Walder thinking about off-peak discounts


As Jay Walder gets more comfortable in his role as the new CEO and Chairman of the MTA and as he realizes what kind of power he might wield while relying on his Golden Parachute, he has spent much of this week discussing his future plans for the MTA. He knows that the agency needs to improve its construction efforts and wants to speed up the bus system as well.

Today, he spoke with Michael Grynbaum of The Times about a departure from the single-fare scheme New Yorkers have enjoyed for the last 105 years. While he has no plans to raise the fares (beyond the biennial adjustments for inflation), he is considering a new fare payment system that would allow for lower off-peak and weekend fares. This time-of-day pricing would be a big break from New York City subway past where a ride from the Rockaways to Inwood costs the same as one 42nd St. to 14th St. no matter the time of day.

This is, yet again, another transit innovation that Walder would bring with him from across the pond, and it is one in place already in Washington, DC, where the Metro is far more commuter-based than New York City Transit’s system is. Still, Walder sees off-peak discounts as a way to spread the commute for those who enjoy job flexibility and, thus, ease system congestion. “We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak,” Walder said to The Times. “What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time.”

Grynbaum had more on this proposal:

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York “would be a mistake.” But he said a frank discussion of changes to the pricing structure “will be an important part of what we’re doing.” A transit spokesman said later that Mr. Walder was not considering higher peak fares.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at The New York Times, Mr. Walder — who wore a pair of subway token cufflinks — shared his plans to overhaul the technology of the nation’s biggest transit system. He plans to introduce so-called smart cards equipped with computer chips, digital arrival-time clocks at subway stations and GPS devices that would let passengers know exactly when the next bus was arriving…

Mr. Walder was emphatic when discussing the prospect of a revised fare structure, noting with a hint of excitement that “you can see creative and innovative things that would happen with this.” He said an off-peak pricing plan could “generate the revenue we need and get more people to be using the transit system at different times of day.”

Interestingly enough, in the past, Walder has called off-peak pricing a “revenue neutral policy.” As Grynbaum reports, as a speech at City College forever preserved on video, Walder spoke about using pricing to “improve the efficiency of the transport system we have, to allow people to make their choices about what they want to do.” Now, it’s about revenue.

Already, though, the MTA’s old guard is showing some resistance to the idea. Andrew Albert of the New York City Transit Riders Council practically dismissed it off-hand. “You really already have some crushed loads at off-peak periods,” he said. “London is not necessarily the same as New York.”

Despite the inherent pessimism in his statement, Albert might have a point. Would daytime discounts make as much sense for Times Square as they would for, say, the Brighton Line in Brooklyn or a 4 train at Woodlawn? How would the MTA avoid discriminating against more popular stations? Or should the agency be charging less based on station use depending up on the time of day?

I appreciate Walder’s outside-the-box thinking. Variable fares would be a major break from the norm for New Yorkers, and it could help spread out the pain of a congested commute. As long as he keeps thinking outside the box, the MTA will be in good hands.

Categories : MetroCard

32 Responses to “Walder thinking about off-peak discounts”

  1. AlexB says:

    I understand the concept of time of day pricing, but I don’t think I support it. Personally, I really enjoy knowing that I have to spend exactly $89/month on all my transportation needs within the city. Time of day pricing sounds a lot like congestion pricing for transit, which I oppose. If a driver doesn’t have to pay a congestion fee, I certainly don’t want to.

    With regards to the oyster card type payment, I like the idea of faster boarding on buses, but I’d want to make sure my monthly rate stays constant, even if it increases a little. I hate having to think about each ride I take.

  2. Mike HC says:

    I’m with your analysis on this one. I like the idea that he is trying to come up with ways to make the subways more efficient, but I’m not so sure that variable fares are the answer. The only reason I can see to lower fares on off peak times is so that when they up the peak fares again, they can always point to their reduced off peak fairs as balancing that out.

  3. Working Class says:

    If they want variable fares they must start with raising the fare to no less than $3.00 which is what they should have done last time they hiked it. From there they can offer lower fares for off peak times.

