Many riders were unaware of a big change in Philadelphia public transportation that took place this past April. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) decriminalized fare evasion so quietly that most people didn’t even catch it on social media. Obviously, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to widely advertise this, as it would incentivize riders to start evading fares more purposefully, but this change is a significant one.
Previously, fare evasion on SEPTA was a criminal offense. The punishment for jumping the turnstile or slipping in through the disability entrance was a $300 fine and a criminal charge on your record. Now, SEPTA’s policy is a $25 fine, 10 times the price of the normal $2.50 fare. Although there are no longer arrests or criminal charges associated with fare evasion, SEPTA implemented a strike system where if you are caught evading the fare four times, you are banned from SEPTA and charged with a misdemeanor.
This is particularly interesting considering what is currently happening with the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) in New York. Recently, the MTA has been under heavy fire for cracking down on violations. Videos have gone viral of an increased police presence by turnstiles and some stories have blown up, such as a woman selling churros being arrested. These events are a result of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new MTA Capital Plan, which includes adding 500 new police officers to the MTA to address homelessness and “quality of life” issues.
Obviously, these are New York issues, which are well removed from Philadelphia and SEPTA, let alone students at Drexel University, but this is important to us for two big reasons. First, power abuse like this is rampant and could easily happen here in Philly. Second, we need to understand and appreciate why SEPTA’s policy change is a good thing.
To address the first point, SEPTA and the Philadelphia Police Department are no angels. Just reference the original policy. Up until April of this year, evading a $2.50 fare resulted in a $300 dollar fine and a criminal charge. That’s a 120-times increase in what someone is forced to pay when the likely reason they are skipping the fare in the first place is that they can’t afford it. While this policy change is a good one, the original has, no doubt, already harmed many individuals.
And on the second point, if people are skipping the fare on the subway, it’s rarely because they are lazy or cheap. It’s because they have to. The median household income in Philadelphia is $39,759. That’s to support a whole family. Consider that many people have to take public transport to get to work. That’s two rides a day, five days a week, let’s say 50 weeks a year. That’s going to be about $1,250 in fares a year just for getting to and from work. That’s money that could be spent investing in education for your children, food for the table or really anything that isn’t a public good that could be paid for with taxes.
Those fare charges add up and many skip payment because they need every penny to survive. In a world where wages are stagnant and living expenses are rapidly increasing, we can’t slap insane fines on people for just trying to save money. In the end, all that does is make things worse. We need to put aside our thirst for revenge and focus on rehabilitation and addressing these issues at a deeper level. This move by SEPTA is a step closer to that.