Recently the press has been on about fare evasion...we should recognize that our transit systems are the economic lifeblood of our cities and we want people to use them.
Recently the press has been on about fare evasion in NYC, which was jumpstarted by a report by our very own MTA documenting the issue. The (very predictable) responses have been mostly from the law-and-order playbook: higher fines, more arrests, jump-proof turnstiles (which is what those that we have now were supposed to be when they were introduced), blah blah. If only people would just behave!
I want to step back and think about why we have fares in the first place.
I see two reasons. The first is a user fee to pay for the system. Fares, like tolls, have roots in privately built and maintained infrastructure like the original railroads, buses, turnpikes and bridges. The second is control. By charging people to use the system, one can evict loiterers and the like.
Let’s explore user fees. Initially, user fees were to pay for the system, plus a profit for the investors. But moving people and goods is more about facilitating trade and economic development. Take Hong Kong’s train system, which develops land adjacent to stations and uses the proceeds to help fund the system. Or consider the numerous “free” trolleys/jitneys/circulators plying the streets of American downtowns. A number of communities, like Boulder, Colorado, issue free bus passes to college students and the like. We wantpeople to take transit, not dissuade them from it.
Unlike transit, we have no problem giving roads away for free. Turnpikes and toll bridges are the exception, not the norm (the Brooklyn Bridge was once tolled). Suburban malls provide acres of “free” parking to entice shoppers. Some would say that we are not giving away roads for free, drivers are paying for them via the gas tax; however, this is a common misperception. Only about 1/3 of the cost of the American roadway system is paid for by the gas tax, whereas about ½ of the MTA’s funding comes from fares and tolls.
Let’s turn to control. I submit we have a plantation mentality toward transit. Next time you are at the Newark PATH station, observe the plainclothes police lingering around the turnstiles just waiting for a jumper. Because transit is associated with the poor, we (consciously or not) use it to control them. And like marijuana laws and the “broken window” theory of policing, the result is a lot of people who can least afford it getting caught up in the legal spin cycle.
For comparison, what is the equivalent of fare evasion for drivers? Driving without a license? Covering up your license plate so the toll transponder cannot read it? Have you ever seen anyone arrested for not paying the parking meter?
I’ve come to the opinion that we should recognize that our transit systems are the economic lifeblood of our cities and we want people to use them (as opposed to congestion- and pollution-causing driving). To do that, we need to make them as free and easy to use as possible, especially for those who can least afford it or who are criminalized by it.