  4. Andrew Kalloch says:

    AlexB, variable pricing would not eliminate the 30-day unlimited Metrocard. The unlimited nature of the pass means that MTA can easily calculate average usage and adjust the fare accordingly. Commuters and denizens of NYC, take note: with variable pricing, you will NOT have to constantly be thinking about what time it is– the unlimited 30-day pass will live on.

  5. nathan_h says:

    They could offer a cheaper unlimited 30-day pass for off-peak only use, but it’s probably not worth the trouble. I don’t know why people so loathe the idea of paying according to their use, having to consider the cost of each potential ride. With an unlimited card you have the opposite problem of having to consider the money you’re wasting each time you don’t ride.

    As for this being congestion pricing, sure, but that’s not a bad thing. Among drivers that understand pricing, there are many that support it because they know it will save them time. As transit riders we would be smart to claim the benefits of congestion pricing (in this case, discounts) regardless of the auto situation. Since transit already has use fares, the proposition for us is almost without downside.

    Maybe for the next go round we should describe automobile c.p. as “driving fares, with an off-peak discount”. If drivers hate variable rate pricing so much, we can skip the discount. 🙂

  6. tacony palmyra says:

    When I read the Times article it didn’t occur to me that Walder was considering charging different prices for the use of different stations… in fact, I would assume that “rul[ing] out charging higher prices for longer trips” means that he’s simply talking about reducing fares across the board during off-peak hours.

    But I agree with Andrew Albert that I don’t see how this would work. I’ve been on many a crowded uptown 2 train at 1am, and even without the constant trackwork and other service disruptions, weekend frequencies are poor. If Walder wants more people using the system during late nights and weekends, is he prepared to ramp up late night and weekend service to meet the demand?

  7. Mike HC says:

    If you are using the subway during peak times, that means you have to. Nobody would choose to use the subway during rush hour. It is hot, crowded and a pain, so there is no reason to lower off peak prices to entice the riders who can choose when they take the subway to go off peak, because there is already sufficient enticement.

    I don’t trust a guy who shows up with subway token cuff links. It shows he is style over substance right from the get go. As I stated above, such a good will move, like lowering off peak prices with no raises anywhere else, is suspicious to me. It seems like the only motivation to do this would be to allow for price hikes during rush time in the future. I know he says that is not the case right now, but that is how it will play out.

    • You don’t always have to use the subway during peak times, but generally, I agree with you.

      As for the cuff links, there’s nothing wrong with them. I have a set of those!

      • Mike HC says:

        hahah …. yea, but you don’t wear them when you are trying to gain support from the general public, I don’t think. I’m assuming you genuinely like the way they look. hahah It is like slight of hand for the politician. Don’t listen to what I’m actually saying, and the consequences therefrom, but focus on my cool, subway token cuff links.

        But overall I’m just messing around a bit. All the politicians play the same games. No point in hating the player.

  8. Josh says:

    I’m a little bit confused about how Walder expects to lower off-peak fares, leave peak fares the same, and not have the result be a significant decrease in overall revenue?

    • Mike HC says:

      I think he is expecting a big revenue decrease, so in a year he can say he has to raise the peak rates, which, in the long run, will end up creating more revenue than if he just stuck with the fixed rate pricing we have now. I think this is his way of raising peak prices. First he has to decrease off peak prices.

    • John says:

      The theory is that enough more people would ride during off-peak hours to make up for the lower fare. But in NYC I don’t think this applies, and instead it does seem more likely to be an excuse/reason to raise peak fares in a year. But they were already planning to raise fares in 2011 right? So maybe this will “allow” them to raise them by more than they originally would have?

      • Mike HC says:

        I’m with you. His main goal is to raise the rates of people who ride the subway all the time, which is where the money is, aka, the people riding during peak hours.

        He wants to overhaul the technology, better construction and is looking to improve the subways overall. He needs money to make improvements. It won’t go over well if he just calls for higher rates across the board, so he massages the public by first making the peak and off peak separate pricing by lowering the off peak rates first. The next logical step, no matter what he says now, is to increase peak rates, or as you say, to increase them more than they would have.

