Home View from Underground On the MTA: What the people think

On the MTA: What the people think

by Benjamin Kabak

As the city’s newspapers cover the latest in MTA political theater, a few have taken the bold step of interviewing New Yorkers to get their views on transit issues. Instead of grandstanding politicians and crusading advocates, Metro commissioned a poll to find out what 280 New Yorkers felt about service hikes, fare cuts and the state of the transit system. The results are presented in full in this infographic, but I wanted to break it down a bit.

For the poll, Metro led with my favorite question: Fare hikes vs. service cuts. A majority of those polled preferred a 7.5 percent fare hike to service cuts while 44 percent said the fares are already too high. Those people would prefer less service for their too high fares, an odd compromise indeed. Considering that the fares are lower today than they were 15 years ago, New Yorkers either hate paying or don’t understand how much they pay for a subway ride.

The next question is the one with the most comforting result. Only 13 percent of respondents believe the MTA should be paying for student transit, and 87 percent of New Yorkers think the city, state or parents should foot the bill. Someone should tell that to our politicians who won’t pay for student travel and continue to slam the MTA for threatening subsidies it should be expected to cover.

Here’s where things start getting interested, and I’d love to see how these questions further break down. Even though 44 percent of respondents were willing to take service cuts over fare hikes, the biggest complaint people have about the system are the crowds. It will only get worse as service is decreased. The 21 percent who say cleanliness is a problem should think about starting a movement to convince others to use the proper garbage bins, and 24-hour service remains a hallmark of the MTA. That only eight percent appreciate how cheap the subways strikes me as too few, but perhaps that total would rise if people could pick a second choice.

After presenting the info on people’s views of the system overall, the poll switches gears to discuss straphangers’ opinions on those who work in the subway. The TWU does not currently have public sentiment on its side in its battle to convince New Yorkers that its guaranteed raises are good for the city and its transit system. Still, with the law on their side instead, the TWU doesn’t need much public sympathy.

I’m intrigued to see people’s views on station agents. Clearly, as I’ve mentioned before, they serve a psychological purpose even if they can’t actually observe platform before and aren’t legally required to stop crimes in progress or assist victims. Their mere presence at station entrances is enough to convince New Yorkers that they are safe. The truth is that in a deserted station, passengers can be waiting the equivalent of two city blocks away from station agents and on another level of the station. The agents are only as useful as they can be as a deterrent factor and as a calming influence on nervous riders. Considering that the city has lost numerous station agents since 2008 and crime has not risen in the subways, it remains to be seen if those 60 percent of riders who predict a decrease in safety will see their fears come true.

What the station agents are not, however, is all that useful. Less than a quarter of all riders think the station agents are instrumental in keeping the system most. Most want these employees to both friendlier and more knowledgeable. That too is an unsurprising finding. We want station agents as a safety blanket, but when we need something out of them, they become less helpful.

So as the MTA conducts its final New York City-based hearings tonight, these views are something to consider. The authority should begin to consider a fare hike as an alternate solution for its budget crisis, but opinions are decidedly mixed on most MTA issues.

You may also like


zz March 4, 2010 - 6:04 pm

I think the most alarming finding is one you didn’t report: fully 11% of New Yorkers plan to attend the hearing tonight. Egads!

Jonathan D. March 4, 2010 - 6:21 pm

The only thing this survey proves is that people aren’t very good at articulating their needs within the framework of a survey. Look, I’ve said it before, but I’m going to repeat it again, because it’s really important. Something cannot be too expensive and too crowded. If something is too crowded, it is not expensive enough to balance supply and demand. If it is too expensive, there will not be enough demand for it. Please go take Econ 101 from CUNY in the meantime.

Benjamin Kabak March 4, 2010 - 6:37 pm

Don’t we know that people are economically ignorant though? They complain that fares are too high when fares are lower in real dollars today than they were 15 years ago.

I’m not sure I agree with you on the too expensive/too crowded front though when we’re considering non-rival public goods. The MTA is a public monopoly, right? So if people want to get to work for less than it costs to drive or take a cab, they have to take the subway. Thus, it’s possible for it to be too crowded because of the captive audience, and those people can believe that it is not worth the money they pay. It’s slightly irrational, but not as dumb as you make it out to be.

