Home Fare Hikes As part of the 2021 fare hike, the MTA is considering eliminating unlimited ride Metrocards. Why?

As part of the 2021 fare hike, the MTA is considering eliminating unlimited ride Metrocards. Why?

by Benjamin Kabak

No matter what happens with its Doomsday budget, whether federal transit funding comes through or not, the MTA is going to raise the fares next year. The uptick is part of the never-ending, biennial fare increases that see the cost of transit inch upward in New York City every two years like clockwork and not, as MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye has repeatedly said, part of the MTA’s effort to close its multi-billion-dollar budget gap.

In other words, the fares would be going up with or without the pandemic next year, and while New Yorkers have grown numb to the drumbeat of ever-escalating transit costs, this year’s menu of potential changes to the fares sure has raised eyebrows among the city’s transit cognoscenti. In particular, as part of the strategy of throwing everything against a wall to see what sticks, the MTA has proposed eliminating unlimited 7- and 30-day Metrocards. The agency had previously cut the 1-day Fun Pass and a 14-day card a few years ago due to low usage rates, but it’s not clear why the MTA would look to do away with passes that incentivize more transit usage. To make matters worse, the rationale offered by Larry Schwartz, Andrew Cuomo’s MTA enforcer and right-hand man on the agency board, were mystifyingly mysterious.

We’ll get to all the politics and policy decisions in a minute. Let’s start with a look at the proposals on the table.

Usually, when the MTA prepares for these fare hikes, the agency offers two menus of fare hike options. But after increased criticism a few years ago from MTA Board members who felt they were denied a say in the policy of the fare hikes, the agency has opted for a series of blanket policies and a variety of logic games. It’s not yet clear how the MTA is going to get from here to a concrete set of new fares, but the net impact of the changes to the fares will be a 4% jump in fare-based revenue. The table below, which the agency has labeled “for illustrative purposes” only, offers a glimpse at the “policy options” under consideration.

The MTA put more details online last week, and here we have a quasi-glimpse of the various proposals at play. The permutations are confusing with a lot of conditional statements, but the MTA is essentially considering maintaining the base pay-per-ride fare or increasing it by 25 cents. If the pay-per-ride fares increase, the unlimited ride cars would see smaller increases — a 7-day card could cost $34.75, up $1.75 from the current price, and a 30-day card could cost $134, up $7. If the MTA holds the base fare, the weekly pass could cost $36 or $3 more and a monthly could cost $139, up a whopping $12 from current rates. The monthly hasn’t seen this large an increase since 2010 when the cost went up from $89 to $104.

In this great puzzle of either-or-maybe options, the MTA has also said it could keep the fee for new Metrocard purchases at $1 or increase it to $3 per card. This fee, which is avoidable if you stick an expired Metrocard into a vending machine, should be increased as both an incentive to get riders to switch to OMNY and a way for infrequent or tourist riders to offset commuting costs for transit regulars.

But I’m burying the lede: The MTA is considering eliminating “one or more” time-based passes. There is no trigger here or an either-or option, and it’s not clear what will happen if the MTA decides to embrace the proposal. That is, the move to cut unlimited ride passes stands alone, and the MTA has not the public what the trade-off would be. Would it mean no increase in the pay-per-ride fare or a separate slate of fare proposals? We do not know, and instead, this is a pure policy consideration by the MTA, allegedly separate from the ongoing pandemic slump. It also makes absolutely no sense.

Generally speaking, one goal of a well-run public transit system in a heavily populated cit is to incentivize transit usage. The only way for millions of New Yorkers to move through the city each day efficiently is via high-capacity,, rail, and the more riders the better. Unlimited Metrocards were a revelation for New York City and one that unlocked the transit system for millions. For a one-time upfront fee each month (or week), potential riders could swipe as many times as they wanted, and taking short trips — whether by bus or train — became second nature. It was, in fact, best to maximize monthly swipes to get a better deal. At a time when the MTA needs to attract riders to shore up its finances and help avoid crushing gridlock on city streets, doing away with time-based incentives is foolhardy.

