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The mathematics of cutting free student fares

by Benjamin Kabak

When an eleventh-hour Albany bailout package earlier this year ensured that the MTA would not need to institute its original Doomsday budget proposal, I ran something of a postmortem on the transit advocates’ roles in the debate. In a rather scathing piece that generated strong feelings on both sides of the divide, I questioned the Straphangers’ approach toward their advocacy campaign and wondered if they were truly taking advantage of their position as the city’s leading — and sometimes only — transit advocacy group.

Since then, the Campaign has seemingly taken a more vocal role in trying to educate the public. Gene Russianoff has been quick to point out that the payroll tax short fall is entirely Albany’s fault, and he has, for better or worse, proposed alternate ways the MTA could close its budget gap without cutting too many services.

But an e-mail I received yesterday made me raise an eyebrow or two. First, it starts out saying, “For the MTA, reviving these cuts would shred its credibility.” Of course, it’s not for another three paragraphs that the Straphangers accuse Albany of not doing its job. Perhaps the MTA does lose its credibility, but who should lose more credibility — the agency tasked with balancing its budget or the state legislature whose empty promises have left the authority nearly broke? I still believe the better strategy for a transit advocacy group is to educate and not to finger-point at the agency that has few options available to it.

It gets better though when the Straphangers bring math into the equation:

Riders have every right to be mad as hell ­– and parents furious. Ending full-fare and half-fare discounts for 550,000 students in New York would be a huge financial burden on families. For example, it would cost a parent at least $1,069 annually to pay to get their full-fare child to school (280 school days x $1.91 x 2. A $1.91 represents 15% off $2.25, the current base fare.) $1069 equal to the costs of a 30-day pass for an entire year!

Now, first, the Campaign’s math is simply wrong. I use a 30-day card every month, and the totally yearly cost to me is $1068. I might be picking a bone over one dollar, but it’s just sloppy multiplication. That’s not the real problem though; the real problem is one of simple common sense. If, as the Straphangers contend, it will actually cost less to buy 30-day passes for a year than it will to pay the full fare everyday for 280 school days, wouldn’t parents just, you know, buy 30-day passes for their school-bound children? So much would it actually cost to send two children to school for 280 days? Let’s find out.

One 2010-2011 school year calendar I’ve seen has school beginning on Monday, Sept. 13 after the Jewish holidays. Students are then in school through Dec. 17, return on Jan. 3, have a week off in both February and April and see the year wrap up around June 17. The fall semester, then, would cover three unlimited ride MetroCards plus five days of paying the full fare. The spring semester would require five unlimited ride MetroCards and another two-week MetroCard plus five days of the full fare. How’s the math look?


But there’s a further problem: There aren’t 280 school days in the calendar year. There are approximately 180 school days in New York City. The math for a full-fare ride for the actual school year looks like this:


No matter how you slice or dice, for many families, that figure will still look expensive. Some who use transit on the weekends will opt for the $800 approach; others may stick with the $687 figure. No matter the cost, it will be a burden to spend those additional hundreds of dollars on student transportation costs, and after enjoying free rides for years, parents will experience an element of sticker shock here.

But my main point is that the Straphangers should be presenting an honest expense figure here. It will cost between $687 and $800 to send one student to school for the entire school year, excluding summers. The public deserves to know that, and the Straphangers, a ridership advocacy group, should not be releasing widely inflated figure as they did yesterday.

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Chris December 15, 2009 - 12:16 pm

There are 180 school days in the New York City school calendar, not 280. On Russianoff’s formula, the total cost for the year is $687.60.

Talk about losing credibility. Way to check your facts, Straphangers.

SEAN December 15, 2009 - 12:53 pm

What about summer school. Is that 100 days?

John December 15, 2009 - 1:01 pm

I don’t think summer school could be 100 days, and even if it is, I don’t think that should factor into a generic equation used to determine the cost to send an average student to school.

John December 15, 2009 - 1:03 pm

Talk about a major goof. There aren’t even 280 weekdays in a year, let alone WORK days, let alone SCHOOL days!!

