Why Cities Are Starting to Decriminalize Fare Evasion

Photo:  John St. John via Flickr
Photo: John St. John via Flickr

If you’re under 18 in California, jumping the turnstile can no longer saddle you with a criminal record. Last year, the state decriminalized transit fare evasion for minors, meaning young people can be fined but not charged with a misdemeanor.

California State Senator Robert Hertzberg, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, sponsored the legislation because too many young people in his district had acquired criminal records just for being poor.

“They don’t have the cash to pay for a ride to school or maybe to a job, they get a ticket and next thing they know, the ticket can be hundreds of dollars, and they don’t know how to pay that,” said Hertzberg spokesperson Andrew Lamar. “Kids would end up either being convicted of some misdemeanor or spending time in juvenile hall. The whole cause of this was getting a fare evasion ticket. That punishment is far too harsh for the crime.”

The California bill came eight years after San Francisco decriminalized fare evasion for adults in 2008, but the idea now seems to be picking up steam. With renewed public attention on the excessive criminalization of poor people and people of color, some transit agencies and law enforcement officials are reevaluating their fare evasion policies.

In the Seattle region, King County decriminalized fare evasion for youth in 2015. And after a study by Portland State University found black riders were more likely to be punished for fare evasion than white riders, prosecutors in Portland decided to stop pursuing charges except in “extreme cases or cases of chronic offenders,” according to the Oregonian.

The push to decriminalize fare evasion has yet to sway the mayor of the city with the most transit riders, however. Despite campaigning on a platform that emphasized police reform, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has refused to stop issuing criminal summonses for fare evasion. In 2015, it was the top arrest in the city, with 29,000 criminal summonses, of which 94 percent went to people of color, according to the Police Reform Organizing Project. The issue is under the microscope in 2017, since fare evasion arrests can put undocumented immigrants on ICE’s radar, but de Blasio has not budged.

For transit agencies, whose mission should be to help people access their city, punitive approaches to fare collection don’t make sense, said Alex Engel of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “A sensitive, sensible approach to inspection is key to creating an equitable system,”  he said. “Transit systems can train and deploy proof-of payment fare inspectors to ensure consistent inspection across routes and time of day. Fairness and the safety of both inspectors and riders is paramount; criminalizing riders will not result in an equitable transit system.”

Transit agencies stand to gain a lot by worrying less about fare enforcement and more about fare collection methods that speed up service, said Jon Orcutt, policy director at TransitCenter. “We think this idea of focusing on ease of payment by the rider is more important,” he said. “If you have growing ridership, it’s better for your bottom line than wondering if you caught someone who didn’t pay.”

Some agencies are loathe to adopt all-door boarding on buses, for example, because they fear fare evasion, passing up opportunities to speed up service and gain riders. “Transit people here have this religion about avoiding any possible fare evasion,” said Orcutt.

San Francisco’s Muni, which was ahead of the curve on decriminalization, is out in front on faster fare collection too. The agency allows all-door boarding on all buses rather than insisting on verifying payment at the front door (there are farecard scanners at rear doors). In addition to improving trips for riders, the policy has been popular with the drivers’ union, Orcutt said, because it reduces a common cause of confrontations.

  • AMH

    “If you have growing ridership, it’s better for your bottom line than wondering if you caught someone who didn’t pay.”

    This is exactly the attitude shift that is needed.

  • Joe R.

    Maybe it’s better to just pay for transit entirely via a dedicated sales tax or income tax. That avoids the costs of fare collection and enforcement.

  • DenseCityPlease

    If you’ll forgive me for leading with a pun, this is one policy I simply cannot get on board with. Fining people for evading fares is not criminalizing poverty, it’s criminalizing fare evasion…which is a crime.

    Annual rider polls by LA Metro show year after year that the number one concern of riders (and number one deterrent to potential riders) is personal safety concerns, followed shortly thereafter by nuisances/annoyances such as smoking, drinking, and playing loud music on the Metro.

    Strict fare enforcement and locked turnstiles are a demonstrably effective way of ensuring that patrons on a transit system are law abiding. Having lived through the 1970s era nadir of lawlessness on the NYC subway, De Blasio knows this well, which is why the nation’s most important and heavily used transit system is holding the line.

  • Lorenzo Mutia

    Isn’t the whole fare evasion thing an indirect way of tackling those issues then? There must be smarter, more targeted efforts to shame people out of doing those things. The vast majority of riders are not nuisances, so why should we continue ineffective blanket enforcement strategies?

  • Exactly. Enforcing fares is not so much about collecting revenue as it is about preventing the kind of behavior that discourages fare-paying passengers from using transit. The person who dodges a fare is often the same person who takes up three seats, who yells belligerently at imagined adversaries, or who panhandles fellow passengers.