If anything, in fact, the MTA’s unlimited ride, time-based passes should be cheaper. Currently, the breakeven point for a 30-day Metrocard is a shade over 46 rides and for a 7-day card, 12 trips. With the 47th swipe in a 30-day period, it becomes more cost-efficient to pay $127 than to buy rides at $2.75 per trip. This is generally a high bar to clear when compared with international norms. Most international transit systems heavily incentivize time-based passes – in Stockholm, for instance, the break-even point for a 30-day pass is 26 rides and a 30-day Navigo pass in Paris pays for itself after the 39th trip. So the MTA already over-burdens users of time-based compared with international peer systems.

Meanwhile, as OMNY completes its system-wide rollout in a few days, the MTA should look to further incentivize transit while making the system more accessible through fare capping. In essence, fare capping means that after a certain number of rides per time period – whether it be day, week or month – a rider no longer pays for additional trips. In London, for example, generally, rider aren’t charged each week after their 15th trip. This allows riders who can’t afford a monthly pass upfront to enjoy the benefits of limitless transit after reaching a fare level. The MTA has yet to determine if they will implement fare capping with OMNY, but this, rather than the elimination of time-based passes, is the policy discussion worth having.

So why is the MTA considering a shift in fare policy that would disincentivize riders while shifting away from international norms? The answer appears to have arisen in the form of a half-formed rant by Cuomo aide and MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz during last month’s board meeting. Here’s what Schwartz had to say:

I’m going to take the same position I took two years ago. I don’t think the people who depend on the MTA’s mass transit system should have to pay more. It’s for the casual rider that I believe should be paying more in offsetting any increases that the riders who depend on the system. That is why I like freezing the New York City subway fare at $2.75 because it would actually mean a $2.65 fare. It would be a 10 cent decrease. That is why I believe the 30-day commuter – these are people who depend on the mass transit system to get to work as opposed to the casual daily rider that buys an off-peak ticket or to go to a show or restaurant, the doctor or has a trial in New York City. So I’m all in favor of that.

The other thing I want to say is that right now, I am somewhat in favor of eliminating the time based passes because I believe there is a lot of fraud associated with them…I would really like to see the 7-day time based fares on ZIP code or something. Who is purchasing those 7-day time-based passes? Because again, I am not here to hurt the people who rely on the system the most. The people that can afford to should pay more, the people that cannot shouldn’t. But I’m also concerned with the 7-day and the 30-day. There’s been a lot of fraud associated with these things that hurt people who pay the 2.75 trip on New York City subways.

Again, my goal is not to see the base fare increase for both the bus and subway riders and also for those people who depend the most on commuter rail, those monthly pass holders. Again, the people who depend on the system the most should be held harmless, and the people that are casual riders who use the system….um, you know, they can…It’s the best deal in town. They’ll never find an alternative source of transportation other than walking to get from Point A to Point B whether it’s coming into the city or going from one part of the city to another than it is the MTA system….My thing is for those casual people, they can probably absorb a little bit more.

So much of what Schwartz said makes no sense, and if you can make heads or tails of these arguments, more power to you. Even though in pre-pandemic times, over 50% of riders used time-based cards, Schwartz thinks they’re used only by casual riders. He also seems to think those riders don’t rely on the system most and should be socked by higher fares, again a shift from a rational fare policy. I don’t know how or why he thinks eliminating unlimited cards would lower the fare, but the biggest red flag is in his evidence-free claims of fraud.

The last time Schwartz raised an argument like this, it sent us down a years’-long path arguing over fare evasion and its impact. Now, Schwartz, without providing a shred of evidence, claims that 30-day cards are subject to “a lot of fraud.” On its face, that makes little sense as each time-based card carries with it an 18-minute timeout to combat fraud, and Schwartz has provided nothing to back up his claim. But we have to listen to it because he’s the one on the board closest to the Governor, and the Governor is responsible for the decisions made within and about the MTA.

So here we are, staring at fare hikes that involve a lot of moving parts and a threat to cut off the city’s unlimited cards, transit lifelines for millions and one that makes riding easy. If the MTA is truly considering eliminating these cards, they owe it to the public to explain why, and Schwartz owes it to the public to present evidence of this fraud. Otherwise, the MTA should leave well enough alone and make these time-based cards more readily affordable for everyone rather than cutting them out entirely.