      • Denkman says:

        Ok, Please don’t take this personally, but what you are literally saying is that basic economics don’t apply in NYC. You could be making the more nuanced claim that you believe subway prices are inelastic and any drop in prices will not create a larger increase in demand, and that’s fine, I guess, but there appears to be little evidence to support that. Anyway, that’s my two cents on the issue. Based on my insider knowledge of the MTA, though, I assure you there are other ways to balance their budget.

        • Mike HC says:

          If you are saying my, or John’s, economic analysis is incomplete, you are surely correct. It would take a lot more time and space to really run through all the consequences.

          But, if the purpose of the price decrease is to decrease congestion during peak times, I just believe that there is already sufficient enticement for people not to take subways during rush hour. I guess that by lowering off peak prices, it will entice some riders to change their subway schedule, but the far majority of people don’t ride the subway during peak because of choice, it is done because it is necessary. The price to ride the subway off peak could be free, and it still would not have that much of an effect on peak ride time congestion.

          If the goal is to get more people riding the subway during off peak times, who would otherwise not ride the subway at any time at all, then I guess it would be effective, but would it entice enough people to make it worth it. Subway is already far and beyond the cheapest mode of travel. Would the decrease really be the factor that person needs to choose subway over another method, I don’t know.

          Lastly, my worry is not the price decrease, but what it leads to, which is the peak hour increase.

  9. SEAN says:

    I find the Washington Metrorail fair structure an interesting idea for New York. In DC Smartrip cards are only pay as you go, however from what I understand monthly passes will be added to increase flexability.

    Why cant distence based fares be implemented along with monthly passes as a fare option? Why is a trip from the extreme ends of the system the same price as a 3-stop ride?

    Here’s an idea…

    Start at $2.50 & add $.25 per mile peek & $1.25 plus $.25 per mile off peek.
    Passes $100 per month unlimited monthly $50 half month & $25 weekly.

    Half the posted prices for seniors & persons with disabilities.

    In adition expand the EasyPay program to include the fare options above. This keeps lines at turnstyles, TVM’s & booths at a manageable level

    I believe that it is nessessary for PATH & NJT to be part of any new farecard program as well as LIRR & MNR.

    • Mike HC says:

      You want to encourage people to take mass transit for long trips. If you charge more by the mile, or any measure of distance, it would entice people to not use the subway for anything more than a couple of stops.

      • John says:

        Also, it generally requires swiping when you enter and exit the system, which will slow things down a lot (not to mention the fact that the turnstiles don’t support it).

      • Marc Shepherd says:

        That’s not really the issue. Most subway systems have a form of distance-based pricing, and it doesn’t prevent people from using it. Indeed, even if the transit fare from outlying areas were quadrupled, it would still be cheaper than their next best alternative.

        However, there are two other problems: one technical, the other political.

        The main problem is that the NYC subway is not physically configured to capture exit swipes, and retrofitting the system to allow for it would be a massive expense. It’s not merely a matter of putting in new turnstiles. That has been done many times before. The deeper issue is that swiping slows everyone down, so you would need 2 or 3 times as many turnstiles to allow people to exit at the same rate they do today.

        Of course, politically it’s impossible for the same reasons that congestion pricing didn’t pass: the burden would fall disproportionately on the outer boroughs.

    • Andrew Kalloch says:

      Not only that, but many of the poorest residents of NYC live in some of the neighborhoods that are farthest away from the CBD of Midtown Manhattan.

      • Anon256 says:

        It’s much better to just give the poorest residents vouchers or discounts, rather than distorting the market for everyone. Requiring exit swipes would still be too much trouble though.

        • Andrew Kalloch says:

          The reduced fare program is a bureaucratic nightmare for MTA as it now stands. To provide vouchers for literally millions of people (the Times reported today that 1.6 million NYC residents are on Food Stamps) would likely eat a majority of the gross receipts gained from distance-based pricing.