  • Enforcing rules of passenger behavior requires a lot of difficult and subjective judgment calls. Is someone’s music too loud if someone row away can hear it but someone two rows away cannot? Is the panhandler harassing other passengers or merely exercising free speech? Is the big dog on the train really someone’s service animal? Those are all difficult calls to make, but in my experience the passengers involved in all three are unlikely to produce tickets or transit passes when requested to do so by inspectors. Just as Al Capone was caught for tax evasion, enforcement of fare requirements can be the most effective way of keeping disruptive passengers off public transit. It may be indirect, but I don’t think it’s ineffective.

  • Larry Littlefield

    This reminds me of the constant Republican demands to de-fund the IRS so it will be forced to stop harassing Americans.

  • You guys need to understand, these agencies aren’t allowing fare evasion. They just aren’t making it a criminal offense. There’s a huge difference. Cities don’t give out misdemeanors to people who don’t pay parking meters so why should they do it to transit riders?

  • war_on_hugs

    No one is saying that fare evasion should go entirely unenforced or unpunished. The point is that:

    – Criminalizing fare evasion is a massive criminal justice undertaking for a very minor “crime,” and often has the impact of simply punishing people for being poor. We don’t make misdemeanors out of speeding or other minor moving violations.
    – Transit agencies with scarce resources would do better to prioritize service and reliability over obsessively enforcing fare collection, through policies like all-door boarding. And for what it’s worth, SF Muni’s rate of fare evasion isn’t demonstrably different than any other bus system since implementing it, so there’s really no excuse.

    Strict fare enforcement and locked turnstiles are a demonstrably effective way of ensuring that patrons on a transit system are law abiding.

    Do you have any evidence of this? Having ridden both the bus and Metro here in DC for years, I haven’t noticed much of a difference despite only one having locked faregates. Again, no one is saying to get rid of fares or faregates, just to get away from letting fear of fare evasion dictate other policies.

    And if you want to crack down on misbehavior, then let’s do that instead of conflating the issue. I think that redirecting many current fare collection efforts toward spot checks and other forms of enforcement is more likely to deter annoying/unsafe behavior, anyway, since right now we rely on bus/train operators to enforce policy – a job they are not equipped for and do not want to do (understandably, since it can be dangerous for them and their passengers).

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’ve thought about that before as well, but I think in many cases, the Feds require a minimum farebox return.

  • Decriminalization per se doesn’t sound necessarily like a bad idea as long as the fine is significant and escalated for repeat offenders. It’s the quotes for Orcutt, however, that come across as detached from reality. He seems to misunderstand fare enforcement as being entirely about revenue collection, when in fact it’s an indirect way of removing passengers who are likely to commit other offenses.

  • SuperQ

    Here in Berlin, it’s 100% proof of fare, no gates anywhere.

    Sure, there is cheating, but they have very good inspection teams. The interesting bit is when I do see them on a train car, only one in about 40-50 on a train car don’t have a ticket.

  • More on this idea here and here.

  • c2check

    The solutions to the problems you cite aren’t solved by criminalizing fare evasion though, they’re solved through mental health or social services (and longer term through lower wealth inequality and better-distributed economic opportunities)
    And while faregates in a metro system will block people who don’t pay from getting on, fare evasion still occurs on buses where the driver collects the fare—at even higher rates than with PoP.
    We can punish people for other offenses, but criminalizing fare evasion as a means to prevent other offenses may end up punishing people whose only offense is being poor.
    We could also help reduce this issue by providing more low-income transit passes, making walking and biking safer and easier, etc.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Maybe municipalities should adopt policies similar to toll road fare evasion. First make it an infraction, not a misdemeanor. Second, give the fare evader a grace period to pay the fare without penalty. Finally, if poverty is an issue, then issue income-based monthly passes.

    However, with all the help given to ease the pain; the punishment for noncompliance needs to exist. If I have five or more unpaid parking tickets, my car is subject to tow. If I have multiple toll road fare evasions, there is a hold on my vehicle registration. If I do not pay a moving violation, then my license is subject for suspension. States have systems in place to collect these infractions. If you cannot come up with $1.75 in ten days, then you have some serious problems. Be prepared to pay penalties (i.e. $50.00), have a hold placed on your cars or drivers’ license, have a hold placed on your tax refund, or wage garnishment.

    So yes, make fare evasion an infraction. Give people a grace period to pay or a reduced fare. But then make sure collection methods are in place for the scofflaws.

  • Charles Siegel

    What you are saying makes sense. But the following quote from the article doesn’t make sense. Why would he complain about people getting tickets they can’t pay under the old system if they will still get tickets under the new system?