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22 comments

Roy December 9, 2020 - 4:16 am

Pretty much every other transit authority in the world sees time-based passes as a way to get revenue up front and so offer even more options such as short-visit-friendly three-day passes and annual passes where in return for a deeper discount, commuters effectively make an interest-free loan to the transit authority that it gradually pays back over the year. Why does New York always have to be different?

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Webster December 9, 2020 - 5:44 am

How are they “being different” if the benefit currently exists? I don’t understand your point.

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It sounds like what they *really* want is to decrease (or, rather, “cap”) the maximum number of trips made on the card, rather than outright eliminating the benefit, altogether? If for no other reason (ie. common sense), I believe this is the most likely case as any attempt to eliminate this provision entirely would likely trigger a lengthy review to demonstrate that they aren’t placing an undue burden on low-income riders [of color] (eg. Title VI https://www.transportation.gov/civil-rights/civil-rights-library/civil-rights-act-1964). I’m not even certain that simply demonstrating that mostly wealthy New Yorkers — if it is indeed the case — use this benefit would make getting rid of it any easier…but I’ve not really engaged in this kind of review, in it’s entirety, so I can’t really comment on that further.

That said, it’s a fare hike by any other name, if the goal is to have riders pay the non-discounted fare for more trips…and it raises the question of whether it would indeed raise more [fare] revenue? An obviously more sane approach would be to take advantage of the rollout of OMNY to offer an income-based, weekly/monthly/daily pass whereby any potential user simply makes a one time submission of proof-of-income (or, they could collaborate with area employers or use tax records) to simply make the rates somewhat income-based. If I remember correctly, there are passes like this in Germany (eg. HVV in Hamburg) that employ such a scheme to offer steep discounts on monthly passes.

Or else, if they’re really dead-set on this, they could have users still have to pay (perhaps, at a reduced rate) per-swipe for trips taken during peak/rush hours, while retaining the unlimited nature of the pass for trips taken off-peak and on weekends (again, I believe HVV offers passes such as this that even allow the holder to take up to ~1-2 guests with them on the same “fare”).

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Mirta December 9, 2020 - 9:19 am

Hi
I think is not good the fares increase
Many people can’t afford it

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Alghyugg@ yahoo. December 10, 2020 - 11:29 pm

Time to move out on ny

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Nicholas Christy December 11, 2020 - 2:57 pm

I did, almost 20 years ago, to Portland OR.

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Curious December 9, 2020 - 9:20 am

Assemblyman Robert Carroll has proposed a bill which would add a $3 surcharge on all online package deliveries to help fund the MTA. This steep tax (a double-digits excise on all deliveries below $30!) would surely hurt the poor most of all, and would be just another example of shortsightedness from the City Council.

https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/new-yorkers-may-have-to-pay-package-delivery-surcharge-to-help-fund-mta/

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Dave F December 9, 2020 - 4:33 pm

If it gets passed, it would be a pretty nice racket for the City. Force people to stay home and rely on delivery services and then charge them a tax on anything they have delivered.

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BrooklynBus December 9, 2020 - 9:27 am

I fully agree on time-based passes, such as unlimited riding for two or three hours. It would eliminate the problem of double fares which highly discourage transit use and would encourage the combining of running errands, while insuring that those coming and going to work pay twice. Eliminating passes and raising fares without addressing the double fare issue poses a hardship, and is unfair. People who need three buses or a bus to a train to a bus to complete their trip should not be penalized with a double fare each way.

The only rationale to eliminate passes is if you want to discourage ridership by forcing people to walk for short trips so you can run less service and save money that way. What next, go back to the dark ages and eliminate bus subway transfers?

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SEAN December 9, 2020 - 10:03 am

“So much of what Schwartz said makes no sense, and if you can make heads or tails of these arguments, more power to you. Even though in pre-pandemic times, over 50% of riders used time-based cards, Schwartz thinks they’re used only by casual riders. He also seems to think those riders don’t rely on the system most and should be socked by higher fares, again a shift from a rational fare policy. I don’t know how or why he thinks eliminating unlimited cards would lower the fare, but the biggest red flag is in his evidence-free claims of fraud.”

