The number of T riders caught sneaking past fare gates has dropped significantly from a year ago, according to figures released by the MBTA.
So far this year, transit police have issued 2,838 citations for fare evasion compared with 3,187 citations through the same period last year, an 11 percent drop. Transit Police said they believe the reduction reflects word circulating among would-be scofflaws about increased vigilance for fare jumpers.
“We’ve instituted an operation targeting stations during rush hour where we have a high volume of riders
The T crackdown, called Operation Fare Game, places plainclothes officers at several high-traffic Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority stations, including Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, and Park Street.
The T has taken in more revenue from rider fares this year than last, even though total 2013 ridership is down slightly because of MBTA system shutdowns during the Boston Marathon bombing, according to MBTA spokeswoman Kelly Smith.
That means more of the people who are taking rides are paying — a good indication, Smith said, that there is a true drop in people attempting to evade fares.
“It is difficult to get inside riders’ heads and pinpoint their motivations, but we think that this drop is due to heightened awareness of the operation inside stations and in the media,” Smith said.
Most often, T riders escape fees by “piggybacking,” or walking through a gate just behind a paying customer. The more blatant evaders simply jump over the gates.
“You can tell when someone is being cited [for fare evasion], like you can when someone is pulled over to the side of the ride for a speeding ticket,” Smith added. “Seeing it happen has an effect on people.”
Smith added that the heightened presence of uniformed officers in subways after the Marathon bombing may have contributed to better rider behavior this year.
Plainclothes operations are a widely used tactic to fight fare evasion in conjunction with camera and video surveillance, according to several metropolitan subway systems.
Philadephia’s subway, run by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, relies heavily on cashiers to alert transit police of evaders, according to transit police chief Thomas Nestel. With the aid of camera surveillance, those officers then identify evaders and catch them at other subway stops, he said.
Still, fare evasion continues to be stubbornly high in Philadelphia, he said..
“Analyzing where fare evasion is high and targeting hot-spot locations to catch people right on spot is a great strategy,” Nestel said. “If our plan here doesn’t work, we’ll probably be stealing their [the MBTA’s] plan.”
The Chicago Transit Authority, which saw fare evasion rise last year, has partnered with Chicago police to increase security cameras in stations, upgrade the video surveillance system, and assign detectives to monitor stations, according to spokeswoman Tammy Chase.
In Boston, O’Connor said that plainclothes officers monitoring fare evasion have cited individuals who turned out to have outstanding warrants for other crimes.
“It’s a good tactic for us because we’ve stopped people who could commit other crimes,” O’Connor said. “It’s a dual focus.”
But that dual focus could be problematic, said Stuart Spina, a spokesman for the T Riders Union.
“We need to make sure that people aren’t profiled in these fare evasion efforts and flagged for other reasons,” said Spina, who urged transit police to release data on the number of fare evasions by station, as they do for more serious crimes, in addition to posting a total citation count.
“Including data on citation information will add another layer of transparency, because that will help show what the trends truly are and hold transit police fully accountable,” he said.
T spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency’s sole concern in stopping scofflaws is to prevent fare evasion.
“The only individuals with whom police have an interest are those who feel they don’t have to pay to use the MBTA,” Pesaturo said. “Law-abiding citizens who pay their fares have no reason to be concerned about Operation Fare Game.”Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AlyssaABotelho.