photo: a police officer in the NYC subway.
As New York's MTA launches a new policing campaign, some worry about the effects of the crackdown. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

From New York City to Santiago, public transit plays an increasingly central role in debates over social equity, inclusion, and who should get the right to ride.

In a video posted on Twitter by New York City subway rider earlier this month, a tearful woman is seen surrounded by four NYPD officers.

“What’s she doing?” Sofia Newman, the rider, asks.

The woman was selling churros—she’s one of several vendors with carts who sell the fried pastries to riders in the city’s subway stations. “It’s illegal to sell food inside the subway station,” the officer replies. “We warned her multiple times, and she doesn’t want to give it up. That’s it.”

“Can’t she just go outside, and keep her stuff?” Newman asks. No, the officers say. Eventually, the officers handcuff the vendor and take her cart away.

The churro vendor’s arrest, followed by the arrest of another vendor, Maria Curillo, in the following days, was retweeted by the advocacy organization Decolonize This Place and quickly went viral, leading to demonstrations at Broadway Junction, one of Brooklyn’s busiest subway stations, last week. That capped off what has been a spate of attention given to policing America’s largest transit system. The MTA has launched a new campaign to combat fare evasion, which the agency claims cost them $300 million this year in lost bus and subway fares. That has been coupled with the hiring of 500 transit officers underground—which could cost the system more than it saves in recovered fares. With the new cops came viral videos of “hyper-aggressive” tactics they used. In late October, thousands of riders jumped the turnstiles en masse in a protest against the stepped-up police presence underground.

But New York City is not the only city whose transit systems have become theaters for protest. In Chile, more than a million people took to the streets of Santiago in October after a fare hike sparked larger discontent with the ruling party, with many demonstrators attacking the subway stations themselves. Hong Kong protesters and authorities alike have focused their attentions on the city’s vaunted Mass Transit Railway system. And in London, the climate-crisis protest group Extinction Rebellion made a controversial effort to disrupt subway service last month. Talk of cracking down on fare beaters is on the rise here as well.

Why does public transit so often play a starring role in protests? And how do questions about who gets to access it collide with gentrification, police violence, and racial disparities? To find out, I reached out to Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at the City University of New York at Baruch College who studies the intersection of public transportation and equity in cities around the world. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

We know that transit is linked to traditional means of equity, when we think of access to jobs, leisure, and social inclusion. What else did you find in your research that specifically links transit to equity?

The experience of using transit—where we all feel like we’re in it together—is quite different from the experience of driving in a car independently. There’s an egalitarian aspect to being on a subway car, or on a bus; you are in community automatically with the people around you in a way that is unlike any other way. It’s a public space, but it’s a special kind of public space that everyone has opted into. In the sense that a community is a team, it’s an immediate team that has been built up.

This community aspect is often overlooked when we think about transit, so it doesn’t surprise me that we see uprisings around transit issues in places where there are deeper problems around equity and poverty. Transit is the place where we can actually come together. To threaten transit with a higher fare or service cuts will immediately spark a kind of community-driven anger.

In Chile, we saw subway fare hikes serve as a trigger for protests. In New York, viral videos of aggressive enforcement have led to demonstrations, most recently after the arrest of a churro vendor. But what conditions lead to this? What do you think is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back here?

Any incursion into the space of transit is going to feel like an affront to people for whom that it is an important space. [The subway] is an important space for everyone who uses it, but I think in a way it’s an even more important for very low-income people or people who are outside of conventional communities. Cops entering into that space presents a feeling of exclusion. Raising the fare presents a feeling of exclusion.

There’s a lot of other issues in Chile that are obviously much more salient than just the subway fare. But I’m not surprised that it was the fare that was that straw; it was immediately galvanizing, because that’s a place where we actually come together.

A part of the fare evasion issue in New York may be a sense that the social contract has been broken—the subway is no longer reliable, and therefore riders may feel less inclined to pay for it. But do you need that context for protest?

No. When I talk to people about fare beating, I find that there is the occasional person who feels justified in fare beating because the level of service is so low. But for the most part, that’s an anomalous reason. It’s generally people who are in dire straits, who are in a rush and can’t get the money together. And it’s also broken equipment, frankly.

Putting cops in that space highlights a problem not with transit and level of service, but rather the police themselves, and police-community relations. We have a major problem with police in New York City; it’s an institution that has a very poor reputation, and people are afraid of the police. We also have a policy, equity, and poverty problem. People often find themselves without enough money to even get the $2.75 together to ride the subway, but still need to go where they need to go, so they’re beating the fare. That is a problem that is not appropriately solved with weapons of any kind. That’s precisely why the police’s reputation has declined over time: outsized uses of force. It’s happening in the transit system, but I think it’s a problem with police-community relations.

That, of course, marks a lot of the sentiment towards a potential presidential run by Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, and recent statements by Governor Cuomo regarding a supposed lack of safety underground.

I think the impetus for this policy may have come from a fear of our system returning to what it had been in the 1970s and ’80s. When we see unsheltered people down in the subway system, there’s an immediate visual trigger that might happen to people of a certain age. They might say, ’Oh, this is the type of system that we had in the past. We need to prevent this from happening again.’

But it’s 2019, and we’re not going back in time. There’s no reason why we can’t have an improving subway system, with cleaner stations, better-working fare machines, shorter headways, and a city that’s still growing. Sometimes there will be unsheltered people sleeping in stations, and they need mental health help and homelessness assistance. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean that suddenly there’s going to be, like, Guardian Angels and graffiti. It’s not like 1975 is going to happen again.