Jonathan D. March 4, 2010 - 6:48 pm

But Ben, you’re ignoring the larger picture here. In a small way you’re right, there is a captive audience, but at the same time, there are always options. People taking short trips could bike or walk. People taking longer trips could take gypsy cabs and buses (a service that you’ve also covered, based on those buses not being able to make money if they have to pay the MTA taxes – funding competition). People who don’t need to be on the subway could telecommute. Many people live farther away from their job than they should because transit is cheap but property is not. At some point that equation changes too. What does the toll on the verazano need to be to get people to live on the Brooklyn side vs. the SI side? A popular form of transportation in Europe is the scooter. You can buy a brand new Honda for about $2500, or less than 3 years of unlimited passes (at the current price). We could just as easily get some people onto those. The fact of the matter is, if something is too crowded it is not at equilibrium. Instead of keeping fares artificially low, and allowing the richest in society to collect the economic rents offered by a criminally low fare, what if we instead made fares much much higher and subsidized them for the neediest people instead? Tie it to food stamps or taxes if you’re so inclined. The current fare structure heavily favors the well to do and regularly punishes those who are less well off. That’s why the system is too crowded. The fares aren’t high enough for the people that should be paying more. It doesn’t change my argument that if something is too crowded it is too cheap, though.

Pete March 5, 2010 - 6:53 am

Scooters, including stand up motor scooters, are illegal in NY state. Same with everything, including segways. You’ll wind up in jail for uninspected, uninsured, unregistered vehicle with you having no license (assuming you don’t drive) if the cop is having a bad day. Cabs are 90% illegal anyways (street hails) but unenforced. Dollar vans are mostly illegal (not sure how many are fully TLC registered). Other than the bike and walking, the MTA has a monopoly.

Jonathan D. March 5, 2010 - 12:38 pm

Based on there being multiple Vespa dealerships in NYC alone, I find that incredibly hard to believe. While you might need a motorcycle license to operate them, that does not put them out of reach for all but a select few. Even if everything in the city were illegal to do other than ride the MTA, if the MTA were to cost too much, there would be a black market for transportation, just like there are black/gray markets for any other number of goods. Selling knockoffs is illegal too, but that hasn’t stopped it, has there? There’s clearly more demand for fancy handbags at an expensive price. Clearly the real thing is priced more appropriately, since no one is complaining Gucci is selling too many purses.

SEAN March 4, 2010 - 6:53 pm

amung the largest transit systems in the US, The MTA’s fares are near the top.

2. L. A. $1.25 ZONELESS

The ecconomics of fares are trickyer to judge then it would seme.

Benjamin Kabak March 4, 2010 - 6:59 pm

It’s really a matter of messaging. The average fare, as I explained earlier this week, is $1.41. Only 14.3 percent of people who ride the subways pay that full fare, and the other 85.7 percent enjoy a discount. So saying that the fare is $2.25 is misleading on the part of the MTA, if not flat-out wrong.

Quïnn Hue March 4, 2010 - 8:03 pm

New York has the largest subway system in the country, and assumably the largest bus system in the country. The system is configured for longer trips to and fro one’s place of employment. 1$-2.00$ and even full fare for a ride is a steal considering one can commute from Hillside to Downtown Brooklyn/Manhattan for that fare. Your point would also come across much more clearly if you didn’t type in all caps and if your post could actually be comprehended.

Adam G March 4, 2010 - 11:18 pm

Boston’s subway fare hasn’t been $1.25 in years. The subway fare is $2.00 on CharlieTicket and $1.70 on CharlieCard. Transfers from bus to subway aren’t free; it charges you the difference between a bus fare and a subway fare.

Edward March 5, 2010 - 1:12 am

Los Angeles is NOT zoneless. The $1.25 fare is good for ONE line only. If you need to transfer to another bus/subway line, then you have to fork over another $1.25. A full-day fare card (bus and subway) is only $5, however. And man is the LA subway so much cleaner, and the station artwork so much more pleasing, than NYC.

