Why the New York MTA Should Use Proof-of-Payment

Robust fare Enforcement at Gates May Not Be as Effective as a Transaction-Free “Honor System.”

December 25, 2019

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is spending lots of money these days on fare collection. This summer, it introduced a new tap card system that cost $644 million. And it will spend $249 million on 500 new officers to combat turnstile hopping. Both measures are meant to increase revenue for an agency that’s struggled to fund repairs. But they are, by now, two legacy strategies that are dismissed by many transit policy wonks. And they further delay rolling out a system that would be faster and more pleasant: proof-of-payment.

Proof-of-payment fare collection, known in the industry as POP, is an honor-based system where passengers enter transit vehicles without having to pay at gates or on-board. Here’s how POP typically works: passengers enter having paid beforehand, either through a digital app or a machine that prints tickets. Enforcement officers move through vehicles checking random passengers for proof of purchase. To avoid the nuisance to passengers and cost to transit agencies of having constant enforcement, it is instead sporadic—just frequent enough to scare people into buying tickets. If someone hasn’t bought one, they can be fined or removed from the vehicle. POP is thus “honor-based,” but if designed right, will prevent too many people from gaming the system.

POP’s advantage is that it reduces transaction times. Passengers don’t have to fumble for their cards or loose change at a gate. Nor must they line up one-by-one to pay upon boarding. This reduces dwell times at each stop, so service can speed up.

For this reason, many cities have shifted to POP. Germany uses it for its variety of trains, buses, and streetcars nationwide. Oslo switched to POP after its fare gates were proving difficult for mothers with strollers. Many U.S. light rail systems, which were built well after our legacy subways, use POP, since by then it had become an international best practice. San Francisco’s MUNI service also rolled out POP in the 1990s for rail, and in 2012 for its buses, which let it implement all-door boarding. That is, rather than crowds of passengers all entering at front doors, they can board through the rear door as well. This streamlines the flow of people onto the bus. The POP system has worked in San Francisco, claims Aarian Marshall of Wired.com.

“In tourist-heavy areas, the system’s bus and streetcar dwell times per stop dropped 13 percent. Before, each person getting on or off needed 6.8 seconds. Now, they take 3.5 seconds.”

The main argument against POP is that it will cause agencies to lose revenue. Some fare evaders inevitably slip through the law enforcement cracks, where in a traditional system, there’d be a gate forcing them to pay. That’s a valid problem, but it’s best tackled by having enough random officer check-ins to discourage people from fare beating. Even San Francisco has managed to do this somewhat: a MUNI agency survey found that fare evasion dropped from 10 percent of passengers in 2009 to 7.9 percent in 2014. A survey of dozens of other POP systems in the U.S. and Canada found fare evasion rates varied, but averaged 2.7 percent. It also found that on average, agencies did inspections on 11.3 percent of trips.

POP is within the capabilities of the NY MTA and may even be a cost-saving measure. When the MTA announced the hiring of 500 officers to police fare gates, several local politicians—led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—wrote a letter claiming resources would be better spent if cops worked the trains, where safety is also a problem. A POP system would accomplish that: in the process of checking fares, cops would, by definition, also be policing the trains. Another reform the MTA needs—which is starting to occur via Apple Pay—is payment by digital app. This too would be made easier through POP, since the MTA would not have to buy a bunch of new large app-reading fare gate machines. The officers could simply scan the app barcodes using smaller handheld equipment.

For this reason, POP makes sense for the NY MTA. The main argument the agency has made against it is the threat of fare evasion. A more likely rationale is that POP—like automated trains—would reduce staff and overhead, thus angering the MTA’s labor unions. But it’s a reform that would make the MTA’s trains and buses faster and more convenient. The use of POP in peer cities, domestically and internationally, has proven this out.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine, HousingOnline.com, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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