When Tuesday dawned another cold, windy and rainy day, I pondered how New Yorkers ride the subway in those ugly conditions. On rainy days, the trains are damp and more crowded than usual. People who would otherwise walk or bike to their myriad destinations head underground for a ride free from rain.
Meanwhile, throughout the city, people running errands opt to duck underground as well. Instead of walking from, say, 50th St. to 40th St., the one-stop ride along the Sixth Ave. IND often calls out, and while 15 years ago, that ride would have cost $1.25, today, the Unlimited MetroCard urges you to take that one- or two-stop ride. Straphangers, in fact, get better deals on their weekly or monthly cards if they ride more frequently, and the MTA earns less per ride. In a way, it is a perverse incentive.
Today, the Unlimited MetroCard is a way of life. In January, over 50 percent of all non-student trips came from one of the four unlimited ride offerings. Yet, 12 years ago, few were aware of the looming debut of these cards that have changed the way we ride.
Gov. George Pataki first announced unlimited ride cards in early December 1997. Original plans called for a $63 30-day card, a $17 seven-day card and a $4 one-day fun pass. In a twist of history, the MTA could afford to offer these discount cards because of a surplus of tax revenue in 1997. The agency was expected to lose over $230 million on the per-ride discounts, and as riders today pay an inflation-adjusted fare that is 36 cents lower than the average fare was in 1996, this loss is still haunting the MTA today.
While the 30-day cards then — and still do today — require someone to ride at least 47 times to be a better deal than the pay-per-ride discounts, the new passes were designed to encourage use. Original MTA estimates projected 100 million more riders per year, an increase of six percent. ”The goal here,” Pataki said said to The Times, ”was very simply to empower the rider. Empower the person who takes the subway and the person who takes the bus by giving them the broadest possible range of options as to how they want to choose to use the mass transit system.”
When the unlimited cards debuted on July 4, 1998, they were an immediate hit. Even though plans for the one-day card were delayed, lines at the token booths snaked through stations, and New Yorkers were eager to take advantage of the potential savings. ”Maybe it would stop me from taking so many cabs,” one rider said at the time. ”It has to do with commitment. Once I’ve made that $17 investment up front, I see it as a free situation, rather than a $5 cab ride minus the dollar-and-a-half public transportation.”
The only down side riders could find was the original 18-minute use restriction. The unlimited ride cards could be used once system-wide every 18 minutes, and many straphangers taking short trips found themselves waiting for time to expire. Eventually, Transit agreed to reduce the limitations to their current form. Today, riders can swipe in at the same station only once every 18 minutes but can enter the system at other points before the time limit is up.
Immediately, the savings were apparent. As The Daily News noted, messenger services and frequent train riders were going to realize savings of hundreds of dollars annually. First day sales were very brisk and have continued to be for the past 12 years.
Today, the unlimited ride cards are still a great deal. As a student and frequent subway rider, my pay-per-ride cost off of the $89 monthly card is only just around $1.10 per ride. I can hop on and hop off the trains and buses as I please, and I don’t have to think twice about taking a trip we used to view as unnecessary 15 or 20 years ago. The Unlimited MetroCards changed the way we ride and interact with the system, and that was true transit innovation for New York City.