Pete March 5, 2010 - 6:55 am

But the LA subway is a tunnel to nowhere like the Shelbyville Monorail! Or Baltimore’s subway.

John March 5, 2010 - 10:00 am

It’s not quite that bad – it connects to Union Station and (almost) to the airport. The new Gold line actually gets you in somewhat reasonable walking distance from Dodger Stadium. But it’s very downtown oriented.

Marc Shepherd March 4, 2010 - 7:09 pm

A majority of those polled preferred a 7.5 percent fare hike to service cuts while 44 percent said the fares are already too high. Those people would prefer less service for their too high fares, an odd compromise indeed.

Most people are selfish. If the planned cuts do not affect their use of the transit system, then the cuts are OK.

I agree that the MTA has done a terrible job of making clear the effect of the discount, and that hardly anyone pays $2.25. But remember, one or two fare hikes ago, even Gov. Spitzer did not seem to understand this.

Quïnn Hue March 4, 2010 - 8:25 pm

Looking at the chart regarding the shifting of responsibilities in paying for student fares, one can use the chart not as a method for determining who should solely bear the enormous combined responsibility of funding youth fares, but as a chart displaying what percentage of the fare each group should bear responsibility for funding, with the obvious exclusion of the MTA itself (where exactly does one believe this cash-strapped agency gets its funding?).
As the city provides education, it is their responsibility.
As the state is the entity whom the city answers to (and where supposedly, it is their responsibility as well.
As parents/legal guardians and their legal dependents who attend school and use the system, it is their responsibility as well.
The Parisien or the Montréalais policy of providing a student fare on their respective farecards, the Navigo (Imagine “R” scolaire/étudiant) and the OPUS cards at a significantly reduced yet paying rate (287,70€/an for a student versus 574,60€/an for la Carte Intégrale yearly ticket for the inner city of paris and immediate suburbs) is an implementation of this thinking.

Dan Lewis March 4, 2010 - 8:38 pm

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the data in your earlier post on the average fare is horribly misleading. By defining a ride as a “swipe” and therefore defining out-of-system transfers as an additional ride, the MTA is overcounting trips dramatically and failing to consider the behavior effects of the free transfer. And given that, I do not think it is at all absurd for a large percentage of the population to think that service cuts are preferable to fare hikes. I’ll use myself as an example.

Let’s assume that, given your post, a ride should cost $1.89 — that’s the year-1996 adjusted for inflation.

My commute to and from work typically involves a bus and subway ride, take takes door to door 25 minutes. I pay $2.14 for this trip, but the MTA counts it as two trips of $1.07 each. I “underpay” by $0.82 each time, or $1.64/day.

However, I could very easily take the subway the whole way, and it’d take roughly 40 minutes. In this case, I still pay $2.14, but the MTA counts it as one trip — so I’m *overpaying* by $0.25.

From the Straphanger’s point of view, the one/two ride dichotomy is entirely semantic. So let’s reconcile the two and assume that the MTA simply fixed their accounting system to match the reality of my experience, and counted my ride as one, which cost $2.14. Now I’m clearly *not* getting a ride which is lower in real dollars than it was in 1996.

The alternative? The MTA could treat it as two fares: charge me the $1.89/swipe, and then I’m taking the longer route to work — and the MTA is out a tiny bit of revenue each day. In effect, I’d be opting for less service instead of higher fares.

But I’m not the best case example; rather, the working-class outer borough New Yorker is. These commuters are already the ones for whom the marginal value of a dollar is greatest, and they also are most likely to require out of system transfers as they likely live farther from a subway than a Manhattanite. So for them, reconciling the MTA’s books either (a) makes them no longer overpaying, which is fine; or (b) hits them hardest than many others. Seems to me like they’d rather have less service than option (b) — especially give that it’d ideally be spread more evenly.

Benjamin Kabak March 4, 2010 - 8:43 pm

Where does the $2.14 come from? Even if you’re just using a pay-per-ride MetroCard plus the discount, your trip shouldn’t cost more than $1.96.

Anyway, I don’t see why the per-swipes issues — something I’m still working to confirm — is a sleight of hand. In the past, a bus-to-subway transfer wasn’t free.

