Opinion article | Addressing Fare Evasion to Bolster Fairness in New York City

I often say that while I love Times Square, Prospect Park, and other New York destinations, the transit system is the city’s most important public space and, in its own way, a sacred space.

While it may not remind you of a church, mosque, or synagogue, it’s where New Yorkers of all backgrounds meet every day and try out the world’s largest experiment in diversity and tolerance.

But our New York sense of fairness and community is violated when people break the rules, the most basic of which is that everyone pays the fee to get into the system.

For the millions of people who do pay, it’s incredibly demoralizing and frustrating to watch others walk through a subway emergency door or run past a bus operator without swiping or tapping. The same goes for evasion on commuter trains and drivers who hide their number plates. or use out-of-state plates to avoid paying tolls at MTA crossings.

Some of my most memorable moments at the MTA were when ordinary New Yorkers, many of them on fixed incomes, said that seeing rampant fare evasion feels like an insult. Why should they bother to do the right thing when so many others don’t?

Fare evasion not only threatens our social fabric, it also threatens the finances of the MTA. Significant budget deficits loom. We simply cannot afford to continue to lose $500 million a year due to evasion, as we expect in 2022 based on current trends. Every dollar lost to evasion is a dollar we cannot spend to provide and improve service.

Last week, I announced a Blue Ribbon “Fareness” panel of New York leaders from across industries and communities. The panel will review evasion throughout the MTA system and recommend new strategies to reduce it. I ask the panel to focus on education: conveying the message that paying the fare is simply good civic behavior; fairness: how can we ensure, through tools like the city’s fair fare discount payment program, that no one skips their fare due to inability to pay; and Law Enforcement: Finding new civil penalties and law enforcement tools that reduce evasion without excessive vigilance. The panel will also discuss design and technology solutions.

I understand that evasion enforcement has been a hot topic in the past due to concerns about racial and social justice. So let me say loud and clear: I am not interested in perpetuating a system that criminalizes young people who just need some education and a second chance. Take, for example, the expansion of civil resources. And let’s look at the possibility of limiting criminal enforcement to serious repeat offenders and violent offenders who skip the fee to commit more serious harm once inside our system. We will work with our district attorneys, police, and legislative partners on all of the above.

The “Fareness” panel will be doing their work throughout the spring and summer and will update the public in the fall.

We are open to all ideas that help us convey that paying the fare isn’t just something we owe the MTA, it’s something we owe each other.

Janno Lieber is President and CEO of the MTA.

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