D.C. is right to crack down on metro fare evasion
Collecting fares is important; enforcing rules is good
New episode of Bad Takes is out, about the attack on Paul Pelosi, the media’s weird reluctance to treat it as a big deal — but also more broadly just Nancy Pelosi’s legacy in American politics.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority this week launched a new campaign to crack down on fare evasion, which has been growing steadily over the past two years.
On the list of WMATA priorities, getting trains back up and running with greater frequency should be higher. But agencies can do more than one thing, and I think that the WMATA officials who are doing this and the local elected officials who are backing them up are right.
Still, I expect relatively few discourse participants will stand up for WMATA’s campaign, which is one reason the crackdown is so badly overdue.
And why? Well, because the slightly absurd idea that it’s bad to punish people for violating rules has been bouncing around progressive circles for the past decade and was supercharged by George Floyd’s death. Now, thought leaders want to be good allies and find ways to make their institutions compatible with this anti-enforcement attitude.
But it doesn’t make sense. If a city has a mass transit system, it should aim for the system to be excellent. And an excellent system involves collecting fare revenue from riders. To collect that revenue, you need to punish people who cheat. Beyond that, part of creating an excellent transit system is that riders should be reasonably well-behaved, which means having and enforcing reasonable rules. And the very first rule is “you need to pay the fare to ride.” A system in which that rule is upheld encourages riders to follow rules and makes it more likely that riders will have a pleasant experience. One that sets a tone of chaos risks creating a chaotic experience for everyone.
Fare revenue is important
I feel a little silly saying this, but one reason fare enforcement is important is that functional mass transit agencies (admittedly a rarity in the United States) depend on fares to generate revenue. The revenue is what makes it possible to provide service — if that revenue goes down because people cheat, then service has to be reduced. This makes riders worse off, exacerbates traffic congestion, and otherwise undermines the purpose of a mass transit system.
And it’s important to consider this fare collection imperative in dynamic terms. If one guy per year jumps the turnstile, that’s trivial. But if he gets away with it and his friend starts copying him, that’s bad. If they both get away with it and generate more copycats, it gets worse. If those copycats generate their own copycats, it gets even worse.
Timely intervention through stepped-up enforcement will elicit complaints along the lines of, “why are you spending Y in order to halt X in fare evasion when X < Y?” The answer is that you’re not spending it to halt X, you’re spending it to halt 10X down the road. Especially because once the problem gets larger and more entrenched, enforcement is going to be harder. Every business that I’m familiar with is happy to tolerate some breakage as inevitable and not worth losing your shit over. But if your rate is rising, you want to address the rise before it becomes a huge problem.
And that’s the core of it. Unfortunately, the idea that transit systems can or should be indifferent to fare revenue has emerged as a misguided fad for reasons separate from the recent fad against enforcement of any kind of rules.
Free transit is a bad idea for major systems
I think the idea of free mass transit makes some sense for places where transit is totally marginal. Since that is the vast majority of places in the United States of America, that means it sort of makes sense as a mainstream idea.
But in practice, American mass transit is dominated by Greater New York City and then to a lesser extent the metro areas of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., and San Francisco. And in these places that are at least trying to have serious mass transit systems, fare elimination does not make sense as a priority. The obvious problem is the same as with letting people steal rides: if you lose revenue, then you need to reduce the quality of service.
Of course a standard free transit proposal doesn’t say that — it says we should spend more money to make the fares free. But why not spend the money to improve service? Is it because the Greater Washington area has mass transit quality that’s as good as Munich or Busan, so there’s nothing more to aspire to in terms of quality? Is it because we don’t believe better mass transit would have benefits for economic opportunity, economic growth, and environmental sustainability? Unless you’re delusional and actually believe American cities have world-leading transit quality, free fares are just a way of giving up.
The most defensible version of it would come from someone who doubts the value of transit at all. First, you make it free instead of making it better, then next time a recession hits and you need to cut spending, you take the money out of transit, and over time the system withers and dies.
