Councilors to vote on changes to Zero Fares bus program, citing safety concerns

Researcher finds ‘a hyperbolic narrative of crime’ is the real guiding factor in the push to bring back bus fares

By: - December 5, 2022 4:30 am
Albuquerque city bus #16 drives east bound on on Central Ave. In the next lane a dark sedan drives ahead.

Changes to the Zero Fares Pilot Program are being considered in the name of safety, according to city councilors, but a UNM researcher found an exaggerated sense of crime in the spin. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt / Source NM)

The city of Albuquerque’s Zero Fares program made transit free for everyone but has led some in the city to raise questions about who does and doesn’t belong on the bus.

The City Council was slated to vote today on a proposal to reinstate fares and offer a free option to those willing to submit an application and consent to an ID requirement, drafted by Westside City Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña. The changes are being considered in the name of safety.

Update: Monday, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m.

Though changes to the Zero Fares Pilot Program is on the Albuquerque City Council’s agenda for this evening, several people said on Monday that councilors are expected to postpone voting on the issue.

The proposal makes it a crime to try to ride the bus without showing a pass or paying the fare. If riders fail to pay for a ticket, show a bus pass registered in their name, or show an authorized photo identification card, they would be guilty of a misdemeanor under the new rules.

Hally Bert is a researcher specializing in critical planning and abolitionist perspectives on urban planning. She argues the proposed criminal penalties would inevitably result in riders coming into contact with police and would recreate the very barriers that the Zero Fares Program tried to address in the first place.

She interviewed community, city, and transit planners about how they see safety and crime being defined in transit policy generally — and in the Zero Fares program. They told her biases about people experiencing homelessness and other differences tend to dominate conversations about what is dangerous.

Bert sees a conflation between what people are calling “safety,” and the comfort of white and wealthier people. This conflation ended up shaping the changes now being considered by the Council, she said.

“This translates to a kind of safety that is less about protection from harm and more about protection from other people that might make you feel uncomfortable,” Bert said.

Riders on the bus are disproportionately Black and Indigenous when compared with the entire population of Albuquerque, according to Bert’s research. She argues that policies seeking to add more barriers — and more ways someone could rack up a misdemeanor charge or have a run-in with police — to riding the bus is “anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-poor.”

Albuquerque’s Zero Fares policy was advocated for by Together for Brothers, an organization that fosters leadership in young men of color in Albuquerque, with a focus on transit justice.

Since January of this year, Together for Brothers Organizing Fellow Luis Colunga and Program Director Baruch Campos have been surveying and speaking directly with bus riders. They said they haven’t encountered a massive amount of safety concerns from the people who would be most impacted by changes to Zero Fares.

However, some of the stories they have heard included racist harassment on the bus against Muslim residents of Albuquerque, racial profiling by drivers of at least three young Black students who were not allowed on the bus “because they didn’t look like young people, and they forgot their school ID,” Campos said.

Since those young people couldn’t ride the bus, they had to walk home, Campos said, which is actually a less safe way to get around.

Together For Brothers Executive Director Christopher Ramirez added that transgender riders and unhoused riders have also been harassed on the bus.

Misuse of data

When city officials and news media started reporting on the results of the Zero Fares Pilot Program, they presented numbers about transit-related security incidents without the context of increased ridership in the system overall.

Councilors voted in May 2021 to set aside $3 million to fund Zero Fares, Ramirez said. The program was meant to begin two months later, he said. But it didn’t. 

The Council in 2021 asked for a report on transit-related security incidents. In the first half of that year, there were 135 transit-related incidents, according to data shared with the Council during their Sept. 21, 2021 meeting.

Left out of the Council’s discussion, Bert said, was the fact that in the same period, there were 1,973,794 boardings, or individual rides, throughout the whole system, according to city data.

That means those incidents accounted for less than 1% of all the rides.

Of those 135 incidents, only 32 occurred on the bus, and most security calls were to bus stops, according to city data. Only 3 incidents resulted in arrest.

So throughout 2021 when the Zero Fares Program was being developed, councilors were shown evidence that in general, the bus “was not a particularly unsafe or criminal space,” Bert said.

Ramirez said Councilor Isaac Benton raised a concern about security, and the Council voted to push back the launch of Zero Fares to January in order to give transit officials time to plan for it.

“None of that planning happened,” Ramirez said.

City officials didn’t start promoting the program until mid-March, he said, “because they weren’t ready for it.”

Hyperbolic narratives

Bert also analyzed statements in news articles from public officials on the Zero Fares Pilot Program. She found what she calls “a hyperbolic narrative of crime” as the real guiding factor in how the proposed changes to the Zero Fares policy were shaped.

According to Bert, this narrative has four components:

  1. It misuses data or presents data without context, leading to a bias toward highlighting criminality.
  2. It takes single instances and turns them into generalizations about the entire transit system.
  3. It exaggerates feelings of discomfort by one person about other riders to the point where those other people are considered criminals.
  4. It stretches these definitions of crime to promote more policing.

“The bus is perceived as more dangerous because of the stigma and bias against the ridership, especially compared to those with the most power,” Bert said.

The proposal being considered Monday night disheartens Campos, he said. It’s a false solution, because even if the Zero Fares Program ends, he pointed out, we will keep seeing occasional incidents on the bus.

The proposal “doesn’t do anything to address safety,” Ramirez said.

It doesn’t increase lighting, cleaning or maintenance at bus stops, and it doesn’t provide deescalation training for drivers, or the security guards and police who work on the buses, who “have been known to escalate instead of deescalate situations,” he said.

“We’re just creating more barriers for the people most impacted, the people who need it the most,” Campos said. “We’re basically criminalizing folks who are already in such vulnerable situations themselves.”

Read a draft of Bert’s research here:

Policing through Planning- Safety and Crime and the Zero Fare Program Hally Bert DEC 2022 w_city reports added

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.