Home MTA Politics The Know-Nothingness of New Yorkers

The Know-Nothingness of New Yorkers

by Benjamin Kabak

Every day, more than five million people swipe into the New York City subway system, and another two million take the bus. On a typical weekday, then, the equivalent of nearly everyone in New York City rides public transit, and while that figure may double-count a good number of people making the roundtrip to and from work or school, the fact remains that, without the subway system and its bus network, New York City would not be as prosperous, popular and big as it is today.

Yet, if there is one political and economic topic about which New Yorkers know very little, it is transportation. Most people you stop on the street could offer a semi-informed opinion on foreign relations in the Middle East, health care policy or the Tea Party. Few can speak eloquently or with knowledge about the MTA’s relationship with Albany, its budgetary woes, the rationale, however shaky it may be, behind the payroll tax or the reasons behind the fare policy. In fact, when the media runs fare-hike reaction stories that focus on Person-on-the-Street responses, the sheer ignorance of New Yorkers is laid bare for all to see.

Two articles published online today in the wake of yesterday’s fare hike vote are indicative of this problem. Roger Clark from NY1 filed a reaction piece that focused on riders’ responses. He stationed himself in the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. station and asked for thoughts on the higher fares. The answers are typically inane.

Take, for instance, Debra Reed. A year’s worth of 30-day cards will cost $180 more in 2011 than they did in 2010, and for Ms. Reed, that $180 will push her to even more expensive and less efficient mode of transportation. “I’m really considering buying a car, it may be cheaper, come out cheaper buying a car,” she said. Perhaps Ms. Reed plans to steal a car, commit insurance fraud and siphon off gas from parked vehicles all while not maintaining her car. Perhaps then, she’ll find that owning a car will actually cost less than the extra $180 per year.

DNA Info’s Jill Colvin tracked down some similar-minded passengers. In an article that focuses first on the details — fare hikes will be instituted on December 30 because it’s a weekday; the MTA won’t allow MetroCard hoarding — Colvin finds a few know-nothings to interview. She writes: “Student Joel Lucca, 20, who lives in the Bronx, said he’s considering buying a car, since the cost of gas would be cheaper than his commute each day. Chris Lark, 34, a computer technician who lives in East Harlem, said he’s planning on driving more or riding his bike instead of the train to save cash.”

Now, I can’t blame Mr. Lark for proclaiming the allure of a bike. Some of my good friends have done the math and have determined that for the warm-weather months, at least, their 30-day MetroCards, with a new break-even point of 50 rides, will give way to a pay-per-ride card and a bike. But the idea that buying a car because gas is cheaper than commute or that paying for gas saves cash are mind-bogglingly wrong.

To own a car in New York City is not an inexpensive proposition. The state’s auto insurance rates, averaging $1083 a year –or just $200 less than 12 30-day MetroCards — are among the highest in the nation; annual registration fees, with a New York City surcharge of $30, are very steep; and annual maintenance, upkeep and parking rates will drain anyone’s wallet at a rate that far exceeds $104 a month. Gas too averages $2.84 per gallon right now. It may very well be that Colvin and Clark found just three out of three hundred people who want to drive, but that they chose to highlight it speaks volumes about the windshield perspective of public transit coverage in the New York media.

Meanwhile, I haven’t even begun to dissect quotes from people slamming the MTA Board for keeping the money, for keeping two sets of books, for being out-of-touch with the economic plight of “real New Yorkers,” for trying to screw over everybody. Even though the MTA keeps its books wide open, and advocates have fought to show how Albany hasn’t done the job, New Yorkers still think the MTA is out to get them.

That said, both Clark and Colvin spoke to New Yorkers who seem to get it. “You always mind paying extra but if you have to, as long as it is being used to maintain the subway system and pay the employees that keep the system running, it’s kind of one of those unnecessary, or necessary evils I should say,” one rider said to NY1.

The media is supposed to be a tool for disseminating information and for public education. But news outlets continue to run Person-On-The-Street because they’re easy. The reporters can solicit opinions and package it is a “reaction” piece. Without fact-checking people who claim that cars are cheaper than a fare hike, without providing that political or economic perspective, public transit and the fight for proper funding will remain in neutral no matter how loud advocates scream.

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Alon Levy October 8, 2010 - 3:04 pm

I disagree with the premise that New Yorkers are unusually ignorant about the MTA. People in the media who are paid to write about the Middle East and about health care usually get things wrong. Any Israeli or Palestinian could offer multiple correction on nearly anything Americans write on the Middle East. And the average American may not know any less than the average American pundit, but he probably doesn’t know any more.

