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.