As soon as I read the word “fraud,” I was reminded of a certain president & I’ll just leave it at that. As for Cuomo , he needs to watch “Spaceballs” as he doesn’t know how to use the Schwartz.

This particular Schwartz is completely out of his mind with that rant & needs to be removed from the MTA board as his mental health could be questioned. No rational thinking individual would make such claims & statements that have no basis in reality.

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Larry Penner December 9, 2020 - 10:05 am

Fare increases for NYC transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, along with Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, were already assumed in 2019 as part of the approval process for the $51 billion 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and members of the State Legislature and City Council were all in on this financial arrangement. This included 4% increase in 2021 and 2023. What is new? MTA Chairman Pat Foye made clear if he doesn’t obtain a second $12 billion CARE Covid-19 bailout, the fare increase in 2021 may be far greater. It is time for the MTA to consider other cost savings. The $51 billion Capital Plan is dead due to unrealistic funding source assumptions. As such, it needs to be cut by billions. Priority should given to safety and state of good repair as opposed to system expansion projects

Potential demise of seven day and monthly tickets is disappointing. Besides using these for work, many make additional trips, which contribute to the local economy. In the 1980’s, the LIRR offered a one year ticket which arrived monthly. By prepaying one year in advance, you received a 4% discount. This was discontinued after a few years as only several hundred LIRR riders took advantage. Purchasing a seven day or monthly tickets provides a reliable cash flow to the MTA and a well deserved discount to loyal commuters.

(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island & Metro North Rail Roads MTA Bus, NYC DOT, NJ Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

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Jane Potter December 9, 2020 - 1:47 pm

This is a slap on the face to the hard working New Yorkers that rely on the Mta. Not all New Yorkers are just one train/bus away from work. Many New Yorkers, especially those that live in Queens, have to take either 3 buses or 2 buses and a train to get to work. Now what? All the MTA cares about is to line their own pockets. The poor person who on top of having to travel more than an hour to get to work, is also forced to pay double fair? A few years ago the Mta declined to approve a double transfer. If they are considering on eliminating the monthly/weekly unlimited, at the very least implement the double transfer or all fairs become unlimited for 2 hours. This is ridiculous. As if we aren’t all ready sucked dried from this pandemic in all aspects imaginable, now this…. Thank you Mta, for continuing to make your own corporate employees richer on the backs of the poor.

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Dr. Memory December 9, 2020 - 2:32 pm

I don’t know why we’re all avoiding what is, to me, the bleedingly obvious explanation here: Cuomo and/or Schwartz once saw a video of someone swiping in another passenger at the end of their trip, or heard a story about people selling swipes on unlimited cards and have decided in exactly the way they decided that the MTA was obviously losing millions due to a “fare-beating epidemic” that there was obviously a huge amount of money to be claimed back here.

There’s no three-dimensional chess being played here: just a bunch of paranoid old white dudes who are going to set several hundred million dollars of MTA revenue on fire in order to stop the loss of tens, even hundreds of…dollars.

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Beverly December 9, 2020 - 4:26 pm

Is the mta never going to stop raising the transit fare I love living in new york but the cost if living here keeps going every day and your pay stay the same. Even when the minimum wage goes up its still going to go hard for the regular Joe’s of the working class to get around when going to work I for one depends on the unlimited monthly metro card because I ride more than one bus sometimes 2 busses I love my job I do it because I love what I do I am a home health aide this has been my profession for the past 26 years so I am not in it for the money so it would help me and others greatly who have limited income to get around to atlease keep the unlimited Merto card the same are at the lease if you raise the unlimited cards do not eliminate them . All I see is the mta riding the backs of new Yorkers who can barely make end meet so they can keep themselves rich

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Al December 9, 2020 - 5:13 pm

What about the riders that travel on three busses like me to get to work that would be 12 dollars a day keep the 30 day unlimited

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Barry B December 9, 2020 - 7:36 pm

Of course people who don’t take the train or aren’t suffering much financially would want to impose a fare hike and a baseless theory on commuters. How about you cut down on OT and making big earners richer. Or how about you stop spending on things, like those useless electronic ads on the mezz/ station that nobody knows who really is funded those . how about the top earners take a pay cut… Would that really hurt or is it to much because your aiming to get richer than the previous year??

