Home Fare Hikes Pondering a zone system with $3 fares looming

Pondering a zone system with $3 fares looming

by Benjamin Kabak

Back in November, when The Daily News first reported on the looming three-dollar fare, I figured someone in a position of power would act before things got that desperate. But as the New York state legislature and City Council continue to deliberate or ignore the implications of inaction on the Ravitch Report, the MTA took another step closer toward a $3 base fare for the New York City subways and buses.

In a pdf file announcing upcoming public hearings scheduled for January and February, the MTA detailed how it will attempt to generate a 23 percent increase in fare revenue across all MTA fares and tolls. While the language is convoluted, the news is decidedly grim.

First and most prominently is the news that base and cash fares could go up to as much as $3, and Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards may feature a $3-per-swipe deduction as well. Alternatively, the MTA could go with a $2.50 charge on MetroCards while the base cash fare and single ticket rides stand at $3. The discount bonus for pay-per-ride cards, if it survives this fare hike, would not kick in until a user reaches a $12.50, and the MTA proposes that the bonus range from as high as 35 percent (unlikely) to as low as 0 percent (not ideal but likely).

The Unlimited Ride MetroCards, preferred by around 46 percent of subway riders, would see marked increases. The one-day pass could cost as much as $9.50; the seven-day pass could be $32; the new 14-day card could cost $60; and the 30-day unlimited would be as much as $105. While that 30 percent increase for the 30-day card pales in comparison to the 50 percent base fare hike, crossing that $100 barrier is a significant psychological blow to New Yorkers.

Elsewhere the hikes would be significant with drivers paying a lot to cross over and through the MTA’s bridges and tunnels. Seniors would enjoy fewer discount hours and paratransit fares could hit $6 per ride. But this is all avoidable if the state can pass a sensible MTA bailout plan.

Instead of bailouts though, let’s talk about another idea not mentioned. What if the MTA adopted a Washington, DC, or a London style fare structure? Right now, it costs $2 (or less) to ride from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Riverdale in the Bronx, a distance of nearly 27 miles driving. It also costs $2 to ride from 14th St. and 8th Ave. to Grand Central, a distance of about 2.2 miles driving.

Various other subway systems aren’t so generous. In DC, an off-peak 14.1-mile trip costs $2.35 via the Metro while a three-mile ride costs $1.35. At rush hour, the fares increase so that the 14.1-mile trip is $4.30 and the three-mile ride is $1.60. A variable pricing structure would certainly do a lot to increase the MTA’s revenues.

There are, as I see it, two major problems to this proposal. First, the MTA’s antiquated MetroCard system isn’t set up to allow for entry and exit fare swipes. The MTA would have to refit the entire system with newer and better SmartCard technology. While the day should come when the MTA does just that, a time when money is tight and fares may need to be jacked up just so the agency can meet its operating budget is no time for an enormous technological investment.

Second, this proposal basically fleeces people who can’t afford — or, in some cases, choose not to — live close to Manhattan. Unlike Washington, D.C., and London, two cities with variable fare structures, New York City isn’t really a suburban city. People in D.C. commuting in from Franconia-Springfield generally choose to live in the suburbs and take Metro into the city. Folks in New York commuting from Coney Island to Manhattan aren’t enjoying the same luxury. At that point, we’re taxing the people who can least afford to pay.

Anyway, as the MTA gears up for public hearings, we’re going to need some out-of-the-box solutions to combat this potential fare hike. We can imagine a world of variable pricing; we can imagine a world of East River tolls. But unless imagination becomes reality, we’re going to soon be facing a New York City with significantly higher mass transit fares.

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Kevin December 23, 2008 - 1:50 am

The MTA seriously needs to consider smart card technology, similar to the Oyster in London and Octopus in Hong Kong. These cards would both reduce litter (make new cards have one time fees) and reduce entry frustration, which is one of the major causes of aggravation during the commute.

The zone system would be interesting but I wonder how bus rides would be factored into this as well. Of course, residents of Eastern Queens, the Rockaways, Northern Bronx, etc, will throw a massive fit at a zone plan.

James D December 23, 2008 - 5:46 am

Retrofitting the entire system for exit swipes is just unrealistic. The costs would be prohibitive, and it would probably result in closing a *lot* of the less-used stations (I don’t just mean really low-ridership ones such as Bushwick-Aberdeen either). The consequence would almost certainly be lower revenues.

The other sort of differential fare — the charge, say, $3 between, say, 7am and 9am Mondays through Fridays version — seems much more practicable. This even more so targets a user group that is overwhelmingly responsible for the MTA’s fixed costs. I suspect that the price elasticity of demand is low at that time of day, so it should actually raise some revenue.

