In Washington, D.C, in London and in countless international cities, not all subway rides are created — or, more importantly, billed — equal. It costs more for subway riders to travel long distances and, similarly, less for shorter rides. In New York, zone fares are anathema to our very existence. It costs the same to go from the Rockaways to Washington Heights as it does from Times Square to Penn Station. But does that make sense?
As payment systems have become more flexible, zone fares have grown in use, but zone implementations can vary. In London, for instances, fares are based on distance from the central business district (or Zone 1) while in D.C., fares are based purely on distance traveled. But while advocates of such a fare structure fight for it because these longer subway routes cost more than shorter ones, New Yorkers have long resisted zone fares and seemingly with good reason. (And a good reason isn’t the MTA’s excuse that it would be hard or costly to retrofit MetroCard machinery. That technology will be on the way out soon enough, and its replacement should be capable of handling dynamic pricing.)
When I last delved into the issue, I discussed the city’s economic distribution of households. Zone fares work elsewhere because, by and large, the richer riders live farther away from the central business district. Many of the subways that use zone fares travel through inner cities to richer suburbs, but in New York, the richest people live closest to, if not entirely within, the central business district. In fact, many New Yorkers who don’t live close to Manhattan cannot afford to and may also have little say in their housing matters.
In arguing against zone fares two years ago, I explored these issues with a backdrop of an income distribution map:
If you were to overlay a subway map on top of this socioeconomic representation of the city, it becomes tougher to justify a zone fare. Suddenly, the richest folks in the city are the ones who are closest to work and can most afford to pay higher. In Brooklyn, the poorest residents down in the Coney Island area live furthest away, and in Queens, Astoria and its neighbors to the south are richer than those from Flushing who are further away from the city.
Only in the Bronx would a distance-based fare make sense because incomes rise as we head north, but even then, the folks in the South Bronx make around 18 percent of what those who live in the East and West 80s in Manhattan do. If the subway is supposed to be a public good that allows for people of any income bracket to get to their jobs in a cost-efficient way, New York’s socioeconomics seem to make a zone- or distance-based fare highly problematic.
Today, a similar graphical representation of the subway system is making the rounds. In a brief post meant to spur discussion, The New Yorker posted a graphical representation of income by and across individual subway lines. The visuals — intended to show income inequality in New York City — are striking. Subway routes cross the East River and jump by multiple tax brackets.
Let’s take a look at the N train:
Based on recent Census data, the median income around the N’s southern terminus is just $34,000. It doesn’t climb above $48,000 until the Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Center stop at the meeting point of three very well-off Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. The media income around 59th St. of $171,000 is over five times higher than it is around Coney Island. The A train is even more dramatic seesaw as it runs from the Rockaways, where media income dips to as low as $18,000, to Tribeca where income peaks at $205,000 a year.
Now, it’s no secret that lower Manhattan is the land of the rich, and the outer boroughs see incomes decrease as one travels to the outer rings of the city. But these visuals are stark reminders of this reality. If the subway is designed partially as a public good that enables people to traverse the distance between work and home while living within their means, zone fares don’t work here. It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t fair to charge poorer people more to ride the subways and rich people less. Until we can reorganize where people can afford to live, the subway fare should remain a flat one.