On Friday, January 31, 2020, hundreds, if not thousands of protestors organized by Antifa and Decolonize this Place poured into Grand Central Station, demonstrating against new public transportation reforms. These reforms include increases in police presence in the subway and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) fares. Demonstrators demanded complete removal of police from the subway system and free public transport. The protestors’ demands come at a very difficult time for the MTA and police. The MTA is currently facing economic and political headwinds coming into 2020, and police across the nation are facing backlash because of police brutality. Each issue needs to be dealt with individually to properly unravel the intricacies of the situation.
Calls for less police presence on the subway, and in general, aren’t new. A report from Harold Stolper and Jeff Jones shows how police enforcement of laws against turnstile jumping and fare evasion is racially motivated, with 90% of those arrested being either black or Hispanic. The study controlled for poverty and crime rates and found that poor black communities in Brooklyn still face higher arrest rates than communities in other parts of Brooklyn. Now, New York City (NYC) is planning on deploying 500 more officers to the subways, expanding the force by 20% from its current 2,500 officers.
Debating the ethics of police enforcement begs the question of the ethics of the laws they are enforcing in the first place. In this instance, the laws at hand are those that ban fare evasion. This is highlighted by the fact the Governor of New York Andrew M. Cuomo justifies the increase in police with data about increases in fare evasion. This fear-mongering surrounding fair evasion is a narrative the MTA has been pushing hard recently. This narrative in and of itself is suspect and based upon an MTA survey. Even the MTA’s own Inspector General said it was never intended to be an official estimate, yet it was used for official purposes and presented to the public. Not only was this estimate not intended for the public, but the Inspector General also found numerous methodological flaws in the way the MTA went about collecting and recording their data.
The MTA survey was also used to justify the second policy protestors oppose, the increase in MTA fares. The MTA claims they are bleeding money because of fare evasions, and so fares need to be higher to compensate for those not paying. Both of these policies were based on inaccurate data, and so it’s not surprising the solutions themselves are flawed. Policing cannot and has not solved the issue of fare evasion, because it doesn’t deal with the motivations that cause it in the first place. Fare evasion is often a crime of necessity, with those too poor to afford the cost choosing to take the risk and not pay it altogether. Increasing MTA fares only pushes more people into the group that can pay, and will, therefore, avoid the cost.
Luckily, because these two issues are intertwined, MTA and NYC have the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Instead of increasing fares, the MTA should decrease them. While seemingly counter-intuitive, this solution tracks along with the logic of the protestors while still maintaining a way for the MTA to have revenue. Decreasing the costs of the MTA encourages those who previously evaded the fee out of necessity to begin paying it. These are not bad or malicious people, they don’t want to break the law, they’re forced to, and so they’ll likely pay if they can afford it. This also addresses the root of the need for more police, as it results in less fare evasion. The MTA should jump on this opportunity to garner goodwill with the public while reducing racialized police targeting.