Campaign Asks New Yorkers to Help Their Neighbors Hitch a Ride

The ‘Swipe It Forward’ action encourages subway riders to help out those who can’t afford the fare.
NYPD officers stand guard in a New York subway station. (Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Nov 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

New Yorkers scraping together change to pay for a $2.75 subway ride on Wednesday were in for a surprise at four stations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan: a free ride. A coalition of activists kicked off its sixth “Swipe It Forward” action during rush hour Wednesday morning, swiping in riders who couldn’t afford the fare and encouraging commuters with unlimited MetroCards to swipe in fellow New Yorkers.

“Our goal is to empower the community to help itself and for New Yorkers to create a small protest in their everyday lives that says we should not criminalize people who are poor,” Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with the Coalition to End Broken Windows, told TakePart. “It’s about the community being there for each other and protecting themselves.”

Trujillo, a native New Yorker, helped lead one of two actions in Harlem on Wednesday because he is tired of seeing “nonstop mass arrests of people for fare beating or asking for a swipe.”

Trujillo’s organization is part of a coalition that organizes “Swipe It Forward” events. The groups aim to draw attention to the number of arrests made and summonses issued for fare evasion, which advocates say disproportionately fall on people of color. While it is commonly believed that using an unlimited MetroCard to swipe someone other than the cardholder is illegal, that’s not true—as long as the card is swiped at least 18 minutes after its last use and “not transferred to another person until the completion of a trip for which entry was obtained,” according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Organizers hope that riders with unlimited-ride cards will swipe a rider in on the way out of the station. Contact between the parties is made simply by nodding or making eye contact, as people who ask for a swipe outright can be arrested for panhandling or solicitation.

In 2015, NYPD officers made 26,511 arrests for “theft of service,” the offense category that fare evasion falls under. The activists say the majority of theft of service arrests are for fare evasion. Officers also issued 60,774 criminal summonses for theft of service in 2015, according to data sent to TakePart by the office of the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information.

By taking to the subway stations, the groups want to not only inspire generosity among New Yorkers but to draw attention to the bigger issue they say drives fare evasion: poverty.

“The main reason people evade the fare is not the thrill of jumping the turnstile,” Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, told TakePart. “It’s because they’re poor.”

The cost of a subway ride in New York City has gone up five times in the last eight years and has increased 38.9 percent since 1995, when adjusted for inflation.

Rather than arresting or issuing summonses for fare evasion, the coalition would like the city to offer MetroCards for free or at a reduced cost to New Yorkers in need. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city’s poverty rate is 20.9 percent. The city could spend roughly $40 million per year on free or reduced-cost MetroCards rather than the roughly $50 million it spends on fare evasion arrests, according to the campaign.

Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration introduced reforms that allow police to issue a criminal summons instead of making an arrest for certain petty crimes. The minor offenses included public urination, taking up two seats on the subway, and littering.

But the move did not change enforcement practices for fare evasion. Last year, de Blasio told reporters at a press conference that “fare evasion should not be looked at too lightly.... We have often found in the case of fare evasion that the individuals who attempt fare evasion have outstanding warrants or have weapons on them.”

Targeting low-level crimes in an effort to prevent more major crimes is the hallmark of the “broken windows” policing philosophy that has long been embraced by the NYPD and after which Trujillo’s organization is named. First heralded by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then–Police Commissioner William Bratton in New York City in the early 1990s, the theory grew in popularity and practice. But the efficacy of targeting petty criminals has increasingly come under fire in recent years. In June, the NYPD’s own watchdog, the Department of Investigation’s Office of the Inspector General, published a report finding no evidence that arresting and issuing summonses for petty offenses leads to a drop in felony crime. The NYPD responded by publishing a report titled Broken Windows Is Not Broken.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the “Swipe It Forward” campaign or the policy of arresting or issuing summonses for fare evasion.