Todd October 8, 2010 - 3:17 pm

Perhaps Ms. Reed plans to steal a car, commit insurance fraud and siphon off gas from parked vehicles all while not maintaining her car. Perhaps then, sheโ€™ll find that owning a car will actually cost less than the extra $180 per year.

Awesome ๐Ÿ™‚

Jonathan October 8, 2010 - 4:13 pm

I suppose they edited out the riders who responded along the lines of “I’ll keep reading Second Avenue Sagas in order to stay better informed about issues concerning my transit system.”

Alec October 8, 2010 - 4:20 pm

This aggressive attitude is symptomatic of the other side of the attitude towards transit. There is, for everyone, a breaking point where the constant piling up of fare hikes, followed by service cuts, followed by more fare hikes in a seemingly endless sequence, proves fatal to even the most die-hard of public transit users. I am a regular reader of this site and have always been a huge transit advocate/fan/rider, but I have in a lot of ways given up on the MTA for good. I ride my bike to work 75% of the time (excluding hard weather days) and the days I do take the MTA, I get there late, annoyed and having paid for the privilege. It’s rude to assume that people will continue to take this kind of systemic institutional abuse without thinking of alternatives, even if they are more costly overall. There is a human dignity that people need to feel when giant, faceless and seemingly cruel institutions continually ask for more. I would suggest that you be more empathetic to other people’s lives in the future, despite their superficial ignorance of the topic.

Benjamin Kabak October 8, 2010 - 6:32 pm

I understand where you’re coming from. I am sympathetic to the concerns of those who can’t pay, but the people quoted by NY1 and DNA Info aren’t the right folks. CBS TV had a story about people who might not be able to pay, and that hits home. I’m a student with no job right now. I don’t like the idea of having to pony up $180 more per year next year for transit. That means I’ll have to cut down on my entertainment budget, and I’d much rather go to the movies or have a few drinks one night than pay $104 for my MetroCard.

That said, it’s irresponsible of media outlets to publish quotes from people saying they’re going to drive because it’s cheaper. For one, that’s simply a false statement. For another, it’s not educating people. I have no problem with stories that show people can’t afford $180 more per year, but this isn’t it.

I do understand your point though. Fighting for transit means empathizing with people who might not understand the politics of it. I think the Straphangers are better than I am at that, and I’ll readily admit it.

BrooklynBus October 8, 2010 - 6:40 pm

I agree with your point about the on-street interviews being done because they are easy. Yes, they may not be factually correct. It may not make sense for them to buy a car, and it may still cost them more even with the fare increase. But if that’s what they believe, they will buy the car thinking it is cheaper when it is not. Most people only consider the cost of gas and tolls. Many forget to factor in insurance, maintenance, and other costs.

Justin Samuels October 10, 2010 - 2:41 pm

Those people quoted will not buy a car. If they could afford a car, they would have already gotten one. Its pure BS.

JebO October 8, 2010 - 4:58 pm

AAA estimates that the cost of car ownership is something like $9,000 per car per year. (The cost of gas is only a tiny fraction of that. The biggest expense is depreciation, followed by insurance.) That figure is an average for the entire country, so it doesn’t include any parking costs, which are one of the biggest expenses in car ownership in NYC. The monthly MetroCard at $104 will run you $1,248 per year assuming you don’t take any time off for vacations. A bicycle may make sense. But the idea of buying, maintaining, insuring, and operating a car to avoid transit fares is beyond insane.

Of course, there is a way to get yourself free parking. Buy a house. In this region, it’s pretty hard to find one that’s going cost less than 160 years’ worth of monthly unlimited MetroCards (1,923 MetroCards would cost $200,000).

JebO October 8, 2010 - 5:08 pm

Looked at another way, the MTA would have to charge $750 for a 30-day unlimited to make a car look financially attractive, assuming AAA’s nationwide $9,000 per car per year cost of car ownership.

ajedrez October 8, 2010 - 7:35 pm

You have to consider that you get back at least part of your investment when you sell the house. Also, you have to consider that an apartment in Manhattan might be in such a prime location that it costs the same as a house in a far-off location in Staten Island.

