Home New York City Transit A look inside September’s ridership figures

A look inside September’s ridership figures

by Benjamin Kabak


A bad economy has led to a slight decline in subway ridership this year. (To clarify, the bottom line is weekday ridership and the top line is the combined ridership for Saturday and Sunday.)

As part of the MTA’s bailout package, Albany required the transit authority to become more transparent. For an agency that had actually been working toward providing more information over the last few years, this was a simple request, and this month, for the first time, the MTA has made all committee and board meeting materials publicly available.

For transit junkies, having ready access to this information is similar to Christmas in November, but it comes with a downside. As with many document dumps, there is, simply put, far too much information out there, and most of it doesn’t matter. Every-day procurement orders don’t provide us with a deep understanding about the goings-on at the MTA.

Still, it’s important to understand the parts of these documents that do matter, and to that end, I’ve been working my way through the Transit committee documents. Generally, I’m intrigued by the ridership numbers. These figures drive the economy of the MTA. Since the agency is so dependent upon fare-box revenue, ridership numbers can significantly impact the bottom line, and every year, the agency uses the previous year’s numbers along with external economic condition to project ridership levels and, thus, revenue totals. The November documents feature the September ridership numbers. Let’s drill down.


Across all modes, weekday ridership figures for Transit were down 5.3 percent over September 2008. The agency attributes this to “the weaker economy, the June 2009 fare increase and calendar differences,” meaning more weekend days in September 2009 than in September 2008. The rolling average weekday ridership is down slightly as well. But lower ridership totals do not automatically mean revenue loss for the MTA. For that, we turn to the chart detailing projected revenue numbers vs. actual revenue collected.


As you can see, September’s total revenue figures were, at least preliminarily, higher than anticipated. Subway revenue was up 2.5 percent over initial projections, easily enough to make up for lower-than-expected bus ridership totals. Transit credits “lower-than-anticipated job losses” on the “higher-than-forecasted subway ridership” figures.

Take a closer look at the Fare Media Liability line. This item details money the MTA has captured due to unused value on expired MetroCards. For the month of September, the MTA recouped $5 million in pre-paid fares that went unswiped. September’s figured was 25 percent over the estimated value, and over the course of a year, that would net the agency $60 million in recovered revenue.

Year-to-date, the agency has recouped $7 million more than expected via the fare media liability route. I’ll have to find out if this figure includes Unlimited Ride MetroCards that aren’t used often enough to pay for themselves. For example, if buy a pay-per-ride card with the 15 percent bonus, I, in effect, pay $1.96 per ride. If I buy a 30-day card for $89 and use it 45 or fewer times, my rides cost more than that $1.96 per swipe. The MTA could claim recouped revenue off of underutilized Unlimited Ride cards.


Finally, we arrive at my favorite chart in which Transit divulges how much we actually pay for our subway rides. The posted fare may be $2.25 per ride, but no one pays that. Amongst pay-per-ride discounts and unlimited card purchases, the average subway fare was $1.55 this past September. A year ago, the average fare was $1.41, and that ten percent increase can be attributed to the fare hike.

As always, the MTA urges a historical, pre-MetroCard fare incentives comparison. “The September 2009 average fare was 9.6¢ above the average fare of $1.379 in September 1996, before MetroCard fare incentives began,” the document says. “In constant 1996 dollars, the September 2009 average fare was $1.04, 34¢ lower than in 1996.” Personally, I spent the last month tracking my MetroCard usage and made 88 swipes last month for a total of $1.01 per ride.

It’s tough to draw too many conclusions from just one month’s worth of data, but I can say that the subways remain popular despite the fare hikes. Furthermore, the subways remain a pretty good deal too. We may complain about the shortcomings of the MTA, but we don’t pay a lot for the millions of rides we New Yorkers take each month.

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Scott E November 18, 2009 - 8:44 am

Someone with an expired Metrocard can still go to a booth and reclaim that expired amount by having it transferred to a valid card. I doubt it really amounts to much in terms of dollars, but any idea if this is considered in the “Fare Media Liability” category? Or, has that money already been reallocated, putting this reclamation as an “unexpected expense”?

Also, for the record, September 2009 and September 2008 both had four Saturdays and four Sundays. That “calendar differences” claim sounds like a canned response which doesn’t really apply here.

Benjamin Kabak November 18, 2009 - 9:18 am

The placement of the Jewish holidays matter as well. This year, both were in September while last year just one was in September. Furthermore, Labor Day was Sept. 7 this year, and last year, it was on Sept. 1. That impacts people’s vacation plans as well.

