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The Q65 bus came to a stop along a residential block in Queens and a construction worker stepped onboard. He walked past the farebox without paying. The driver pushed the F5 button on his dashboard.
At the next stop, an older woman with a cane climbed on and gave the driver a hearty wave. She, too, did not pay. Again the driver pressed F5.
Over two and a half hours, the driver pressed F5 — the button that records fare evaders — at least 50 times, and there was still a half-hour left on his morning route.
“It’s getting worse,” said the driver, Luis, who declined to provide his full name because he did not have permission to discuss his job. “How many? On my bus, hundreds a day. Hundreds with an ‘s.’”
Transit officials recently announced a remarkable figure: One in five bus riders in New York City does not pay the fare. The statistic stunned even Andy Byford, the leader of the subway and bus system, who said it was “wholly unacceptable” and at least double the rate of other cities across the world.
“We look at what other transit authorities are suffering, and this now really stands out as an outlier,” Mr. Byford said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees the subway and buses, says fare evasion is on the rise on the subway and buses, costing the system $225 million in lost revenue last year. But the problem is far worse on buses, where nearly 22 percent of riders do not pay, compared with 3.4 percent of subway riders.
An informal survey on several routes found that fare evasion was widespread and the reasons varied. Riders did not have exact change. They knew they would not get in trouble. And some simply felt no obligation to pay for a transit system plagued by unreliable service and constant fare increases.
On a recent morning, a man and two children boarded a BX19 bus in the Bronx through the back door without paying the $2.75 fare. Standing across the street, Charisma Howard said she sometimes skipped the fare, too, and did not feel bad about it.
“There have been times when I’m fiddling with my purse or carrying my children, and I walk past the driver,” she said. “Do I feel guilty? No, I don’t feel guilty. The service is so bad on the buses, the train, everything. A lot of people feel the same way.”
On the Q65 bus in Queens, Jose Castillo, the construction worker, confessed that he could not afford the fare. “O.K., listen,” he told the driver. “I don’t have any money. I’m just trying to get to work.”
The bus driver shrugged. There was nothing he could really do. A confrontation with a rider could hold up the bus — or, worse, lead to violence.
Cities across the world are grappling with fare evasion, though it is far worse in New York. In Paris, the fare evasion rate for buses is 11 percent, while in Toronto it is 5 percent, according to the local transit agencies. The Paris transit system has 1,200 staff members dedicated to the problem and hands out about one million fines each year.
In London, where riders face fines as high as $1,300, the fare evasion rate on buses is only 1.5 percent. But in Washington, where about 14 percent of bus riders do not pay, the D.C. Council recently went in the other direction, approving lighter penalties because of concerns about targeting low-income riders.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the transportation authority, has pressed transit leaders to tackle fare evasion as part of his plans to address the system’s financial crisis. On the subway, loud alarms were installed at some emergency exits to dissuade riders who use them to sneak inside. New signs warn: “Fare Evasion Will Cost You.”
On city buses, which carry more than two million people each day, Mr. Byford suggested sending police officers onboard to enforce the rules.
“The big thing we’re missing is we need cops on buses,” Mr. Byford said at a recent transit board meeting.
But his comments drew an immediate backlash from critics, who said the move would “exacerbate the over-policing of communities of color.” Fare evasion arrests have disproportionally targeted black and Hispanic men.
Mr. Byford later clarified that he did want to see more arrests, but that the presence of officers would discourage riders from breaking the rules. “I’d love it if no one actually got caught,” Mr. Byford said.
The authority’s new chairman, Patrick J. Foye, said he also did not want to focus on arrests and wanted to find other solutions. He said the rollout of a new fare payment system using smartphones, which starts in May, would make it easier to check if someone paid the fare.
“I do not believe in criminalizing fare evasion,” Mr. Foye said at a recent State Senate hearing.
Riders who fail to pay the fare can receive a civil summons with a $100 fine. They can also be arrested on a “theft of services” charge, a misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail, if they have a history of similar arrests or lack valid identification.
Transit advocates say the prevalence of fare evasion reflects how many New Yorkers struggle to pay for the basics, like subway and bus fares. After intense lobbying by advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a discount program this year that provides half-price MetroCards for poor New Yorkers. But it included far fewer people than expected.
For bus drivers, striking the right balance between enforcing the rules and avoiding conflict with riders is difficult and, sometimes, dangerous. In 2008, a bus driver was stabbed to death by a rider who did not pay his fare — the first slaying of a city bus driver in more than 27 years. In response, the authority offered classes to drivers on defusing tense situations and added plastic partitions between drivers and passengers.
When a passenger refuses to pay, transit officials say the bus driver should politely say the price. If that does not work, bus drivers are told to press the F5 button and continue boarding other passengers.
Luis, the Queens bus driver, said safety was always on his mind. “What if I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to pay.’ You don’t know if he’s armed with a knife or gun. I have this,” he said, pointing to his partition. “But this isn’t going to stop a bullet or someone from reaching over.”
Fare evasion has been far less of a problem on the city’s Select Bus Service routes — faster buses that account for 13 percent of bus ridership, where customers pay before boarding. The fare evasion rate on those buses is only 2.5 percent, a figure that is low partly because M.T.A. employees, known as “eagle teams,” patrol buses to ticket riders who do not pay. The agency is testing using the teams on regular buses.
Some transit advocates question the M.T.A. statistics and say officials are inflating the problem. The figures are based on observations along 140 of the 317 city bus routes that are extrapolated for the entire system. The agency does not even use the tally from bus drivers pressing the F5 button — that figure is used only to identify “hot spots” for fare evasion.
Back on the Q65 bus in Queens, Marty Ross admitted that he once skipped the fare because he forgot his MetroCard and did not have enough change.
“It happens to everyone,” said Mr. Ross, 68, of the Bronx. “Not everyone can pay every day.”
But another rider, Kevin Molina, a 23-year-old landscaper, said fare beaters hurt paying riders.
“I’ve never done it,” he said. “I pay my fair share. Those who don’t pay make the prices go up for the rest of us.”