New York City, Stop Hassling the Poor and Make Transit Free

New York mayor Eric Adams and the city’s transit authorities have launched a zealous crackdown on “farebeating.” It’s exactly the wrong policy for a time of towering inequality and climate transition. Public transit should be free to all.

The interior of a New York City subway car, March 11, 2015. (Steven Lek / Wikimedia Commons)

Many New York City subway riders are worried about crime, especially after a shooting on a crowded N train in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in April, and an ongoing homicide wave in the city at large. What are our mayor and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) doing to address these complex problems and help people feel safer riding the subways? Hassling people who don’t pay their subway fares — in other words, they are waging class and race war as usual.

Two weeks after that Sunset Park shooting, the MTA promised to address subway crime by cracking down on fare evasion, which isn’t a violent crime and has nothing to do with what happened on the N train. It won’t help. In fact, fare evasion was already a pet cause of the Eric Adams administration: in April the NYPD announced that arrests for fare evasion had increased by 51 percent over the past year, with 301 arrests during the first quarter of 2022. The cops also wrote 10,818 summonses for the offense during that time. An MIT study of the issue found that during 2010 to 2018 those arrested for farebeating were disproportionately male, under twenty-five, black, and Latino. This is not serious crime prevention: it’s relentless persecution of the poor — simply for being poor.

In fact, fare evasion is a crime that shouldn’t even exist, because the subway should be free to all.

The MTA, presumably seeking to redress the (accurate) perception that it was targeting underclass black and brown youth with this ongoing crackdown, released a video PSA against farebeating that seemed to expose a middle-class-looking, middle-aged white woman ducking under the turnstile. The New York Post reported this week that the MTA had selectively edited the video — the woman had at least once attempted to swipe her MetroCard before ducking under the turnstile.

The tabloid has also reported that the MTA is spending $180 an hour on a consultant helping the agency get out of that public relations snafu. All that money would be better spent making the subway free. No complicated schemes, no OMNY card, not free after a certain number of rides: free for everyone all the time.

There are a variety of routes to more socialized transit. Many systems — New York City included — offer free transit to public schoolchildren. Buses in Baltimore are free to all, while Amsterdam offers free ferry service. Wales and some other governments offer free transit to the elderly and disabled. New York’s Staten Island Ferry is free. Communist governments past and present have tended not to make transit completely free but very inexpensive.

Some US cities have recently made their public transit entirely free, including Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Missoula, Montana, and Olympia, Washington. Outside the United States, many municipalities have explored the benefits of socialized transit. Tallinn, Estonia, has offered free transit to its residents since 2013, while Colomiers, France, has done so since 1971 and Changning, China, since 2008. Other cities, including Detroit — and much more extensively, Chengdu, China — have experimented with making some transit lines free.

Even some national governments have gotten into the idea of free transit. To curb air pollution and emissions — after failing to meet European Union targets — Germany has for several years been considering free transit in five cities, including Bonn, the capital. In 2020, Luxembourg became the first country in the world to offer free public transit, and Malta will become the second country to do so later this year.

There are many good reasons for governments to do this. One is that exactly contrary to Eric Adams’s policy, it removes the subway fare as a reason for police harassment and oppression of working-class people, instead allowing them to go about their business. It would cut down on police brutality and terror within the transit system. Another is transit justice: the subway is a public good and everyone should have access to it, regardless of their income. Everyone should have access to the subway because the city belongs to everyone, and we should all be free to move around it, as much as we need to and as often as we please.

And of course, free public transit is good environmental policy. It could encourage more people to use the service rather than drive, an important step toward improving public health and decarbonizing our cities, essential if we are to avert climate apocalypse and breathe cleaner air.

This last, pressing reason is driving many governments to make the shift toward free transit, but they sometimes find that this step is not enough to boost ridership: cost isn’t the only reason people avoid public transit and stick to their cars. (After all, in many cities, New York included, low-income people are less likely to have cars.) It’s even more important to invest in making subways and buses reliable and build a system that gets people where they want to go. In New York, the Staten Island Ferry is free — and a glorious way to experience Lady Liberty and New York Harbor — and yet more Staten Islanders commute by car than residents of any other borough, because the island is otherwise so poorly served by buses and trains.

Still, free public transit is an excellent step toward a greener future that — like any environmental policy with a hope of success — makes ordinary people’s lives better rather than worse. Unlike higher gas prices or other punitive cost-of-living increases, free transit is a step to decarbonization in which the masses gain. People gain materially in no longer having to struggle to afford transit and in finding many more job options within plausible distance of their homes but also in less quantifiable ways: access to transit allows us to live more mobile, more relaxed lives.

As well, free transit offers another way to allow us to understand, on a deeper level and in daily practice, that public goods are for everyone. We feel this on a profound level when we send our kids to public schools, play in public parks, swim at public beaches, and check books out of the library. All this is free because it belongs to us. Making a service free instills in us an identity and confidence as part of a public, a collective, and demanding solidarity. Reminding us that we are, as part of this public, deserving and entitled, is political consciousness-raising gold for the Left. That’s why the elites rarely want to make transit free and almost always resist it. They don’t want to pay more taxes, and they certainly don’t want us to have these public feelings. They don’t want us to enjoy our public goods and demand more.