there’s also other people who are committing violations as well. I’m not saying that there’s not violations.

NYPD Captain:
I mean, these people are not going to pop.

Charles Brown:
Now, here’s the key. Michael’s captain tells him, “These people are not going to pop.”

NYPD Captain:
These people are not going to pop.

Charles Brown:
What he means is that if Michael spends time stopping Asian people, white people and women, then he thinks they won’t have a warrant pop up when they run their identification. No warrant means no arrests, and that’s bad for the NYPD.

We’ve established that fare evasion enforcement is racist, classist, and probably driven by arrest quotas. That’s clearly a massive problem. But if people continue to evade the fare, then what happens to the transit agencies? How can they continue to provide services to people who need to get around their cities? We must not ignore financial realities facing our transportation agencies.

Dr. Sogand Karbalaieali lives outside of Washington DC. She uses trains governed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, also known as WMATA. To be clear, she’s a transportation engineer, but she does not work for WMATA. Dr. Karbalaieali has identified that WMATA has much bigger financial problems than fare evasion has created.

Dr. Sogand Karbalaieali:
My name is Sogand Karbalaieali and I’m a transportation engineer living and working in DC area, and currently I reside in Rockville, Maryland.

WMATA is one of the greatest metro systems in the US. However, WMATA is dependent on state money and DC money, which is not really sustainable, so you are at their mercy. Yes, they are making money out of parking facilities. Advertisement is a big thing for them that they make money out of it. They have some real estate that they are making revenue of leases and stuff like that, but it’s not yet enough for them to be independent. I think this is one problem that WMATA has, the sustainability of revenue.

Charles Brown:
In 2023, WMATA announced a $750 million budget shortfall due to lost revenue from the pandemic, but the revenue loss to fare evasion was comparatively small, only $40 million.

Dr. Sogand Karbalaieali:
My point is that what we should be mad at is that $750 million shortfall, not $40 million fare evasion, and I cannot assume that all the people who are not paying a fare are poor. It might be just a rebellion action. It could be just a habit. I don’t know. We did not ask them. We did not study them, so I have no idea.

Rather than thinking about what can we do about fare evasion, we think about what is the whole system that there’s this small thing happening to it, and does it worth doing anything for it? Because even if they say that, okay, we put police officers at every metro station, which is really curious, you have to pay those police officers to be there. Then how do you know that their salary or hours that they spend there will be paid at what rate? Is it more than that $40 million? Is it less? There is no economic value measurements here because there are plenty of research that shows that more transit, like if you are investing in transit, let’s say 10%, you are making people’s life 1% better in terms of economy. We need a lot of investment in transit.

However, transit brings dense residential mixed land use, more riders and more activities, more services, more products to be sold. It’s good for every location that Metro goes, and we can see, even if you look at Google Map, you can see how much density is around each metro rather than all other places. I think then we have those revenues coming and those other problems or bigger problems like housing or just no car ownership access, we see that we don’t even need to address fare evasion. It’s so tiny compared to other problems we have in the area that they can just not look at it, honestly.

If all of these people that are not paying their fare drive, it costs us more in terms of highway maintenance and other stuff. We don’t know if the same people do it all the time or they are random people. A lot of tourists in DC that don’t know how to purchase a card or how to get in it, do it, or many of them are super young. It is free for them anyway. They’re jumping to be rebel, to make a noise, but nobody has studied them, so we don’t know. We are just guessing.

My engineering mind telling me that WMATA, if they estimated the loss, they had some sort of data. Let’s say they have camera and we know origin and we know destination, and we know time of a day and we know day of a week, then we can use that information for constructive solution or constructive public engagement. I guess that data that only WMATA has access to, it could be called to this $1 million question.

I will just be devil advocate and say that WMATA has very limited resources and very limited staff. They are doing great job actually at presenting data. However, I’m not sure if they want to spend the hours and resources to figure out, unless they can look at it with the lenses of community engagement, because I’ve never heard of them trying to say, which is station more, which is station less, and why it’s happening.

Charles Brown:
In an article for Streetsblog, Dr. Karbalaieali wrote the following: “To be clear, I’m not advocating for gate jumping, but I am advocating that we direct our attention to what truly matters. While addressing fare evasion is important, the more pressing urgency lies in achieving our climate goals, promoting healthy lifestyles, fostering sustainable transportation, and building resilient infrastructure. Unfortunately, our fixation on fare evasion has distracted us from these political priorities.”

I don’t know if there is a better way to make this point. American cities need to create more funding for public transportation and social services, rather than punish victims of systemic oppression. Or better yet, they simply need to make transit free for all. Fare evasion remains a crime of poverty that can lead to violent consequences or perpetuate cycles of inequality.

I want to thank my guests, Ben Brachfeld, Haleema Bharoocha, and Dr. Sogand Karbalaieali. Dr. Karbalaieali asked that we specify that her views do not reflect those of her employers. Thank you all for your time and expertise. Thanks so much for listening.

We’ll be taking off the month of December, but keep an eye on our Patreon feed for more bonus audio content. We have exciting news coming about successful advocacy work in New York City, so if you haven’t already, go check out our episode titled Reasonable Suspicion, the case of Lance Rodriguez. There are updates coming to that case. Happy holidays, everyone.

If you don’t already follow the podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, then please do so. This podcast is totally self-funded, so please check out our new Patreon. That’s the best way to contribute, join our community, and get access to all new exclusive content. I’m on Twitter at CTBrown1911 and Instagram at Arrested Mobility Podcast, and make sure you follow me on LinkedIn as well. Thank you so much for your support. This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.