Jonathan November 18, 2009 - 11:43 am

I presume the reason that bus travelers pay less than subway travelers, despite the same listed fare, is that there is a greater proportion of reduced-fare (old-folks) Metrocard users on buses. What do you think?

Benjamin Kabak November 18, 2009 - 11:45 am

I’d say that’s a very likely reason for the difference.

John November 18, 2009 - 12:13 pm

I would include disabled in that too, not just the elderly. Not all of them use the actual paratransit, and not many can use the subway.

Nathan November 18, 2009 - 1:45 pm

Am I misinterpreting the graph, or is the subway ridership higher on the weekends than on the weekdays? That seems odd, no? I looked at their station-by-station annual ridership numbers, which had wkds and wkdays separately (I can’t find that report online now), and that certainly did not indicate that many wkd riders.

Scott E November 18, 2009 - 2:59 pm

I thought that too, at first — and almost mentioned it in the first comment. Then I saw the caption: “(To clarify, the bottom line is weekday ridership and the top line is the combined ridership for Saturday and Sunday.)

Scott E November 18, 2009 - 3:01 pm

OK, now that I’ve read it for a third time, maybe I don’t fully understand. Is the top line showing the sum of two days (Sat+Sun), and the bottom an average, single weekday? Or is the bottom the sum of five weekdays, while the top is seven days?

Benjamin Kabak November 18, 2009 - 3:04 pm

The bottom line is the average for a single weekday. The top line is the average sum of Saturday and Sunday.

The real problem with the chart is that it should probably be a bar graph and not a line graph because the lines connecting the data points aren’t meant to represent any sort of rolling averages. They just show month-to-month increases or decreases.

crescent November 18, 2009 - 3:33 pm

There’s no way the Fare Media Liabliity line includes any unlimited Metrocards. That’s not how balance sheets work. It’s expired pay-per-ride cards with value still on them or expired unlimiteds that were never activated. No accounting system would estimate an expected usage of an unlimited and somehow track and subtract value from that baseline.

It’s money that comes in and later on, money they can recognize as revenue because in theory it will never be used as expiration has passed (notwithstanding policies allowing exchange after expiration).

<2% of revenue being from money people never used on their Metrocards isn't that much.

No fare hikes, service cuts in ‘fragile’ 2010 budget :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog November 18, 2009 - 3:59 pm

[…] estate taxes were lower than anticipated, ridership figures, as I noted earlier today, have been higher than exepcted this year. Furthermore, summer belt-tightening measures have led to lower-than-expected […]

Alon Levy November 19, 2009 - 12:58 am

Ben, does the average fare calculation consider a bus to subway transfer as two trips or as one? Because to me, they’re just one trip, so when I calculate how many trips I’m taking with my unlimited monthly (lately about 50 a month), I consider my average fare to be about $1.80, not $0.90.

Benjamin Kabak November 19, 2009 - 1:01 am

I believe it counts those as one trip if you would have gotten the free transfer on a pay-per-ride card.

Sort of related: I did confirm with the MTA today that the Fare Media Liability line does not include underutilized MetroCards. So it’s quite possible that the MTA draws in more revenue in that sense due to people who don’t use their Unlimited Ride cards enough to knock the price per ride down to $1.96.

Alon Levy November 19, 2009 - 3:53 am

So what does the liability include – expired pay-per-rides?

Benjamin Kabak November 19, 2009 - 3:56 pm

Precisely. Expired and unused portions of pay-per-ride cars. Amazing how many people either don’t do the math properly or just discard money because it’s on a MetroCard.

Alon Levy November 20, 2009 - 12:18 am

Uh, no – sometimes, people just refill cards because they don’t want to get new ones all the time. I had a card expire with about $20 left on it, and I have another card, due to expire in two months, with about $30.

Benjamin Kabak November 20, 2009 - 12:22 am

Right, but if you take that to the station agent, they’ll combine those into a non-expired card. People letting MetroCards rot to the tune of $5 million in Sept. is a sign of either ignorance of this process or simple laziness. Take your pick.

chemster November 21, 2009 - 9:53 pm

Well, I’ve got a metrocard in my wallet. It expired a year ago. Does it have any money on it? I don’t know… and it’s not really easy to find out. Am I lazy for not trying to find a station agent and getting it moved onto another card? Maybe…

Musings on the economics of MetroCards :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog December 4, 2009 - 12:42 pm

[…] discount. Because a large percent of straphangers are using some unlimited ride card, the average subway fare (for September) was $1.48 per ride. That’s downright […]


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