    “They don’t have the cash to pay for a ride to school or maybe to a job,
    they get a ticket and next thing they know, the ticket can be hundreds
    of dollars, and they don’t know how to pay that,” said Hertzberg
    spokesperson Andrew Lamar. “Kids would end up either being convicted of
    some misdemeanor or spending time in juvenile hall. The whole cause of
    this was getting a fare evasion ticket. That punishment is far too harsh
    for the crime.”

  • c2check

    Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I find it strange that often, fines for fare evasion are much steeper than for a road toll evasion. ($75–$100 vs $25–50)

    On roads, fines for toll evasion are civil fines. Part of this may be because it’s hard to prove who a driver of a vehicle was. The worst that can happen is your vehicle registration is revoked.
    Where transit fare evasion is a criminal offense against you as an individual,the effect could ostensibly be much harsher.

    So drivers can hide from responsibility behind a windshield (isn’t this often the case?) while transit passengers are held accountable as individuals. All despite the much higher amount of force a driver controls.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Thus my point. Equalize the penalties. But also equalize the punishments (including grace periods to pay the fare).

  • c2check

    I agree with your points. I think there’s a bigger issue around drivers having the same responsibilities while having much more powerful/dangerous/road-damaging vehicles—currently illustrated by the disparity with tolls, but also with other issues, particularly regarding dangerous driving.

  • calwatch

    On the other hand, with shoplifting, the punishment is most definitely a severe fine, and sometimes probation or jail time if done too much. If someone pockets a $1.50 20 ounce bottle of soda at 7-11, and the police catch them, they get their record run and maybe a ticket. Do we treat transit more like shoplifting, like a parking ticket, or like driving as a single person in the carpool lane (which usually have excessive fines above $400 to make up for usually spotty enforcement)?

  • Isaac B

    It often seems like with some transit agencies, the baseline attitude toward their customer is “guilty until proven innocent”. Witness NYC’s “Select Bus” inspectors. If they’ve boarded a bus and you don’t have a ticket, even if there was no working machine at your stop, you’ll have trouble. Along with a lecture about what “you should have done”, i.e., exited the bus at a later stop to get a ticket.

  • OaktownPRE

    What does Mr Orcutt say when you’ve got falling ridership? All this focus on some obscure concept like “equity” makes for a pretty poor transit experience. How is it equitable that I pay for BART through my property taxes and then again when I ride, while somebody else just walks through an un-alarmed emergency gate? What’s not equitable about saying you wanna ride, then you pay the fare?

  • So what Angie Schmitt is stating is that following the rules is for chumps. Fare evading crooks and cheats win. Gee, that’s a wonderful prescription for society!

    You *can* argue for increased subsidies and thus lower fares (and more ridership) without giving criminality a pass, Angie.

  • Why that is just white privilege mansplaining of you, OaktownPRE! 😛

    (Yes, there are people who seriously spout such crap, and they are not getting the beat-downs they deserve).

  • Actually, they do. Don’t pay your tickets in time and they will come after you in time.

  • Robert

    I think you are missing the point. It is only criminal if you do not pay them. If I were to get a fare evasion (I would pay my fare), no matter how fast I paid it, I would still have a misdemeanor on my record. However, if I were to get a parking ticket and pay it off right away, it is not criminalized. Only if I don’t pay my debt to the government (aka the ticket) is it criminal. A similar policy concerning fare evasion fines would make very good sense in my view.

  • brianthecoder

    I was robbed by 3 teenagers who the police later located at a train stop. Great idea!

  • Are they really? Because I’ve seen quite a number of studies that found that the fare evaders are just as often the quiet person reading a book while the loud and boisterous one did pay their fare.

  • David Bickford

    Can you provide links to some of the studies you’ve seen? I ask that not as a challenge, but as honest curiosity. My experience has been that fare evasion usually correlates with other offenses, but that’s based purely on my own personal observations, which could be influenced by all sorts of biases. If there’s actual data on this, I’d love to have a look.

  • David Bickford

    In an ideal world, we would resolve all issues of mental health and income inequality. Unfortunately, we often don’t have viable remedies for those problems, and with the current leadership we have at the federal level, we’re unlikely to see them any time soon. Under those circumstances, it is not at all unreasonable to want to see disruptive behavior minimized so that paying passengers are not deterred from using and supporting public transit.

    Also, to clarify, my position is not one of advocating turnstiles. I ride a proof-of-payment light rail line every day. Proof-of-payment can be an effective means of fare enforcement — as long as the penalties for non-payment are significant enough to have a deterrent effect. That doesn’t have to mean criminal sanctions, but it shouldn’t mean a slap on the wrist either.

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