Marc Shepherd December 15, 2009 - 2:17 pm

You are much better off assuming that everything the Straphangers say will be nonsense. Occasionally, they’ll pleasantly surprise you with a lucid moment, but most of the time your expectations will be met.

crescent December 15, 2009 - 5:43 pm

Bad math aside, Benjamin’s point is spot on – the Straphangers have done so much complaining and so little suggesting of constructive solutions that they have gained a reputation for whining.

Riders themselves are doing enough of it individually; why should the Straphangers perform the unnecessary function of validating it instead of helping the MTA out for the long-haul?

rhywun December 15, 2009 - 8:57 pm

An embarrassing gaffe, to be sure, but the main point (if there is one) stands: parents shouldn’t be footing the bill for this, not with the taxes we pay (and that includes non-parents like myself). Without a doubt there is enough waste and fraud in the education budget that can be unearthed in order to find the money to provide transportation for kids to go to school. The city should be footing the bill for this–it’s disgraceful they’ve ducked the issue for so long.

Andrew December 15, 2009 - 9:30 pm

And where do they come up with that $1.91 number? According to my calculator, $2.25 / 1.15 = $1.96.

Scott E December 15, 2009 - 10:46 pm

Probably $2.25 x 0.85 = $1.91, thinking that the passenger pays 85% and the bonus “pays” 15%. But this math is flawed, and you are correct. If you put $1.96 on a Metrocard and get a 15% bonus, you have a $1.96 x 1.15 = $2.25 card, equal to one fare.

Ariel December 15, 2009 - 10:45 pm

The Straphanger’s Campaign are as big as incompetent clowns as the politicians in Albany. One must only look at the state of public transportation in transit-dependent New York to see what an inadequate job these “advocates” are doing. Rather than help the MTA get the funding it needs to provide proper transit, they bash it for problems it has little control over.

Since it seems that the Campaign hasn’t fully understood the situation yet, let me spell it out for them:

The MTA MUST balance its budget and it has NO MONEY to fully fund their services. The ones responsible to provide the money is ALBANY. If you wish to keep the service cuts from happening, you must convince ALBANY to provide funds. Therefore, as an advocacy group that wishes to live up to its mission, you must direct all your clout and wrath toward ALBANY, so that they can make the change.

John June 4, 2010 - 11:20 pm

I receive a Student MetroCard, so I have a skewed perspective on the whole idea of eliminating them.
I’m going to point out the flaws that I saw in the calculations, many of which have already been pointed out

1) There are 180 school days in a year, not 280. Whoever put that into the calculator made a typo that exaggerated the figure by $300 – $400, not exactly pocket change.

2) Even if summer school were to be counted it can’t possibly be more than 40 days. (20 work days per month x 2 months) I think it is only about 30 days, since it starts in July and ends about mid-August, if I am correct. Even with the extra 30 days, 30 x $1.96 (rounded)= $58.70. Add that to $704.35 for a total of at most $763.05 per year.

3) The only thing I can think of would be that the Straphangers Campaign is using a formula based on 3 rides per day. If that is the case, 1.96 (rounded) x 180 x 3 rides = $1,056.52. However, if a student planned on actually taking 3 rides per day, they would take the $89 monthly pass, for a total of $890 per year.

Of course, they will publish the worst possible figure that they come up with, making extreme cases seem to be typical cases. I’m in this mock government club with the YMCA and some students were presenting bills. The kids went blindly with the figures. They said it would cost an extra $1,000 per child (when we all know it can’t possibly come to more than $890). They really showed their stupidity when somebody asked how much it would cost the MTA to fund the program ($214 million), and they responded with the same opening statement “It would cost a family with 3 children making $28,000 per year $1,000 per child or $3,000 in additional expenses”. That is probably the statement repeated over and over by advocates for the Student MetroCards.

In the end, I know it would benefit me to keep my mouth shut about this and go with the $1,000 statements, but I can’t agree with lies. I will make my own speech to the MTA regarding the way it affects the health of the city as a whole, but I will not start making up false figures.

Once more unto the Student MetroCard breach :: Second Ave. Sagas December 9, 2010 - 2:02 pm

[…] Straphangers had been influential in pushing to save the Student MetroCard program. They put out faulty math that overestimated the costs of paid transit by $300-$400 a year. They staged rallies. They held […]


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