I woke up to this tweet making the rounds.
A few hours later it’s already gone, and so is the rest of his account, because some people don’t like being confronted with counter-positions to their terrible opinions.
That’s beside the point though. I just wanted to take a moment to try explaining to this corner of the internet what it’s like to be poor and using transit in a metro area like DC or NYC or SF because a lot of people are just genuinely unaware of what it’s like. I lived it for years (I’m still poor for the record, but not Sleeping on a Mattress on the Floor in a Glorified Closet in a Building Where They Make Crack and Meth in the Basement kind of poor like I was) and a lot of people who get up in arms about fare evasion aren’t thinking about the people who evade fares.
Let’s get this out of the way: people with money jump the turnstiles too, in much fewer numbers, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve seen groups of white kids on the Upper West Side in (ugly) designer clothes hop over the turnstile to catch the train because they never take the train and they don’t have a Metrocard and can’t be bothered to do it “just this one time” with their friends on an outing somewhere. I’ve seen professionals wearing relatively expensive office gear run to catch the train and hop over the turnstile because if they stopped to refill their card they would miss their train.
I never see tweets about them. I only see tweets from white people in gentrified neighborhoods playing Captain SaveAMetro being “concerned” with a public entity losing $2 because someone didn’t pay their fare. Do I know for sure that’s what Andrew was referring to? No, but I do know that a few years ago, Columbia Heights was named one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the country(x) and the Black population went from 58% in 2000 to 43% in 2010. (x)
Anyway, most people who jump the turnstiles aren’t doing it because they’re lazy and they’re not doing it for fun. They’re doing it because they have no other choice. Being poor is making calculated decisions with every penny you have. If you live in a metro area where public transit readily available think about the last trip you took to Target or a similar destination.
If you have your own car, you drove. That’s a luxury that the vast majority of poor people in densely populated areas do not have. We can’t afford a car and we definitely can’t afford to park it.
If you have enough disposable income, maybe you took an Uber. That $15 -$40 round trip (or more!) is two packs of toilet paper or a groceries for a week of dinner. Yeah it’s faster and more convenient, but if that’s not money you can afford to spend, you have to take public transit.
If you have a Metrocard you took the train both ways. That’s the cheapest option and that’s what most of us are left with…unless you don’t have enough to pay for both ways. Being poor means being creative and there were many times I figured out ways to avoid paying twice. In NYC, you can transfer from the subway to the bus for free and vice versa if you use your Metrocard within a couple of hours of swiping. This in place for people who don’t live in transit-heavy areas. If you live in Red Hook and work in Manhattan, you might need to take the bus to the train so you don’t have to walk a mile to the station and you shouldn’t have to pay twice for that. It inadvertently benefitted poor people, because cities don’t do anything for the express purpose of making life easier for poor people. I would take the train to Target, do my shopping as quickly as possible, and then swipe my card again to take a bus home within the 2-hour transfer window. It would sometimes take me an extra hour to get home, but that’s money I could use to buy lunch the next day.
Another NYC hack from back in the day: there’s a free transfer between 59th/Lex and 63rd because the city wanted to make it convenient to go from the F at 63rd to the NQRW/456 at 59th, but the stations are four blocks away. If I could get what I needed from Target at Bed Bath & Beyond instead, I would take the train all the way into Manhattan and get off at 59th, go the Bed Bath & Beyond on 61st and First, shop as quickly as possible, and go back into the system at 63rd/Lex and take the F for free. I didn’t live anywhere near an F train so sometimes the trip home would take an extra half an hour but, again, I saved enough money for lunch.
If you’ve never paid for a McDouble with quarters, you’ve never had to think about saving $2.50 whenever you can.
So why was I buying McDonald’s instead of cooking? A few reasons.
I lived in an apartment with three other strangers, and nobody had pots and pans. I was working for barely more than minimum wage so I wasn’t able to actually save enough money to buy anything. I used my paychecks on bologna and ramen and made that stretch for a week because that equivalent cost in nutritious food would last for one meal, maybe two.
And I didn’t have time to cook. I worked three crappy jobs to make ends meet, so my day regularly started with waking up at 5am so I could be on the train by 530am and at my job before 7. I’d work from 7 to Noon at the first job (all shifts were less than 5.5 hours because any more than that and the job would have to pay you for an extra break or — god forbid — bump you up to fulltime and give you health benefits) and then hoof it to the next job. I’ve had jobs that were technically close enough to walk, so I would walk the twenty blocks to the next job if the weather was nice enough. If it wasn’t, I’d have to pay money (that I hadn’t budgeted for) to get to my next job, but more on that later. Let’s say the weather was nice. My shift started at 12:30 so I had thirty minutes to walk a mile and eat something. What was I going to eat that wasn’t crap? I can’t afford a $12 salad. I don’t have leftovers from the dinner I couldn’t afford to cook. Lunch was hitting up Wendy’s or McDonald’s for something cheap that I could buy with extra laundry quarters and then I’d clock in for my next 5 hour shift. Clock out at 5:30 and hoof it over to my 3rd job before 6. Same food situation. Same walking or train situation. Another five hours and then I’m on the train home around Midnight. I get home at 1am and, even if I had enough money for a fridge full of groceries, when would I have time to cook them?
I just want to paint the picture for people who’ve never been poor that this is what daily life is like when you are barely scraping by. If you feel like you’re living paycheck to paycheck, but your day is an 8 hour shift in an office Monday – Friday, you don’t actually know how exhausting it is to truly live paycheck to paycheck. You probably haven’t actually lived paycheck to paycheck if you’ve never worked in a place where half the employees got these out of the vending machine on their break:
If your job doesn’t have these in the vending machine because they know their workforce is underpaid and stressed for time, you don’t need to be commenting about fare evasion.
So let’s get back to why someone would evade the fare.
If I just left my job in Soho and I need to get to my job in Chelsea, I could walk for 20-30 minutes, but it just started pouring rain. If I pay for the train, I can’t afford my 4 for $4 to power me through this next shift. I can’t call out because I need those hours on my next check in order to afford my rent, and that’s assuming I wouldn’t be fired for calling out anyway. So I jump the turnstile.
If I’m at home on my day off but one of my jobs calls me to come in, I could decline because I don’t have the subway fare, but that would mean missing out on an extra $50 in my check a couple of weeks from now. I could use some of the lunch money I allotted for the next few days, but what will I eat? Maybe I’ll just pay for a trip to work and then plan to walk back (something I did regularly back in the day — walk home for 3 hours after a shift because I couldn’t afford the fare and the weather was nice) but if work was exhausting or the weather was bad, I might hop the turnstile to come home.
If I’m out of a job but I get a job interview, I don’t want to walk there because I’ll be sweaty, but I need to go, because I need a job. I’m hopping the turnstile.
So maybe we should be more concerned about the reasons people hop the gate than whether the metro is getting their $2? And let’s be clear — they’re not out any money when someone evades the fare. If they didn’t have the money anyway, then no money was missed, because their options were riding for free or not riding at all. In both scenarios, the metro makes no money. And the cost of running a train is exactly the same whether it’s full or empty. So when you get upset about fare evasion, what are you really upset about? That poor people are getting something for free that you had to pay for? Take a beat and think about why that bothers you and then mind your business.
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