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Will December 9, 2020 - 8:54 pm

This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

An “unlimited” use pass is integral to helping lower-income people on fixed budgets do just that – plan their budget – on a regualr and consistent basis for employment as well as for any other trip purpose. These passes also allow them mobility throughout the City without fear of “busting the budget” due to unplanned trips.

Passes also allow for both more consistent use of the system (i.e., other unforeseen expenses do not mean you can’t use the transit system for whatever reason) and for occasional and/or spontaneous trips throughout the City, thus supporting business and economic activity more effectively througohut the City. Weekend/non-employment/non-commuter “exploration” of an area other than your own neighborhood for a fixed monthly fee is literally one of the key factors upon which the City’s economy has grown so robustly since the introduction of passes.

Passes, in essence, help equalize the quality-of-life for transit users so that they can at least begin to approximate the mobility and relative affordability that automobile drivers consider a God-given birthright! And let’s be honest – the equity concerns about “upfront” costs and the ability to afford a pass can essentially be solved through a “fare capping” program that the OMNY system should be able to accommodate. If OMNY can’t handle passes and fare capping, then the MTA was well and truly snookered!

Finally, a counter-proposal: if passes are eliminated, then no MTA Board Member gets a free fare instrument for their use of any kind: be it an OMNY card, MetroCard, or EZ-Pass. I have always believed that if those who run the system (1) actually used it regularly; and (2) had to figure out how to pay for it on a regular basis, then you would see many more rider-friendly fare initiatives get adopted, and no one would suggest eliminating passes!

Thanks for a great blog, Mr. Kabak.

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Mariano December 10, 2020 - 8:11 am

Ur so right thank u for speaking up

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Larry Littlefield December 10, 2020 - 3:54 pm

So, how would the elimination of monthly passes work on Metro North and the LIRR?

Oh, right, those riders aren’t serfs.

Where is the 20 year capital needs statement? Has the MTA gone back to deferred maintenance, or done so only in NYC?

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Jessica December 14, 2020 - 9:45 am

“Swipe it Forward” = Fraud, even though MTA’s own rules allow people to use unlimited cards to swipe in other passengers as long as they don’t accept payment for it. The MTA could simply change its rules if it wanted to end that practice.

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Denise Johnson December 14, 2020 - 7:19 pm

I use the unlimited to go back and forth to work. I live on sorry behind staten island which bus service already acts like we are downsouth in the back woods, i take 2-3 buses to work on the island. You think the hospital pays enough for me to afford paying 3 times? I can barely afford the unlimited now. Stop paying these crooked ceos transit included millions to screw us working stiffs. There go your millions right there transit. Im getting a car nyc is ridiculous

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Rich December 15, 2020 - 6:27 pm

This is not just a pandemic related financial issue, they are looking longer term with respect to fare revenue. Fact is these unlimited passes have encouraged far more frequent use of the system. When these passes were first implemented the thought was that these riders would just fill unused capacity. With ridership up so much they realized they were having to add service while realizing only minimal increases in revenue for that added expense. They probably did an analysis of the metrocard data and came to the conclusion that switching these riders over to pay per ride would result in lower system use while at the same time increasing revenue. And if the reduced ridership allowed for a trimming of service the financial benefit of this arrangement picture looks even better.

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CHRIS December 20, 2020 - 6:53 pm

In post-pandemic times, time passes should be incentivized. For over twenty years, my family never used time-based passes, and I never really understood why until I read this explanation. Thing is, very few people are actually using them right now, since their work situations are changing, and many people are working remotely. From a business perspective, I think it would maybe be fine to increase their prices temporarily (since the ones that are going to work with timely passes right now basically have no choice), but they should be incentivized to the international model at a later date.

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