For over 12 years, the MTA has been giving away transit trips. When it was introduced back in 1997 and put into circulation in 1998, the unlimited ride MetroCards revolutionized transportation in New York City, but it also drastically lowered the cost straphangers pay per ride. Now, facing a massive budget deficit, the MTA plans to scale back its unlimited ride cards, and the riding public isn’t going to be happy.
The problem is simply one of economics. By charging people a flat rate for a week’s or a month’s worth of subway and bus rides, the MTA is both encouraging use and fiscal abuse. All of a sudden, rides that we wouldn’t make — a two-stop ride to avoid the rain or midtown crowds — are worthwhile because those trips lower the per-trip cost of an unlimited MetroCard.
While more New Yorkers are taking the subway now than at any time since the automobile age, the MTA is making less per ride than they were 15 years ago. In fact, in April 2010, the average non-student fare across subways and buses — and accounting for higher express bus rates — came in at $1.48. In nominal dollars, that’s just ten cents higher than the average 1996 fare of $1.38, and in constant 1996 dollars, the April total was $1.02, a whopping 36 cents less per ride than we paid in 1996 when tokens were the currency of the subway.
Now, as The Times and the Wall Street Journal both detail today, the MTA is trying to combat this money lost to inflation. Andrew Grossman of The Journal uses a messenger service to make the point. Once, messenger services used bicycles to navigate New York, but as the cost of a subway ride decreased and worker’s comp insurance increased, these messengers turned to the subway. Some use as many as 20 MetroCard swipes per day, and they average around 20 cents per ride. Under the new scheme, they would go through a 30-day/90-ride card in under a week.
Grossman’s is an extreme example, but it’s clear how the MTA views this fare hike. Although the entire package of fare hikes should generate a 7.5 percent increase in fare revenue, frequent riders who the MTA feels do not carry their share of the funding burden are going to have to pay more. These fare increases, too, are outpacing inflation as well, and in The Times, Michael Grynbaum focuses on how the MTA is cutting service and raising fares amidst a recession.
The MTA is doing away with most bulk discounts and plans that incentivize better transit use. The 30-Day MetroCard will probably sit at $99, just under that psychologically important $100 mark, and off-peak fares on Metro-North and LIRR would be reduced. “Most board members would prefer we don’t just raise everything 7.5 percent,” Mitchell Pally, an MTA Board representative from Long Island, said to The Times. “Yes, we want to raise more revenue, but we don’t want to discourage ridership.”
Others in planning positions at the authority recognize the pickle in which the MTA currently finds itself. They’re trying to figure out how best to adjust fares so as not to discourage riding. “It doesn’t take much to dissuade people who are newly arrived to go back to their old ways if the economic incentives are not as good as they once were,” James Blair, the Metro-North riders’ representative to the MTA Board, said.
Therein lies the rub. The MTA just engaged in a very public plan to cut service. Two subway lines and countless bus stations got the axe, and just six months later, the authority will start to charge more for less. In the past, when fare hikes have come with service increases, the public has grudgingly accepted the higher rates, but I wonder how straphangers will respond this time. Will they hold their elected representatives responsible for abdicating their transit funding responsibilities? Will they turn to their cars and bikes while turning away from the subway system? And will these increases be enough to save a debt-ridden public transit system? Even as I ask the questions, I remain skeptical of the public’s willingness to pay more for less and less and less.