But if you think mass transit is a useful thing for your city to have, and yet your city does not have world-class quality for a city of its size, you should be working to improve that quality. The move to “the service is bad but at least it’s free” is a kind of intellectual and moral laziness, driven by an unwillingness to learn about infrastructure and operations and potentially challenge incumbent stakeholders whose interests stand in the way of improvement. So you should have fares. And if you’re going to have fares, you ought to collect them, and that inevitably involves some policing.
Proof of payment is probably the best way
My read of international best practices is that the turnstile system commonly used in the United States is probably not a good idea outside of New York where the volumes are incredibly high.
The best thing to do is to have a proof of payment system, where you need a validated ticket or pass and then you just walk into the station. Sporadic spot checks take place (normally done by a civilian transit agency employee), and if you’re caught without a ticket you need to pay a fine. This is not normally a police function (it would be a waste of cops’ time), but I do want to issue a cautionary note. I sometimes see urbanists reassuring cop-averse leftists that proof-of-payment isn’t done by armed police officers, while sort of hiding the ball that this still depends on the ability to summon help from real police.
And that’s I think the general issue.
Under any system, you don’t want armed, uniformed, sworn law enforcement personnel doing the work of transit system staff. The primary eyes and ears of the transit agency are the people who staff the stations, who need to be there for non-security reasons but also represent the agency as authority figures. Exactly how many cops need to be involved as part of a crackdown versus on an ongoing basis is a little hard for me to judge. It’s more than zero, but it probably shouldn’t be a lot. Either way, though, police officers have to be available to help out in dangerous situations. There’s no getting around the fact that public safety and public order have “police officers might show up here and arrest you” as their core backstop.
At any rate, one of the major upsides to proof of payment is you can save yourself the expense of installing lots of faregates.
For a city like D.C. that already has all its faregates in place, I don’t think removing them in the short-term makes sense. It’s more just worth penciling in for the next time WMATA wants to change the fare-payment system due to technological improvements — it would probably be better to move to POP. Either way, though, the burden of enforcement necessarily falls on a mix of civilian agency employees and sworn law enforcement. The hope as always should be that if you catch a large share of evaders, then evasion evaporates and you don’t actually find yourself doling out lots of harsh punishment. But you do need to get the ball rolling by punishing some people.
Fare enforcement has important side benefits
Former police commissioner Bill Bratton always said that catching fare evaders during New York’s big crime decline was actually a good way to catch people guilty of more serious crimes.
In theory, if you’re out on bail but you skipped your court date, you ought to be extra-cautious in your day-to-day behavior. In practice, a lot of people who commit crimes don’t make that decision. The police walking around the street aren’t clairvoyant; they don’t know which passersby have outstanding warrants. But if they catch someone jumping the turnstile, that’s a perfectly valid reason to run them through the system. Police can catch bail skippers or people who are already wanted for some other reason — they can also catch people carrying illegal guns.
This is one of the things that’s driven me the craziest about the post-2020 crime discourse. Liberal states have less crime than conservative ones, primarily because we have stricter gun laws.
But the gun laws are not magically self-enforcing. If people find that rival crews are getting away with carrying illegal guns, then they will also carry them for self-defense. And more people with more guns tilts the cost-benefit further in favor of carrying guns. The more people carrying guns, the more likely it is that disputes will be resolved by shootings, which will lead to retaliatory shootings with people caught in the crossfire. Gun control laws have real benefits, but to capture those benefits, enforcement has to be strict enough to make it worth people’s while not to carry guns.
Unfortunately, the nature of a concealed firearm is that it’s concealed — there’s no way to tell whether or not someone is packing.
