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Big Cities Crank Up Enforcement to Collect Dwindling Transit Fares

Agencies are spending new money — lots of it, in some cases — to crack down on fare evasion, with new fare gates, updated collection systems and beefed-up policing. But some experts question the cost.

Entry turnstiles at the 14th Street Union Square MTA station in New York City. Most agencies don’t seem to know with any confidence how widespread the fare-jumping problem is. But there’s a broad sense that it increased during the pandemic.
(Danielle Hyams/New York Daily News/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Many big-city transit agencies are spending money to upgrade fare-collection systems and crack down on fare evasion.

  • Data tracking on evasion rates varies widely from agency to agency.

  • In some cases, fare enforcement has as much to do with emphasizing social order on trains and buses as it has to do with revenue.

  • A million here, $90 million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

    As big-city transit systems work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re anticipating a long-term plateau of lower ridership and sharply reduced fare revenue. The gloomy financial outlook has caused agencies around the country to cancel long-planned capital projects and consider cutting daily service.

    At the same time, agencies are spending new money — lots of it, in some cases — to crack down on fare evasion with new fare gates, updated collection systems and beefed-up policing. Even as fares shrink overall, some agencies feel they need to show they’re collecting every fare they can, not just to ward off financial disaster but also to address a sense of lawlessness — real and perceived — on buses and trains. But when do the costs of enforcement outweigh the benefits?

    There’s no standard method of tracking fare evasion across transit systems with widely varying payment systems. Most agencies don’t seem to know with any confidence how widespread the problem is. But there’s a broad sense that fare jumping increased during the pandemic, especially after some riders got used to not paying when agencies waived fares in the early days of the outbreak.

    The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in Washington, D.C., made its most recent estimate of fare evasion in February 2022, and it was a doozy: Some 34 percent of Metrobus riders weren’t paying fares that year, up from 14 percent in Fiscal Year 2019 and 17 percent in FY 2020. Evasion reduced the agency’s revenue by $10 million in FY 2022.

    “Fare evasion is a major issue,” WMATA wrote in a performance report published earlier this year, which estimated that 13 percent of Metrorail riders and up to 51 percent of Metrobus riders hadn’t paid their fare during the first six months of FY 2023. Like other agencies, WMATA is facing a daunting fiscal cliff when federal relief funds run out next year. But it’s still moving ahead with a fare gate modification project, with higher gates designed to deter jumping, at an estimated cost of up to $40 million.

    Other agencies are buying new gates too.

    • Philadelphia's transit system, known as SEPTA, which did not respond to emails and phone calls, recently approved nearly $1 million to buy 22 new fare gates for just two subway stations in Center City, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The agency estimates it lost more than $22 million to fare evasion since last July, the report says. 
    • A spokesperson for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) said it was “impossible to accurately know how many people avoid paying fares and what the cost of that may be,” but noted that the agency was spending $2 million on new fare gates that will be harder to pass without paying. CTA, which does not have its own police force, also doubled the number of Chicago Police Department officers and other security personnel over the last year, including K-9 security forces at station entrances, the spokesperson said. 
    • Bay Area Rapid Transit doesn’t have any recent estimates of how much revenue is lost to fare evasion, a spokesperson said, but in some years before the pandemic the agency estimated the loss was between $15 million and $25 million annually. BART is moving forward with a $90 million plan to install new fare gates, which, according to a project description, will have “clear swing barriers that will be very difficult to be pushed through, jumped over or maneuvered under.” 

    How To Maximize Payment

    What’s the ideal fare-evasion rate? It’s probably not zero percent, says Alon Levy, a fellow in the Transportation and Land Use program of the NYU Marron Institute. From a revenue perspective, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate fare evasion, but to maximize fare revenue “net of” the costs of collection, Levy says. When fare enforcement becomes too expensive, the returns start to diminish.

    Levy, who is based in Berlin, says transit agencies can maximize fare collection by minimizing the “friction” involved in payment. “Proof of payment” systems in which riders buy their tickets ahead of time, and tickets are randomly checked by enforcement officers, tend to be the smoothest, they say.

    In many European metro systems, the vast majority of riders are monthly pass holders, Levy says, and that’s partly because the cost per ride is lower than it is on many American metros. Fares are often better integrated between metro trains and buses than they are in the U.S. as well, they say. A monthly passholder in Berlin has to take 36 rides in order to justify the cost of the pass, Levy says, whereas in New York City, it takes 46 rides to cover the monthly cost.

    New York has had a rocky history with fare jumping, with a recent surge in arrests for fare evasion on the MTA. In 2019, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed hiring an additional 500 MTA police officers at a cost of $249 million over four years, partly to collect lost fare revenue that only added up to $200 million over the same period. MTA created a task force last year to combat fare evasion on the system. MTA representatives declined to answer questions about evasion rates and enforcement costs, pending the release of a strategic plan for fare enforcement in the next few weeks.
    Fare evasion by turnstile jumpers not only reduces revenue, but it also contributes to a pervasive sense that riding transit is no longer orderly or safe and should be avoided. The result is a further loss in ridership and revenue for transit authorities.

    Avoiding Over-Policing

    Fare evasion isn’t the driving cause of transit systems’ budget woes in the wake of the pandemic. But many feel that in order to bring more paying riders back, they have to crack down on fare jumping as part of a broader effort to restore a sense of social order on buses and trains. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times painted an apocalyptic picture of drug abuse and lawlessness pushing riders away from the L.A. Metro. Minnesota lawmakers recently backed a plan for a Transit Service Intervention Project on the Minneapolis system, which would enlist “state and local police and social workers along with nonprofit mental illness and homelessness advocates to ‘reset the culture’ of expectations of train users,” according to a report.

    Many of the issues transit systems are facing today, from drug abuse on buses and trains to unhoused people congregating in stations and public areas, go back decades, says Dorothy Schulz, an adjunct fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a retired transit police officer who once led the Metro-North command at Grand Central Terminal. Agencies have responded in many cases with hostile architecture and design choices, including a total lack of seating in New York’s new Moynihan Train Hall. Fare evasion doesn’t just directly deprive agencies of money, but it may also contribute to a sense of disorder that drives paying riders away, Schulz says.

    Chris Van Eyken, the director of research and policy at TransitCenter, agrees. “I think there is an overall sense that fare evasion is contagious,” Van Eyken says. “When [riders and transit workers] see people jumping the turnstile, it makes them feel like there’s a lack of order on the system and maybe it’s not as safe as it could be.”

    Transit agencies are right to want to collect as much fare revenue as they can, but they should minimize the role of police in the process, Van Eyken says. Sound Transit in Seattle recently chose to permanently implement a pilot program that uses unarmed “ambassadors” to conduct fare enforcement rather than police. L.A. Metro also recently deployed 300 ambassadors to play a sort of support and security role on the transit system as well.

    At times, the cost of enforcement may push the boundaries of a typical cost-benefit analysis. And fare enforcement shouldn’t necessarily be a top priority for transit systems as they face down the fiscal cliff. But those systems that have fares feel they owe it to their paying riders, and to the government authorities that subsidize them, that they’re not just giving scofflaws a free ride, Van Eyken says.

    “Agencies like to get across the message that they’re making people pay the fare they’ve set, and their riders and funders like to see that too,” he says. “It’s understandable that sometimes it’s not purely a financial consideration.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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