Paying NYC Subway Fare (2023 Nov)

by Barry A. Liebling

I have lived in Manhattan for many years. In my experience there have always been criminals and bad actors that make daily life unpleasant and dangerous. In the 1970s it was common to feel threatened by crime – with justification – when walking in high-crime areas. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a significant improvement in the general quality of life in the city. Then the optimistic expectation of good times was shattered in 2001 with the attack on the World Trade Center.

The year 2020 was exceptional – in a terrible way – and marked the beginning of a catastrophe. The Covid pandemic compounded with violent riots paved the way for a significant breakdown in civil society. As an urban dweller I am struck by how many things have gotten worse (mask mandates, increased crime and increased acceptance of crime, Zoom instead of personal meetings, soaring prices for ordinary goods and services, mutual hostility between identity groups cheered on by the ruling class, and more), and I am at a loss to name anything that got better.

I have been a subway rider since I first arrived in the city. Again, there have always been an adequate supply of miscreants doing their thing – graffiti, robberies, assaults, vandalism, free loaders – but recently the frequency of people who do not pay has ballooned astronomically.

Before 2020 I would see a few people jump over the subway turnstile or enter an open exit door. These delinquents moved quickly and seemed to be somewhat concerned that they would be apprehended and perhaps be required to pay a fine.

But in today’s Manhattan skipping the fare is the default for a large number of people. On a typical day I go to my nearest subway station and see men, women, and children ducking under the turnstile, vaulting over it, or slithering around the side. When the exit door is open, a flock of eager New Yorkers rush through to avoid paying for their ride. The good news is that while this is occurring, most people pay on their way into the train. The sad news is that the volume of free loaders is large – and it appears to be growing.

Why are more passengers refusing to pay? Of course there are multiple factors involved.

Some people are genuinely anti-social. If the rule is “pay for your ride,” their default response is, “I will take what I can get.” They are perpetually angry and direct their irritation against other people and institutions whenever they believe they can get away with it. And in 2023 Manhattan a scoundrel can almost always get away with it.

Others are not necessarily hostile, but they are frustrated. With government-induced inflation, an unhealthy economy, and a general malaise, they are motivated to save money wherever they can. Also, they are disgusted with how poorly the municipal system is managed. Avoiding the subway fare is an obvious (but illegitimate) way to express their disapproval.

The penalty and risk for taking a free ride is low. The police that roam the subways maintain they are focused on preventing and apprehending violent crime and robberies. Take a guess on how effective they are at their prime mission. An officer may frown and berate a fare-beater, but the cop is not likely to arrest anyone for such a minor infraction. Furthermore, if the police attempted to stop people who are not paying they would have to deal with an avalanche of bad actors every day, and that would be enormously expensive in time and effort.

Of course, the police are not the only observers that might inhibit fare beating. Ordinary citizens that pay for their rides could – in principle – exert social pressure. However, from what I have seen, those who ride legally do not confront people who skip. In today’s New York, verbally confronting anyone who behaves badly courts the tangible risk of being physically attacked. And physically intervening against criminals in today’s city – if successful – is likely to inspire the Manhattan District Attorney to bring charges against the concerned citizen.

So if it is so easy to get a free ride, why do most people pay in the conventional proper way? Again, there are multiple factors in play.

Very few riders pay out of fear, and dread that they will be caught doing something illegal. The likelihood of being stopped and penalized is minuscule.

I am confident that for most New York City residents, paying for subway rides is just a long-acquired habit. They have learned to pay for all of the goods and services they obtain. They know that theft is wrong, and they manage their lives appropriately. They deserve to be commended.

And some New Yorkers regard paying before getting on the train as partly symbolic. In a time when civilization is in decline, acting in defiance of barbaric behavior can be a powerful statement. When you demonstrate that you manage your life properly – because you freely choose to do so, not as a way of avoiding punishment – you should have high self esteem and can be an inspiration to others.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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