NEW YORK – One woman was late to work. Another was rushing to class. A man who just moved to New York had trouble swiping his MetroCard.
All of them broke the law: They sneaked into the subway without paying.
While there have always been riders who try to avoid paying, the practice has become so widespread in New York City that it is costing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority about $215 million in lost revenue this year, prompting subway officials to announce a crackdown.
Fare evasion has nearly doubled — from 1.8 percent of riders in recent years to 3.2 percent this year, contributing to the agency's worsening finances, which could lead to fare increases or service cuts.
But it has not been clear exactly why fare evasion is up. New Yorkers, it turns out, have many reasons for not paying.
"I don't feel like going all the way there to put money on my card," Aicha Makanera, 18, of Brooklyn, said one recent morning as she walked in through an open emergency exit gate at the busy Times Square station, where the New York Times assigned a reporter to monitor fare beating at one series of turnstiles.
The nearest MetroCard vending machine was a block away. "Sometimes it's easier to use the door," she said. "I don't feel bad."
During one hour that morning, someone entered through the emergency exit every minute, on average. Some were caught by police and received a summons with a $100 fine.
Jamar Hester's MetroCard was not working, so he followed other commuters through the exit gate. He got caught. "I saw somebody else go through the gates so I walked right through there, too," said Hester, 26, who recently moved to New York from the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Transit systems across the world deal with fare evasion. But there is a growing sense that New Yorkers are feeling more emboldened to skip paying because the trains have become so unreliable. The subway fell into crisis last year and continues to be plagued by delays. And yet the fare could rise again in March.
The aggressive enforcement of fare evasion has also drawn criticism nationally over concerns that arrests target black and Hispanic riders.
When the Washington, D.C., City Council recently approved lighter penalties for fare evasion, over protests from the city's transit agency, one councilman said: "I'm sad that Metro's losing money, but I'm more sad about what's happening to black people."
In New York, fare evasion was widespread in the early 1990s, when William Bratton, then the transit police chief, said it was "very, very pervasive, particularly in some of the poorer neighborhoods of the city." Police cracked down on it as part of their "broken windows" strategy, believing it would help curb more serious offenses.
The MTA, which oversees New York City's subways and buses, released a report this month saying that about 208,000 people take the subway each day without paying. The situation is even worse on buses.
New York Times