Dan Lewis March 4, 2010 - 9:55 pm

You’re right, it’s $1.96. The $2.14 is a math mistake plus me having the discount rate too low because I’m a moron.


The reason the per-swipes issue is one is simple: you can’t have it both ways. The transfer wasn’t free then, but people internalized the cost if they could (e.g. people like me). Now, you don’t, yet the MTA doesn’t account for that.

Using me as an example, again:

Let’s say we went back to the old way. No free out-of-system (bust-to-subway or vice versa, typically) transfers, but also (to make this a parallel discussion) no unlimited cards. Make it $1.96/swipe. What happens?

I, and a lot of people like me, would instead of our subway-to-bus routes, would take in-system transfers and adding some time to our commutes. We’d be paying $1.96, so a bit more than the normalized 1996 amount, and not $3.92, in most cases. The result is that demand for cross-town busing goes down; revenues stay the same; subway crowding goes up. And I’m not longer considered to be underpaying, so there goes that argument. Maybe the MTA could make up some of the difference by reducing bus service, but that’d be unlikely given the economies of scale.

Basically: If you’re going to argue that transit is cheaper today than it was in 1996, you have to do it from the perspective of a rational commuter (albeit one who can correctly note that his ride costs $1.96), as to correctly incorporate the behavior of that commuter into the model. And the per-swipe vs. per-ride dichotomy certainly has an effect on consumer behavior, as above.

Josh K March 5, 2010 - 8:07 pm

You also need to keep in mind that average wages, especially for lower income workers, has not kept pace with inflation. A large percentage of working people are making less today in real dollars than they would have been making a decade or two ago. This is further demonstrated by the growing gap between the rich and working classes. The only ways that most households have been able to keep afloat with these declining real wages is 1) Women entering the workforce in greater numbers, 2) borrowing. Borrowing is obviously a short term solution as interest payments begin to overwhelm one’s ability to pay down principle, let alone pay for other things.

Alon Levy March 5, 2010 - 2:36 am

The poll has too low a sample size to draw conclusions. With 280 people, 56-44 is on the border of being outside the margin of error. There’s also no data provided about how the sample was obtained – the description of “Metro readers” doesn’t sound like a random sample.

In addition, some of the questions border on push-polling: the question about raises should not mention MTA financial troubles any more than it should mention the possibility of deflation; the question about station agents shouldn’t push-poll security concerns; the question about best and worst things about the subway should be open-ended instead of push-poll “horrible weekend service” or “affordable fare.”

Benjamin Kabak March 5, 2010 - 2:37 am

It’s Metro. In my mind, at least, there’s an implicit grain of salt. It’s more rigorous opinion polling than anyone has done on the subways lately though even if we’d rather see a simple four times the size.

Alon Levy March 5, 2010 - 6:50 am

Even 500 is sometimes enough, but you’d want the sample to be representative and the questions to be neutrally worded.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 5, 2010 - 9:14 am

[…] Most NYers Think State and City Should Pay for Student MetroCards (Metro via 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

PB March 5, 2010 - 11:11 am

Overcorwding should not be counted as an issue. I believe it comes with the territory and if you’re running capacity service for the time and it’s overcrowded, oh well. When I went to Junior and High school, I always took the bus from school and it was plenty crowded with school kids and buses left every couple of minutes. If I miss an E train and then another one comes within one minute and that too is crowded, that’s just the way it is. Get over it NY and stop complaining about crowds…

Dan March 5, 2010 - 12:16 pm

It’s an issue on buses because it makes them run more slowly.

aestrivex March 5, 2010 - 2:36 pm

The questions from this survey strike me as leading, at least in some cases.

Perhaps it is sort of more neutral to say that “Given the fact that MTA is in financial difficulties, should the TWU get their 3% raise?” but public opinion would surely change if the question were framed as something like “The MTA sought to deny the unions a 3% raise to improve overhead. Were they right?”

mike July 1, 2010 - 12:30 am

I know the MTA sucks, that’s why we created peopleofthemta.com

Check it out, you will appreciate your commute more


Leave a Comment