And obviously, this would allow the $3 minus $2.50 (or whatever) to be multiplied by five-sevenths of the number of days on an unlimited; and then this be added to the price of those too in order not to skew the market.

Peter December 23, 2008 - 8:19 am

Yeah, Peak fares a la the Commuter Lines might be a way to sweeten a sour necessity, but the elephant in the subway car is Ted Kheel’s plan to make it all free and impose a modest tax on city and region residents as a whole. Nobody seriously discusses the practicality of it. It used to be unspeakably impractical,politically, but so was tolling E River bridges, once.
And everyone benefits from Mass Transit whether they actually ride it or not.

Marc Shepherd December 23, 2008 - 8:35 am

The $3 base fare is a good idea, and it should be implemented regardless of what happens to the Ravitch proposal. The base fare is a symbolic figure. Regular riders don’t pay that amount. Those who do are “occasional” riders (visitors, tourists, etc.), and the extra buck won’t kill them.

rhywun December 23, 2008 - 8:39 am

You are correct that the DC system is mainly a commuter line, and the London system has a large suburban component, however it’s not like residents of Manhattan don’t already pay hundreds of dollars rent more than most people in the outer boroughs. Paying less for shorter trips could be seen as another “benefit” of living in Manhattan. In other words, fare zones aren’t as unfair as people will make them out to be. Many of us live outside Manhattan by choice precisely so we can save that money. It’s not like all residents of Manhattan are overflowing with riches, and all residents of the outer boroughs are on the dole.

That said, I’m against zoning. This is *one* city, it should be one fare. Now is not the time to pit borough against borough. There’s already enough of that going on with the bridge tolls. Besides, it would be political suicide to support the idea…

Marc Shepherd December 23, 2008 - 9:23 am

There is no good reason why other cities have fare zones, and New York does not. The same arguments, for or against, make sense in any large urban area.

However, it is a political, a financial, and a practical non-starter. The politics are obvious, but the engineering problem is a nightmare. It isn’t just a matter of replacing every turnstile at 468 stations. You actually need more of them to maintain throughput, since exiting the system would be “harder” (i.e. would take longer) per person. In London, the larger stations have many more turnstiles than in New York, and they’re usually set to work only one way, so that you won’t have entering and exiting passengers staring each other down. New York doesn’t have that problem (or not to that extent) because exiting is easy.

The financial issue is that it would cost hundreds of millions, maybe a billion, and many years, to retrofit the whole system. Imagine the case for making that investment: “The great thing is, we’ll be able to charge more money in the outer boroughs.”

Kai December 23, 2008 - 9:32 am

Good analysis, and the two problems are exactly why I disagree with the zone system. I do think Metrocards should be replaced with a more reliable technology.

A zone system would discourage people from living in the outer areas of the city. In smaller geographical cities, like DC, it helps the city by keeping people from living in Virginia. But here in NYC, the entire system lies within the city.

Tania December 23, 2008 - 9:48 am

The problem with a zone system is exactly what you criticized: screwing over those who are poor. The cheaper areas of NY–upper neighborhoods in the Bronx, Jamaica, Bay Ridge, etc.–are those that would be charged the most to make it to Manhattan proper.

rhywun December 23, 2008 - 10:56 am

> There is no good reason why other cities have fare zones, and New
> York does not.

The political reason is as good as any.

> you won’t have entering and exiting passengers staring each other
> down

Oh that would be NICE here.

Marc Shepherd December 23, 2008 - 1:28 pm

> There is no good reason why other cities have fare zones, and New
> York does not.

The political reason is as good as any.

The political reason, among others, explains why it will never change. It doesn’t explain why it was built that way in the first place.

A good analogy is the East River and Harlem River bridge tolls. There is no good reason why the there’s a toll on the Battery Tunnel, but no toll on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s just historical, but certain politicians will argue to the death that it ought to stay that way.

Duke87 December 23, 2008 - 7:05 pm

The thing I really don’t like about fare zones in any system is that it violates the old “keep it simple, stupid” principle. I don’t have to put any thought when I get on the train into how much it’s going to cost me, depending on where I’m getting off. I know exactly what it’ll cost no matter where my start and end points are. Simple, easy. And with a system as large and complex as New York’s, any simplicity you can get is that much more valuable.

That said, I wouldn’t be completely opposed to the idea of peak fares. Make it $3 from 7 to 9 AM and 4 to 6 PM weekdays, $2.50 other times during the day, and leave it at $2 nights and weekends. That would be a more sensible way of varying the fare than adding zones. Oh, and it wouldn’t require exit swipes and thus wouldn’t require replacing thousands of turnstiles.


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