Justin Samuels October 10, 2010 - 2:43 pm

You don’t necessarily get back part of your investment. If your neighborhood goes down at the time of sale, or if the economy is bad, you may actually LOSE money on your investment. Nationally this has happened to large numbers of people in the last few years.

ajedrez October 10, 2010 - 4:06 pm

That is what I meant that you get back part of your investment-it is highly unlikely that the value of the house would go down to $0. If you buy a $200,000 house, I think it is realistic to expect that you can get back $70,000 when you sell it.

John October 8, 2010 - 4:58 pm

The other thing is the cost of vehicle transportation is incremental and, outside of tolls, parking and gasoline costs, hidden. Tires batteries, any mechanical or computer malfunctions to a vehicle as a result of wear and tear and insurance normally aren’t factored in when considering that cost vs. mass transit, and even on gasoline costs, if you’re looking at a 25 mile trip per day one way in stop-and-go traffic, that’s on average about $6-$8 in gasoline that’s often not considered, because you’re filling up only when the vehicle’s close to empty, not at the start of each trip.

Daniel Howard October 8, 2010 - 6:16 pm

Just a little idea: this blog post would be way more entertaining if you took to the streets to condescend to New Yorkers in person as to just how ignorant they are.


Benjamin Kabak October 8, 2010 - 6:29 pm

What fun is a blog if I can’t condescend now and then? I’m more annoyed at the media for printing this garbage without adequately fact-checking it than I am for the people who seem to believe.

benjamin October 8, 2010 - 7:05 pm

I agree with you, basically, but I think you’re assuming that the actual use value of a car and of unlimited transit access are equal. A car offers quiet, door-to-door service (no walking, waiting, or transferring), in a bubble where the climate and the radio are of your choosing — no over-ACed cars, no hot stations, no subway preachers or panhandlers. A lot of people will pay more for this privilege — as a matter of fact, 30% of New Yorkers already do, commuting daily by private car. The problem is not that people will find cars more economical on a 1:1 basis, it’s that the incentive to drive goes up with every extra dollar they have to spend on transit and every extra minute they have to spend waiting for a train in a sauna of a subway station with water dripping from the ceiling.

This is probably more true for people who don’t live or work in Manhattan, who may be forced to take circuitous routes to and from work by bus or subway, and who would find less traffic than someone forced into an East River crossing.

This is also probably not true for passionate mass transit advocates like the readers of this blog (including myself, who is decidedly not giving up my pre-tax 30-day metrocard).

ajedrez October 8, 2010 - 7:33 pm

You also have to consider that the cost of a car can be amortized over the number of people who use it. I’m sure a good proportion of car-owning households are married couples who probably have children.
Divide that $9,000 per year over 2 people, and you end up with $4,500 per person who uses it, compared with $1,040 for 12 Unlimited MetroCards. The cost goes down even further if, for example, the family has a teenager who uses the car, to $3,000 per year. Of course, mass transit is always going to be cheaper, as I doubt anybody gets to the break-even point of 9 people using one car, but some people just feel that the convenience of a car is worth the cost.

Alon Levy October 8, 2010 - 11:33 pm

The bulk of those drivers aren’t working in Manhattan. They probably work in Flushing or Jamaica or JFK, or maybe outside any of the major secondary centers in the city. Once you don’t need to cross water or local streets or enter Manhattan, driving becomes a lot more pleasant, while the subway becomes progressively less useful.

Kai B October 9, 2010 - 2:08 pm

Most of the car value-props don’t hold true in NYC…

A car offers quiet, door-to-door service (no walking, waiting, or transferring)
Unless your office building in Manhattan has valet parking or a garage right inside the building, you’re probably going to do quiet a bit of walking. Often more than from the nearest subway station.

in a bubble where the climate and the radio are of your choosing

OK, granted – although you have to contend with honking, which can get very annoying

no over-ACed cars, no hot stations, no subway preachers or panhandlers.

Sometimes you still come across a squeegee man: http://nyti.ms/9bb5r6 ๐Ÿ™‚

ajedrez October 10, 2010 - 1:22 am

But these arguments do hold more truth in the outer boroughs, where there is generally less traffic, and easier parking.

Also, like benjamin said, while 48% of NYC households own cars, only 30% use them to commute to work. So their place of business might be in the middle of Manhattan, or Downtown Brooklyn, or another congested area that is easily accessable by public transit, which encourages them to use transit to commute. But then they might live further out, where the costs of owning a car are lower.

There is a difference between auto ownership and auto usage.

Stephanie October 8, 2010 - 9:10 pm

Great article, Ben!


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