      • Alon Levy says:

        The poorest residents of NYC live in Harlem (which would benefit), the South Bronx (which would stay the same), and Eastern Brooklyn (which would benefit in Bed-Stuy and lose out in East NY). The areas furthest away from the CBD are middle-class or upper middle-class: Jamaica, Bay Ridge, Riverdale, Co-op City.

  10. A few comments have mentioned exit swipes and others have explained why this is an infrastructure challenge. Don’t forget though that the MTA is invested $220 million to implement some sort of swipeless fare system. If they are serious about variable pricing, they can implement exit taps while installing the new fare payment system without incurring the massive expense of retrofitting the current MetroCard infrastructure.

  11. Duke87 says:

    Fare zones make sense for travel to and from a city (note that Metro-North has them, for instance). For within a city, however, it does not.

    Charging people in The Bronx more to get to work in Midtown than people who live on the Upper West Side makes no sense since it is an unfair penalization. Charging people who live in Dutchess County more than people who live in the city, however, is a perfectly fair penalization. You pay a premium for living in the suburbs, and there aren’t too many poor working class people in Wassaic who suffer from that.

    As for time-based pricing… I dunno. It could work, but then again, it’s also an added complication, significantly so for the unlimited ride cards. Besides, there’s really nothing wrong with the current flat fare, and if it ain’t broke…

    • Alon Levy says:

      Why is it unfair penalization? Charging people from Riverdale to get to work in Midtown more than charging people from Harlem sounds perfectly fair to me.

      Time-based pricing is a new innovation, untried in other subway systems. This means more power to corrupt contractors promising new technology, more cost overruns, and less preexisting knowledge of what the consequences would be. For example, would it cause people to unnecessarily transfer to crowded express trains instead of stay on less crowded locals?

  12. Mike Nitabach says:

    I assume the taxi lobby is going to be vehemently against this proposal.

  13. James D says:

    This is a really great idea. There are costs to be met of providing rush hour service (including running every single Z train and extra runs on other lines), and it’s not fair for off-peak riders to pay for those who are costing the system the most money.

  14. JAR says:

    I think we can safely say that distance-based fares won’t be happening: charging outer borough residents more is political suicide, and now that Metrocard killed two-fare zones, we won’t go back. Paying upon exit would be a big cultural shift, in addition to requiring layout changes at every station. Plus, there’s something unifying and almost endearing about a system that lets you get anywhere within its borders for the same price.
    I hope that, whatever changes get made, the fare system stays as simple as possible. Something you can describe to a visitor or infrequent user in either one or two sentences. We transit nuts will be able to get it no matter what, but for infrequent users of any business or building or anything, the simpler the better.

  15. Second Avenue Resident says:

    Amid talk of subway fares and crowded riders, I just received notice that blasting will begin the week of November 2nd, 4 to 5 times a day, from 7am to 10pm.

    For residents of Second Avenue, this is yet another subtraction from the quality of our lives — one which might not even be safe. When pedestrians wait to cross Second Avenue, it’s obvious the pavement vibrates from heavy vehicles. Occasionally, slight vibrations can be felt in apartments as well. What will happen when the blasting starts?

    And if we’re safe, how about the noise? It’s stressful and bad for our health, to say nothing of how it affects nonhuman residents even more. Thankfully, construction that went on until after 11pm (for two years) is lately being stopped by 7pm, but blasting from 7am to 10pm is like a war zone.

    Naively, I was hoping residents could be informed within an hour, or perhaps two hours, of when the blast will occur. That would give us the chance to leave the area if we wanted to. But with 4-5 blasts over 15 hours, that’s not possible unless we have somewhere else to stay.

    If supporters of the Second Avenue Subway traded places with the residents here, I think you would change your tune.

    One thing is clear — Second Avenue residents are collateral damage. Subway construction has destroyed this area,


  1. […] Stations like Times Square can be especially packed at weekends, thanks in part to tourists. Second Ave. Sagas wonders if the MTA could charge less not just based on time but on what stations riders […]

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