I’m concerned that urban policy in New York City, and urban areas everywhere, is produced because of a fear of a declining inner-city, when that has not been the reality for at least 20 years. People are poor now for different reasons, and in different ways.

In your research, you interviewed a wide spectrum of riders about how they pay for transit. What is the perception you found that is held by low-income individuals towards accessing transit, and who can be a transit rider?

[For those who sometimes evade paying the fare,] it’s ‘I need to go, I’m going to get there, but I don’t have the cash. I know what the risk is, and I can take the risk.’ It’s a woman who gets on the back of a bus with her kids so she can get them to school on time, who didn’t have the fare that day. It’s someone whose family member took their MetroCard, and they still have to get to work or else they’re going to lose their job. They’re looking at that moment in their lives, and they’re assessing the risk versus the benefit. It’s a rational decision, and a frightening and terrible decision that you have to make because you are poor. What do you do? You still have to continue living. Being able to move around the city is just being able to continue living.

And for people who live on the outskirts of a city, for example, and who have to travel considerably in order to get to work, it’s not an option to just go ahead and walk. Although I also spoke with people who do that: people who will spend their last couple of dollars or fare-beat to get where they need to go during the day, knowing that they’ll just be walking for hours and hours that night so they don’t fare beat again, and don’t have the money.

So what should the role of enforcement be in transit systems?

Those same people I spoke with said that every person should have to pay the same, and nobody should be in there without paying. People get angry, for example, when they see a bus driver go ahead and let someone on the bus, even though they didn’t pay, after they just went ahead and spent the fare. They like the procedural fairness of everyone having to pay to enter.

But there are ways to enforce fare differently, without bringing in an institution like the police. Those 500 officers, for example, can be trained in community relations and procedural fairness, and then practice that underground. They can stop every 20 people on Select Bus Service [express buses], and explain that they’re the twentieth person and that’s why they’re stopped, to check their tickets. That’s a nice way to get training of procedural justice into the police system, which is not something that I know they do right now. Instead, when an officer approaches you, you feel targeted, and put down by the situation, as opposed to, ‘Hello, sir or ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you’re the tenth person that has come on the bus, and that’s why I’m checking for your SBS ticket. OK, you don’t have it—let me get your information, in case you do have it later.’ There are no guns, no threats, and no getting kicked off or anything like that.

It’s also worth thinking about the rest of our transportation system. The 14th Street Busway, for example, is working so well because there are human beings standing in the middle of 14th Street telling cars that they can’t turn down there. That’s one thing that those officers can certainly be trained to do easily. There are plenty of other places to put uniformed officers. The subway stations need to be safe places, and that may sometimes involve removing unsheltered people who are using the space inappropriately, but none of this has to involve guns. You can definitely police these spaces; they’re not public in the sense of a park, with a gate and curfew. They’re quasi-public: There’s a fare, not everyone can go in, and there’s a reason to be there. Enforcing that is appropriate. But there’s a way to do it that is actually for the public safety, as opposed to terrifying the public.

In Hong Kong, we see an inverse scenario—highly reliable service, but protests focus on larger structural issues with the Chinese government and society. Same can be said about the Extinction Rebellion protests on the London Tube, to a certain extent. How does that fit into the equity conversation?

It’s not surprising. Again, it’s the public square in many ways. It’s where people gather because they all have to, and not because of any particular agenda. You don’t always go to Trafalgar Square or into the middle of the Sogo Mall [in Hong Kong] or whatever city you’re in; you go to the transit system because that’s where public attention is. For groups who are trying to gain attention to make a point, it makes sense.

Of course, destroying those places disrespects those places as public spaces. But if those spaces have been managed in the way that New York’s are starting to be, then those otherwise public spaces are managed in such a way where people think they’ve been taken from them. That they’re no longer really public—they’re just instruments of a police state, or some kind of oppression. And people will absolutely fight back against that.

I’m not surprised that they’re starting to do that. That’s pretty much the case with Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, those stations are funded by real estate development, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the protesters there are quite aware of that. They’re state-owned, and sort of global capitalist statements.

What implications do these protests hold for the future of mass transit, and cities?

Gentrification is sometimes defined as the production of urban space for increasingly affluent users. By making a transit system more amenable to people who don’t want to see the homeless, or people who don’t fit in what their idea of what the public ought to be, by removing those people and putting in cops who make some people feel comfortable and not others, you are taking a space that was once egalitarian and public and making it for more affluent users. It’s the gentrification of a subway system.

We’ve seen it happen in other public spaces, like parks and sidewalks in some neighborhoods. I think this is the next step of gentrification, in transit systems—to create those spaces for people who have more affluent sensibilities. And I think it’s inappropriate.

But I think they say something more about cities. The voices of people in the face of oppression can be difficult to hear when we’re too far apart from each other. Where’s the place that we all have to go in cities? We all have to go underground at some point, or on public transit. We all kind of work around each other, and that becomes unique to our own city, and our own bit of a subway line, sometimes. That’s special. And that’s us doing it. We’re creating it ourselves.

The prospect of that being taken away, or overpoliced, or the fare going up, can really arouse deep-seated anti-oppression sentiments that are there for other reasons. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going after my family. You’re going after my community; a place where I am me, where I have the support of everyone around me.’ It can really feel that way. And anything that gets in the way of that, basically gets in the way of what a city does well.

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