Editorial Pro Bono: My MTA Select Bus Service Fare Evasion Case

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  1. I would like to tell you why I'm taking a fare evasion case pro bono. When the Select Bus Service came to my neighborhood in Queens, it took me weeks to understand how it worked and why anyone would want to move from an electronic to an unreliable paper fare system. Sadly there has been a reckless disregard for providing anything remotely resembling clear signs to explain the process. Today I witnessed an MTA transit officer terrorizing a Hispanic (English as Second Language) woman who simply wanted to pay for the bus but was confused by the incomplete and grossly inadequate MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) implementation. She received a $100 summons for fare evasion, which will require her to take most of a work day off to have it dismissed in Brooklyn.

    What is the MTA Select Bus System?

    You may have no idea what the SBS is. A literal handful of New York City bus routes were designated as being the most popular and busy bus routes. Service would be improved by making the process of fare taking faster, especially during rush hour. As a result, the MTA decided to change these few bus lines (now called "Select Bus Service") and disable existing coin and metro card fare boxes - but which are still present and located next to the driver. The MTA spent tens of millions of dollars to put kiosks at these bus stops to sell single ride paper receipts, which are required to be obtained before one rides the Select Bus Service. Even if you have an unlimited metro card, you are still required to put your card in a machine and extract a paper receipt. As a result, SBS riders don't enter coins into the fare box or insert their Metro Card into the reader on the bus. They just get on the bus and are required to the show paper receipt to MTA transit officers when requested at random locations.

    New York City recently implemented the Q44 Select Bus System in Queens, to the massive confusion of local residents. At the bus stops, there isn't anything remotely resembling an explanation as to how the rules work and what you're supposed to do - which is why the MTA had workers providing assistance at these stops for many weeks after launch. The SBS kiosks may be located in excess of 20 feet from a bus stop sign or stop and appear virtually the same as standard Metro Card dispensary machines. The instructions state: "Get Ticket Here Before You Board Bus" without any further explanation. With cash only machines (photo below), there is practically no identification or explanation as to what the machine actually is on its face. And it appears strikingly similar to the ubiquitous parking ticket validation machines on the side of most city streets. I've received more information in an average Tweet or SMS message than from the MTA at the average SBS bus stop.

    If you're not already confused, SBS buses stop at the same bus stops as standard MTA buses - and standard MTA buses take cash and Metro Cards on the bus. Unless prior informed about how the SBS actually works, why would anyone believe that they would need a ticket if they have cash or a Metro Card? And what if you have a paper transfer from another MTA bus - and which is a ticket - but not the "ticket" which refers to an SBS ticket receipt? And what happens if you purchased or obtained an SBS ticket receipt but wish to ride the non-SBS bus which arrived first? None of these painfully obvious questions are explained anywhere - and even MTA transit agents aren't sure about the rules either.


    An MTA Transit Officer Terrorizes a Confused Passenger

    On Main Street, one of the busiest streets in Queens, three buses arrive at most bus stops - the Q44 Select Bus and the Q20A / Q20B. The latter two are standard city buses (the great majority of all MTA buses) which are equipped with a metro card reader and cash box for riders to use. They appear virtually the same as a Select Bus, with the exception being a sign on top of the windshield as you can see in the photo. They are virtually indistinguishable. The following photo is a standard Main Street bus stop. There is no sign or indication near the bus entrance front to suggest that the MTA bus requires anything other than a standard MTA issued Metro Card or exact change.


    A woman who rarely uses the bus and barely understands English entered the Q44 Select bus instead of the Q20, the former which requires a paper receipt and the latter the usual Metro Card or exact change. She thought the fare collection box was broken because it wouldn't accept her money (and there are usually signs that state that the box does not function.) When the bus stopped at a subsequent location, an MTA transit officer asked her for her receipt and escorted her off the bus. He demanded her ID. And when she didn't understand what was going on and comply immediately, he terrorized her with a threat to have her arrested and detained by the police (NYPD). She didn't know what to do so she called my family in fear for what was going on (my mother is a fluent Spanish speaker.) I arrived as quickly as I could.


