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The Human Impact of Unjust Fare Enforcement

Transit is a public good and should be seen as such. A public good is a service or facility that is available and accessible to all people—with benefits that extend beyond individuals to our community as a whole. Transit continues to be one of the most sustainable and effective ways to get thousands of people around our Metro everyday—families, students, commuters, and neighbors all use transit to get to the important places they need to go. Our buses and trains in the Twin Cities serve millions every year.

The Twin Cities public transit system, however, is not fulfilling its role as a public good. Inequitable policing and fare enforcement practices, along with barriers related to cost, disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color and people with low incomes.

Move Minnesota community member Risa Hustad, a Twin Cities transit rider and advocate, knows all too well the unfairness and dysfunction embedded in Metro Transit’s current state-mandated system of fare enforcement. A few years ago, Risa got off a late flight at MSP Airport. Risa planned on paying their transit fare in cash, but the train was approaching and the payment box was not working fast enough to get a ticket in time to board the train. Given how infrequently the late-night train runs, Risa hopped on the train, intending to pay on the train or at their final stop. “I actually had just traveled back from a place where you could pay train fare on board, I know that’s not the case on Metro Transit, but I had cash for my transit fare on hand and figured I could just pay when I got off at my final stop.”

As Risa told Move Minnesota: When Metro Transit Police boarded Risa’s train car to check fares, Risa showed the officers the cash they had for their fare and explained why they had not yet paid. Metro Transit Police were not understanding and took a hostile posture with Risa. What started as a misunderstanding at the fare box after a long flight devolved into demands to see an ID and threats of arrest. As this was happening, Risa noticed they had missed their stop. Risa notified the transit officers that the train had gone past their stop and they really needed to get off now. Officers issued them a criminal citation, which resulted in a misdemeanor on their record and almost $300 in related fees. 

Move Minnesota’s Community Organizer, Finn McGarrity asked Risa, “What would you say to lawmakers and Met Council staff who claim decriminalization is not necessary to reforming fare enforcement?”

They responded, “As a white person (who is privileged in police interactions), I was under the impression I was doing everything right—or I tried to—and I still was cornered by the police, paid hundreds of dollars in fines, and I have a misdemeanor on my record.”

“If this is what happened to me,” Risa continued, “what is happening to riders who are more marginalized than me?”

“I have access to vehicles and can drive. I don’t take transit because I lack options, I take it because I care about the environment and my community. After I got off that train that night, I didn’t want to take transit anymore. That was one of the worst consequences, I didn’t feel like I could ride for months.”

No one should experience what Risa experienced. There are lots of reasons people can’t or don’t pay their fare and they are predominantly tied to a lack of resources or, like in Risa’s situation, a faulty fare box or misunderstanding in how payment works. Regardless of the reason, the inability to pay a $2 fare should not be a crime or generate escalating and punitive fines. 

We also know that fares are not enforced equally. Here in the Twin Cities, glaring racial bias in fare enforcement has been well documented. Metro Transit’s own data has shown that Black and Native American riders are 5-7 more likely to be cited and arrested for not paying a fare. Other regions have shown similarly disturbing trends, prompting decision-makers to step in with policy changes. For example, Washington D.C. decriminalized fare non-payment in 2019 and Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts just signed a bill this year that would make it illegal to arrest people for fare non-payment.

Policy Change at the State Capitol

Move Minnesota and allies have been working to fix our state’s unfair and unjust fare enforcement policy for the past three years. This state policy forces heavy fines and criminal penalties on people who are unable to pay a transit fare—and ties the hands of transit agencies who want to take a different approach.

The fare enforcement bill that has advanced at the State Capitol this session includes two of our key recommendations: It establishes transit ambassadors—unarmed transit staff who would check fares on our trains and bus rapid transit lines and assist riders in navigating resources. And it creates the option for a lower penalty for fare non-payment—an administrative citation akin to a parking ticket, which ambassadors would use.

Unfortunately, however, this legislation does not yet remove the criminal misdemeanor penalty like it should. The determination of whether your missed fare is a crime is left to the whim of individual police officers. It’s a confusing choice that leaves the door open to discriminatory and heavy-handed enforcement. There are just days left in the legislative session and we expect fare enforcement policy to be part of end-of-session negotiations. Urge lawmakers to add decriminalization to the transportation bill to ensure all transit riders are treated equally and with dignity.

Current bill language also permits the Met Council to adopt an “escalating fine structure” with their administrative citations, and they are also permitted to contract with collection services. Especially given the historical trends across our country of racially biased enforcement and persistent income inequality, we need to make sure we aren’t simply replacing an unequal carceral system with an unequal financial system.

A Fairer Transit System Is Possible

Public transit is for everyone. When we hear stories like Risa’s, paired with the knowledge that riders of color and low-income riders often have the most to lose from criminal enforcement and costly fines, it’s a reminder that our current system is not serving everyone like it should.

Policies and funding matter. The decisions that our lawmakers are making at the State Capitol over the next few days will make a difference in the lives of people across the metro. Whether by fully decriminalizing fare enforcement or by passing transit funding sufficient to eliminate fares, as we have proposed, we know our region can do better.

Transit decision-makers could take a cue from the way the Twin Cities is already making progress in reducing barriers to another public service: the library system. The Star Tribune previously reported, “Nearly one in five Saint Paul library cardholders are blocked because of overdue fines. At the Rondo library, more than a third of registered cards are blocked, in keeping with research that showed the percentage of blocked cards is higher in poorer neighborhoods.” Saint Paul’s subsequent decision to eliminate library fees and erase more than $2 million worth of library fines has led to an increase in library activity making educational resources and book rentals more available for these underserved areas of the city. This example set by the Saint Paul Public Library system led to a ripple effect with Hennepin County, Grand Marais, and Duluth following with similar revisions to their policies.

Like parks and libraries, transit is a public service that serves community members from all walks of life, and if these other public systems can make the transformation to reduce barriers to access, transit needs to get on board and follow suit. Policies like lifting library fines in the region and decriminalizing fare evasion in areas like Washington D.C. demonstrate that it is possible to shift public systems to better serve the needs of our community, and these systems do not have to be reliant on a punitive process to sustain it. Shifts like these not only transform our understanding of public goods and services, they also transform the lives of people in our communities and neighborhoods. 

A fairer transit system is possible; we’ve seen it happen in other cities in our country. As our state confronts issues of climate with goals to reduce carbon emissions, and also address equity and cost of living, our transit system will continue to grow and evolve to serve more and more people. Everyone who gets on board deserves a positive and dignified rider experience. We are hopeful and will continue to work with lawmakers and allies to advocate for a more accessible and just system for all.

Take Action

Being unable to pay for bus fare should not be a crime. Take action now to help fix fare enforcement policy in Minnesota.