New York’s crackdown on fare evasion that began last September has led to a state attorney general investigation into racial profiling claims, and protests that left $100,000 in vandalism damages last week.
The backlash came after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced in September an additional 500 police officers would begin patrolling the subway at a cost of $249 million (U.S.) over four years.
“What we had that day was a lot of cases of vandalism which unfortunately took a lot of our team, took a lot of our focus away from our normal repairs and improvements that we could have been making for customers,” MTA senior vice president for subways Sally Librera told The Associated Press.
The fare evasion tactics employed by transit officials in New York City echo those planned in Toronto.
In a report released last week, the TTC called for a “reset of social norms” to “disrupt negative customer behaviour” it says poses a risk to the agency’s financial well-being. They estimate up to $73.5 million was lost to fare evasion in the last year, with almost six per cent of all riders not paying.
The TTC says it plans to employ 111 inspectors and 72 special constables to patrol the system and catch evaders. TTC CEO Rick Leary also said the increased use of plainclothes officers will help combat riders’ use of social media to avoid inspection.
It wasn’t too long before TTC commuters started noticing posters on the subway imitating the way riders justify evasion with phrases like “Forgot to tap” or it’s “No big deal” with a warning that violators will be caught and face a criminal charge.
Some commuters haven’t taken well to the campaign. Even before the TTC report last week, posters were put up around stations and bus stops reading “Power to the fare evaders!,” encouraging riders to skip the line in the name of free transit.
“It made me angry because some people don’t have $3.25 to (pay their fare) but they have work, school and the rest of their lives to get to,” said commuter Alynah Flack, who added budgeting for transit in a city as expensive as Toronto is already difficult.
“People shouldn’t have to think am I gonna get to work today or get hit with a ($425) fine.”
In New York, data released by its police department found Black and Hispanic people accounted for nearly 90 per cent of all fare-related arrests and nearly 70 per cent of summonses between October 2017 and June 2019. New York state attorney general Letitia James has since launched an investigation into the NYPD’s fare-enforcement practices.
Danny Pearlstein, with the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance in New York, says there are more effective ways to address fare evasion that don’t incur the same sorts of costs that come with policing commuters.
“Increased police presence in the subway has caused other problems,” Pearlstein told the Star. “Police have cracked down on food vendors in the subway, many of whom are immigrants and people of colour, police have also gotten into altercations with teenagers.
“Fare evasion is in most respects a crime of poverty, it shouldn’t be criminalized.”
Just last month, the Department of Social Services opened a new program that allows New Yorkers below the poverty line to pay a reduced fare of 50 per cent.
While the City of Toronto does offer a reduced fare program, it provides a $20 reduction in the cost of a monthly fare, and is only available for those supported by the Ontario Disability Support Program, Ontario Works assistance or a Toronto Child Care Fee Subsidy.
In its 2020 budget, the city said it hopes to extend the program.
“The city’s plan proposed to offer the discounted transit fares to anyone who’s income falls within the low income cutoff plus 15 per cent,” said transit advocate Steve Munro.
Making sure adults can no longer access child passes to defraud the system will also lead to a major reduction in evasion. But some evasion will have to be accepted.
“They have to be realistic about how much they’ll be able to shake out of the tree,” he said. “There needs to be some realism at the TTC, they’re not going to make back the $73.5 million that they think they’re losing.”
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Flack works as a barista and said she can commute home when she gets enough tips, but other days she has to resort to walking home — a privilege she knows others may not have.
“It doesn’t sit well with me because you never know what someone’s reason for fare evading was,” said Flack, who described the campaign as a form of classism.
“It’s causing more resistance.”