    I asked the MTA transit officer what exactly was the problem, aware of the woman's integrity. With a huge grin on his face, he insisted to me that he can't tell who is truly confused, the woman speaks a perfect English (which is ridiculous) and that everybody knows how it works because the Q44 Select Bus Service has been running for several months. He wouldn't listen to logic and the obvious signs that this scared woman - who is unfamiliar with this bus system and has a poor command of the English language - was honestly confused and never intended to evade the fare. And with the ear to ear grin still on his face, the officer decided to issue a $100 summons to this poor woman, forcing her to take a full day off to travel to Brooklyn, explain the obvious and get it dismissed.

    Even MTA Employees Don't Know the SBS Bus Rules

    So what happens if you insert your Metro Card into the machine and get a paper ticket to ride the Q44 Select Bus Service and the Q20A or Q20B arrives? Do you need to use your Metro Card to purchase another fare to ride a bus along the same line like you did for countless years? Nobody knows for sure. According to this MTA officer, once you insert your Metro Card or cash to purchase a receipt for the Q44 SBS bus, you lose your privilege to take the Q20A or Q20B bus if it arrived. Yet every other MTA officer insisted that you could hand the paper receipt to drivers and they should honor the purchase - which they generally do. But none of the officers were sure if this was really required or just a courtesy. And there are no instructions at any bus stop regarding these basic, obvious issues that arise every hour on this bus route. And this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the ineptitude surrounding the SBS bus system, which will be covered in a following article.

    Pro Bono - Taking on the MTA Select Bus System

    I was fortunate to flag a taxi cab in the neighborhood. I calmed down the woman who had earlier burst into tears. I put her in the cab and gave her money to pay for the fare, who was already late to pick up her son. And I also kept her transit summons, intending to fight her case pro bono at the Transit Adjudication Bureau in Brooklyn. On the bright side, an MTA supervisor who came over after the incident and who happened to be in the area. He was disappointed that he wasn't there at the time and was very understanding of the situation. But unfortunately once one bad apple decides to complete a fare evasion summons, any resolution of a misunderstanding is taken out of a supervising officer's control.

    I will be following up this article with news about whether there is a resolution to this problem. In addition, I will be covering a disturbing question of why $100 fare evasion summonses are reportedly issued to riders who have unlimited Metro Cards but may have forgotten to obtain a paper SBS receipt.

    • New York

    Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.
    Krizia Fernando likes this.


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  1. Matthias Weber
    Thanks for sharing this, Michael.

    My wife and I were visiting NYC this April as tourists from Germany and have the same problem- despite owning each a valid 7-day unlimited travel card. Last week we received two hefty fines of 100$ each. There seems to be a zero tolerance here, especially when you treat tourists this way- while not even New Yorkers seem to understand the system. What I do not understand is that we pre-paid the service, and this is only about not presenting a print-out for this specific bus (the receipt shows a fare of 0$)- shouldn't the number of the travel card (which we provided) be proof enough that a payment has been made? I understand that they have to fine something- but 2x 100$ seems to be just way out of proportion to me.
    I still have one shot at appeal- could you give us a piece of advice here?
    1. Michael Wechsler
      You have no defense that you just pre-paid for the bus. The rules require you print out a receipt for the bus so inspectors can determine your actual payment immediately. Our defense was that the signs are inadequate to provide commuters - especially tourists - with warning about this counter-intuitive system. Simply saying you didn't know will not work. I will be following up with another truly shocking article about our appeal. If you don't appear in court, your appeal will likely fail.
      Michael Wechsler, Aug 11, 2017
  2. commuter101
    What was the outcome of this case? Am going through a similar case where I had a valid transfer and additional money on the card but was unable to obtain a paper receipt at the machine and no discretion was given.
    1. Michael Wechsler
      The rider was found guilty. Having a hearing in person at the Transit Adjudication Bureau in Brooklyn is the only hope for reason. But once you admit that you didn't have the Select Bus Service ticket to ride they appear to treat it as a prima facie case of you being guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent. The fact that the MTA may have caused or greatly contributed to the problem is something the MTA doesn't appear to want to hear or acknowledge. Use our law forum to discuss the issue.
      Michael Wechsler, Jan 18, 2017