In New York City, It Still Pays to Hop the Subway Turnstile

Photo: laverrue

A report by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority seems to prove that hopping a subway turnstile is worth the risk of getting caught and fined. The MTA estimates that riders entered the subway without paying 18.5 million times in 2009 (an average of 50,684 a day) while the police issued just 120,000 summonses, or 1 for every 154 jumps.

The report figures that a regular turnstile jumper has a chance of getting caught only once every 6 to 13 weeks. At $100 per fine, this works out to be cheaper than a $27 weekly unlimited Metrocard that would cost $162 over six weeks. So the fare-skipper who gets nabbed only once in that period still comes out ahead by $62. And that was in 2009. While the price for a weekly pass has since increased to $29, the cost of the fine has not, so in 2011 it pays even more to hop the turnstile.

From the Daily News:

“This basic street economics might explain observed evasion behaviors,” the authors of the report wrote, arguing stiffer penalties might cut down on scofflaws. “Higher fines or arrests may have better deterrent effects.”

Now that the MTA knows the frequency of fare jumpers, and how often they get caught, a minimum price of $174 per fine seems to make sense. Of course, there are other costs to consider: the social stigma of not only being seen jumping the turnstile, but also of getting caught and written up by the cops. Not something you want to have happen in front of your boss. Though those costs certainly have different weights for different people.

And let’s not forget the lost revenue for the city: the MTA estimates it lost $31 million due to fare evasion last year.

Arrests are up this year by about 5% from the same time last year. But besides employing more transit cops to keep a watchful eye on the turnstiles, and raising the price of the fine, what other creative ways might the MTA crack down on this?

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  1. Balaji says:

    Interesting. But won’t it cost the city more to hire more people to watch for jumpers? Where will that cost be accounted? Knowingly or Unknowingly that cost will result in further increase in fare for ‘regular’ travelers.

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    • Michael says:

      It doesn’t raise costs to fine someone more money. We are talking about the same number of police, with higher fines. Right now, it costs the city money (that same $62 per 6 weeks per jumper) to NOT fine them more. An alternative would be to catch people more often, presumably using higher numbers of officers. Not to sound to snarky, but obviously in that case the additional money would come from the higher fines or greater number of small fines.

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  2. brent says:

    A public smear campaign aimed at the offenders could do wonders. MTA could say “due to increased jumping by a couple of bad apples (show pics of repeat offenders), we are raising prices” This strategy turns public scrutiny and oversight into a weapon to be deployed by vigilant riders.

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    • Michael says:

      The costs of a plan like this might work less well in an anonymous place like NYC, and in any case would incur direct marketing costs. Also, there might be legal ramifications from this plan were vigilante (same root word as vigilant) justice to be served. It is not analogous to posting the details of convictions or arrests is a more passive option than saying “we are raising rates due to this person”.

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    • Anish says:

      Yea, this will totally work in NYC…just like all the announcements that holding the door slows everyone down. Outed as an out of towner.

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  3. RobertC says:

    taller turnstiles? In china they are these revolving door things about 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Arms all through it. If you can hop THAT, you earned it..

    Of course they will probably want to implement some facial recognition tracking thing, think of the children!

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    • BL1Y says:

      They have those on the NY subway, but mostly at entrances without a staffed booth. In my experience, those are a bit slower to go through, and you they take up more space, so you can’t have a large row of 4-8 of them all together. Not really practical for larger stations. They’re also a pain if you’re carrying a large bag or anything like that, and are a bit scary looking.

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  4. Mike B says:

    These sort of averages make invalid assumptions about the probabilities of getting caught evading the fare. One cannot just start farebeating full time and expect to go 6-13 weeks without getting caught. First rides should be used as the metric instead of “weeks”. People who take more rides will be better off buying the pass because the risk of getting caught goes up with each attempt to evade the fare. Second, one’s risk of getting caught depends on the station and time of day. Sure one might be able to reliably get free rides at 2am at Beach 105th Street, but in downtown during the day the chance would be much less. If the average rider attempted to evade on all of their regular trips they would probably be caught much more frequently.

    The evasion rate of 1% might just have to be seen as a cost of doing business. Hiring police to write more tickets or installing new kinds of turnstiles could easily cost more money than it saves. If the persons who are doing the evading are those who are unable to pay in the first place (the very poor) or those unable to make rational decisions (children) then increased penalties may not have the desired deterrent effect or revenue increase. Any transit system should take heart that most people have no problem paying the fare. The San Francisco MUNI which uses a Proof of Payment system sometimes has as few as 2 fare inspectors paroling its entire Bus network yet still sees better than 90% fare compliance.

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    • Anish says:

      To be fair, the West Coast in general works better as an honor system. East Coasters (like me) rarely will abide by it at such a high rate.

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  5. Peter Drier says:

    So many unanswered questions:

    1. Who receives the proceeds of the $100 fine?
    2. How much of the $100 fine is actually collected post fees, processing, and people who don’t pay that either?
    3. How much time does it take to receive a fine, and what’s that time worth?
    4. What’s the ROE on adding additional officers to increase detection / fines / compliance (paid fares)

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  6. Chad says:

    The MTA owes me 6 rides, and I plan on getting my money back when I can get away with it.

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  7. Michael James says:

    My brother-in-law made a similar calculation when running highway tolls in Quebec. He saved money until authorities started keeping track of repeat offenders and raising fines for multiple offenses.

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  8. bgriff says:

    Harder-to-evade turnstiles might be a worthwhile investment. Compared to the multi-gate contraptions on the Paris Metro or the tall flap doors on the Paris RER, the New York turnstiles are very easy to jump or crawl under.

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    • bgriff says:

      Although–it does occur to me that this entire discussion is predicated on the assumption that willingness to pay exists for these stolen rides, and that it’s merely a matter of failing to extract payment. Perhaps if the likelihood of getting caught were higher, or it were mechanically more difficult to evade payment, fare-jumpers would simply not bother to ride at all. Presumably most jumpers are not doing it as a part of a regular commute to work.

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    • Kawa says:

      Many smaller stations do have them, but they’re much larger, claustrophobic, and difficult to get through quickly – difficult to install six of them in a row like you see in large midtown/downtown stations, and would choke the traffic at rush hour.

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