A bad economy has led to a slight decline in subway ridership this year. (To clarify, the bottom line is weekday ridership and the top line is the combined ridership for Saturday and Sunday.)
As part of the MTA’s bailout package, Albany required the transit authority to become more transparent. For an agency that had actually been working toward providing more information over the last few years, this was a simple request, and this month, for the first time, the MTA has made all committee and board meeting materials publicly available.
For transit junkies, having ready access to this information is similar to Christmas in November, but it comes with a downside. As with many document dumps, there is, simply put, far too much information out there, and most of it doesn’t matter. Every-day procurement orders don’t provide us with a deep understanding about the goings-on at the MTA.
Still, it’s important to understand the parts of these documents that do matter, and to that end, I’ve been working my way through the Transit committee documents. Generally, I’m intrigued by the ridership numbers. These figures drive the economy of the MTA. Since the agency is so dependent upon fare-box revenue, ridership numbers can significantly impact the bottom line, and every year, the agency uses the previous year’s numbers along with external economic condition to project ridership levels and, thus, revenue totals. The November documents feature the September ridership numbers. Let’s drill down.
Across all modes, weekday ridership figures for Transit were down 5.3 percent over September 2008. The agency attributes this to “the weaker economy, the June 2009 fare increase and calendar differences,” meaning more weekend days in September 2009 than in September 2008. The rolling average weekday ridership is down slightly as well. But lower ridership totals do not automatically mean revenue loss for the MTA. For that, we turn to the chart detailing projected revenue numbers vs. actual revenue collected.
As you can see, September’s total revenue figures were, at least preliminarily, higher than anticipated. Subway revenue was up 2.5 percent over initial projections, easily enough to make up for lower-than-expected bus ridership totals. Transit credits “lower-than-anticipated job losses” on the “higher-than-forecasted subway ridership” figures.
Take a closer look at the Fare Media Liability line. This item details money the MTA has captured due to unused value on expired MetroCards. For the month of September, the MTA recouped $5 million in pre-paid fares that went unswiped. September’s figured was 25 percent over the estimated value, and over the course of a year, that would net the agency $60 million in recovered revenue.
Year-to-date, the agency has recouped $7 million more than expected via the fare media liability route. I’ll have to find out if this figure includes Unlimited Ride MetroCards that aren’t used often enough to pay for themselves. For example, if buy a pay-per-ride card with the 15 percent bonus, I, in effect, pay $1.96 per ride. If I buy a 30-day card for $89 and use it 45 or fewer times, my rides cost more than that $1.96 per swipe. The MTA could claim recouped revenue off of underutilized Unlimited Ride cards.
Finally, we arrive at my favorite chart in which Transit divulges how much we actually pay for our subway rides. The posted fare may be $2.25 per ride, but no one pays that. Amongst pay-per-ride discounts and unlimited card purchases, the average subway fare was $1.55 this past September. A year ago, the average fare was $1.41, and that ten percent increase can be attributed to the fare hike.
As always, the MTA urges a historical, pre-MetroCard fare incentives comparison. “The September 2009 average fare was 9.6¢ above the average fare of $1.379 in September 1996, before MetroCard fare incentives began,” the document says. “In constant 1996 dollars, the September 2009 average fare was $1.04, 34¢ lower than in 1996.” Personally, I spent the last month tracking my MetroCard usage and made 88 swipes last month for a total of $1.01 per ride.
It’s tough to draw too many conclusions from just one month’s worth of data, but I can say that the subways remain popular despite the fare hikes. Furthermore, the subways remain a pretty good deal too. We may complain about the shortcomings of the MTA, but we don’t pay a lot for the millions of rides we New Yorkers take each month.