And an important virtue of enforcing the rules against “minor” offenses like jumping the turnstile, peeing on the street, or carrying an open container of alcohol is that it’s easy to visually verify who is and isn’t following the rules. If someone isn’t following the rules, police officers can stop them and search them, and if they’re carrying an illegal gun, they can arrest them. Without this kind of low-level stop, the only way to get illegal guns off the street is by stopping people at random — which realistically means racial profiling. That is bad. People have a very legitimate interest in not being stopped and frisked merely for belonging to a particular demographic group. Where progressives have gone too far is in extending this consideration to people who are in fact committing crimes, when those are exactly the people you want to stop.
The majority of shootings are committed with illegal handguns, and we need constitutionally and morally permissible ways of discouraging people from carrying them. Rigorously enforcing boring rules is one of the best ways to do that, because the people shooting each other out there are mostly not mastermind assassins.
Surveillance is our friend
As I’ve said before, I think one big problem with the anti-enforcement tilt coming when it did is that it’s arisen at exactly the time that cheaper cameras, cheaper storage, and cheaper facial detection should be making it easier than ever to do the labor-intensive work of enforcing “minor” violations.
You’re not realistically going to catch every single person who jumps a turnstile. But you absolutely could record everyone who does it and create a situation where if someone is caught doing that or breaking some other rule, you get run against the database and dinged for all your violations. The hope here wouldn’t be to slap tons of people with gigantic fare evasion fines, but just to clarify to everyone that it’s genuinely not worth your while to do it. That whether or not you “get away with” an unpaid fare, if you do it habitually, you’re going to get caught and all your violations will come to light. A system like that would actually let us get away with lighter punishments on a per-offense basis, which would be nice. Cameras and computers are cheaper than ever, and we should be using them. If we fear that the punishments on the books are too harsh, we should adjust them, not make enforcement spotty. And if we think people are being punished for things that don’t deserve punishment, then we should legalize them.
But cheating the system and riding for free is in fact bad, and it’s correct to have a rule against it and enforce that rule.
If you’re worried about the impact on low-income people, it’s worth recalling that having a well-run mass transit system is good for low-income people. They have less ability to opt out by moving to the suburbs or buying a car or taking an Uber for off-peak trips. Everyone benefits from frequent service and good coverage, but the poor benefit the most. If we want to help people who don’t have enough money to get more money, then we should give them more money through EITC or Child Tax Credit or Section 8 housing vouchers or any of a dozen other ways. But common sense on this is correct — charging modest fares to ride the train is good policy, and if you’re going to charge fares, you need to stop people from cheating.
"Well, because the slightly absurd idea that it’s bad to punish people for violating rules has been bouncing around progressive circles for the past decade and was supercharged by George Floyd’s death."
These progressives would be horrified if their own children didn't obey rules in schools. I think we have a little 'soft bigotry of low expectations' going on here.
I think this is my first time wading into the comments section on any piece of writing in the last 10 years, but I finally have a boring point that I disagree with Matt about.
I live in Berlin, Germany, where we objectively have a very good metro system, but we have a very large percentage of people who ride without a ticket (including myself past a certain hour at night, when I know I can get away with it) because we have a proof-of-payment system.
All of the policy nerd friends I have in Berlin pine for the BVG (the local metro authorities) to install turnstiles in U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, and I agree with them. We want this because:
- Because it's so easy to evade fares currently, we suspect a proof-of-payment system would lead to increased revenue (and therefore improved service).
- There are many homeless individuals who (understandably) sleep on the platforms during the colder parts of the year. Less understandably, many of these individuals also do intravenous drugs on the platforms, accost passengers, and occasionally commit other crimes, which make it an extremely unpleasant riding experience in certain parts of the city and at night.
- The current fare checkers are mostly contractors with poor training who not infrequently use discriminatory judgement when it comes to enforcement. Even as someone living in a quite wealthy area of the city, I have personally seen fare checkers drag riders of color off of trains and physically assault them. It is shocking and disturbing to witness — and the idea of these kind of acts being filmed in American and posted all over social media makes me very worried about the backlash.
I completely agree with your assessment that metro systems should better enforce purchasing fares, but I strongly disagree about moving towards a proof-of-payment system.