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Washington Will Decriminalize Fare Evasion. Better Idea: Free Transit

Evidence of discrimination in enforcement drove D.C.’s City Council to decriminalize transit fare evasion. But cities should consider abolishing fares entirely.
Commuters enter and exit the Federal Triangle Metro station in Washington, D.C, January 28, 2019.
Commuters enter and exit the Federal Triangle Metro station in Washington, D.C, January 28, 2019.Joshua Roberts/Reuters

It may sound strange, but the esoteric topic of fare collection has become one of the most polarizing in public transportation. And it’s likely to get worse—unless we start rethinking the idea of transit fares entirely.

The controversy has focused on penalties for those who do not pay for their transit trip, thereby committing “fare evasion.” Punishment can be stiff: in the District of Columbia fare evaders on the local transit system, Metro, could get a $300 fine and 10 days in jail. That’s hard to square that with a comparably light $30 fine for an expired parking meter in the District of Columbia—especially since transit riders are more likely to be minorities or have incomes below $15,000 than the general population. According to the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 91 percent of summons for fare evasion in the District between January 2016 and February 2018 were issued to African-Americans.