When the MTA raised fares earlier this year and continued the 15 percent pay-per-ride bonuses, the agency inadvertently created a crisis of mathematics among New York City’s straphangers. With a base fare of $2.25 and a volume discount, a rider has to buy 20 rides for $45 to earn a bonus of $6.75 that results in 23 rides for the price of the original 20. Yikes.
For the less mathematically inclined among us, this discount and the new fare brings the discounted pay-per-ride cost to $1.96. That’s an ugly uneven number, and apparently, many New Yorkers cannot be bothered to do this math. As the Daily News reported earlier this week, many subways are frustrated by the uneven amouns left on their MetroCards.
In a sense, the real problem is ignorance. Riders simply do not know that token booth clerks will combine leftover amounts on old cards. “I have a whole pile of them sitting in a jewelry box on top of my dresser,” Megan Hunt, 36, of Chelsea, said to the News. “There are at least 40 cards and some only have a nickel. I don’t know what to do with them, but I can’t throw them out.”
Although I’m usually critical of anecdotal news coverage, this frustration is part of a larger trend. As the News reported earlier this week, the MTA will recover $53.3 million in what they term fare media liability this year. That figure shatters last year’s record take of $40 million in unused fares.
As spokespeople at the MTA have told me, that figure counts only unused pay-per-ride money, and it is a significant figure at a time when the MTA is struggling for dollars. As straphangers toss out cards with small change, the nickels and dimes start to add up.
But on the other side of the equation are the unlimited ride cards. Recent numbers show that these cards are more than fully utilized by consumers. According to numbers supplied to me by Transit, the average number of swipes per MetroCard for the third quarter of 2009 is as follows:
|Card Type||Avg. Swipes||Card Cost||Cost Per Ride|
As we see, unlimited riders clearly get the most of their subway cards. The average user reduces the fare to nearly a dollar below the $2.25 mark and well clear of the $1.96 pay-per-ride 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 cheap.
So why then is there such a discrepancy between the Unlimited Ride usage figures and the pay-per-ride leftover that has led to a $53 million recovery on behalf of the MTA? The MTA speculated that the fare media liability total was a result of the higher fares rather than the math involved in MetroCard transactions. More people are spending more money and are discarding a higher volume of cards.
But even with a base fare increase of 12.5 percent, the fare media liability is up over 30 percent over last year’s total. It’s my belief that New Yorkers in a hurry simply do not want to face the math involved in MetroCard calculations and do not know about the opportunity to have token booth clerks combine used cards. In the end, the MTA recovers some of the money they lose to the unlimited ride cards, and those people who don’t want to make the effort to solve a simple problem lose out. It is economic efficiency at its finest.