Home Fare Hikes Making the unlimited MetroCards limited

Making the unlimited MetroCards limited

by Benjamin Kabak

When details of a fare hike emerged on Friday, straphangers long used to unlimited ride MetroCards gasped. In addition to raising the costs of cards across the board, the MTA, said the reports, planned to cap the number of rides available on the so-called unlimited ride cards.

Today, the Daily News has the details: A 30-day unlimited ride card would allow the user take 90 trips, and the authority may cap the 7-days at 21 rides. Under the current rates of $89 and $27 respectively, this move would cap the minimum cost of a ride at $0.99 for the monthly and $1.26 for the weekly. If the rates go up as expected, the lowest possible cost per ride would be approximately $1.11 for the 30-day cards and $1.33 for the weeklies.

According to the News, the MTA alleges that the vast majority of riders do not average three swipes per day for their unlimited ride cards. Thus, this cap would impact those people who are abnormally heavy subway users and those subway scammers who try to sell unlimited ride swipes at the turnstile for $2.25 to unsuspecting customers. Despite these intentions, riders are wary of the proposal, and advocate groups believe the MTA’s approach is misguided. “The MTA’s financial problems are real, but I’m very concerned they’re going to sock it to the riding public to the exclusion of other groups [that] benefit from transit, like drivers and businesses,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said.

For what it’s worth, during my personal experiments, I’ve found my monthly usage to be less than the MTA’s rumored caps. In my November 2007 MetroCard challenge, I rode 74 times while working a regular job, and in my November 2008 challenge, I rode 73 times while commuting as a student. In October 2009, while commuting as a student and working a part time job, I swiped in 88 times. Reporters and messengers, among others, will far exceed the 90-swipe limit.

The fare hike, which the MTA will debate over the next few months, is set to go into effect on January 1, 2011. Among the other parts of the proposals is a planned $1 surcharge for all MetroCards, and the MTA will, in all likelihood, make unlimited cards refillable at the same time. Soon enough, those unlimited cards won’t be so unlimited after all.

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Seth R July 13, 2010 - 12:58 pm

Is there any kind of estimate for how much revenue this will generate? It seems like a lot of complexity, effort and a lot of hours booked by mta employees to make a change that wouldn’t make much difference according to the MTA themselves.

They might as well just bite the bullet and raise rates enough to push some riders back onto the normal metrocard.

Marc Shepherd July 13, 2010 - 1:04 pm

I agree with Seth R that this introduces a lot of complexity for not much benefit. The real problem is that they made the “unlimited” cards too damned attractive, and now they are trying to walk it back.

Gene Russianoff is his usual clueless self: “I’m very concerned they’re going to sock it to the riding public.” Well, duh! If Albany doesn’t pony up (which it hasn’t), where else is the money going to come from. The tooth fairy?

Mike G July 13, 2010 - 1:05 pm

this works out great for those of us who now live in the 2-fare zone thanks to the service cuts 2 weeks ago (eastern queens & the bronx)

ferryboi July 13, 2010 - 1:43 pm

…and all of Staten Island. A whole borough that is reliant on buses should’t have to count two swipes (one on the SI bus, another on bus/subway after we get off the boat in Manhattan) as two rides.

More often than not I use the pay-per-ride card because many times I drive in to Manhattan when working nights and weekends, yet I say raise the base fare to $2.50 or $2.75 and let the unlimited cards stay as they are.

John July 13, 2010 - 2:36 pm

I think it would count a bus and a transfer as one ride. Just like now, riders pay $2.25 on the bus and get a free transfer to another bus/subway. It would be like my Student MetroCard, which has 3 rides and linked transfers.

John Paul N. July 13, 2010 - 4:23 pm

I really hope you’re right. The way the Daily News article was written, it wasn’t clear if one swipe or one Pay-per-ride fare is equal to a trip. I believe the Student MetroCards tell you how many rides you have left in a day, so we’ll all need to pay more attention to that MetroCard reader.

John July 13, 2010 - 7:47 pm

When you swipe the Student MetroCard in the subway at a turnstile or MetroCard reader, it will tell you how many rides you have left. However, on the bus, it only says “Student OK” and it is up to the user of the MetroCard to remember how many rides they have.

AlexB July 13, 2010 - 1:13 pm

90 seems like a low cap for an “unlimited” card. Maybe 120 would be better, two round trips a day. Or maybe an unlimited with no cap should be $140 or something like that.

Marc Shepherd July 13, 2010 - 2:15 pm

I think what they’re trying to do, is to keep the monthly price for most people below $100, and then charge extra only for those who are extremely heavy users. I suspect they have the data to show that the vast majority of monthly unlimited card users don’t breach the 90-ride limit.

I’m not necessarily defending the plan, only pointing out that $140 for a truly unlimited card would be providing more capacity than most people need.

AlexB July 13, 2010 - 2:43 pm

I meant that the MTA should have the 90 ride max unlimited for under a hundred bucks and then a legitimate no max # of rides unlimited for much more, like $140 or whatever the MTA needs to cover the risk of an unlimited user using that card.

Marc Shepherd July 13, 2010 - 4:23 pm

That might just be more complexity than the system will bear—as it is, I have my doubts about this proposal. What they are offering is a card that expires after 90 rides or 30 days, whichever comes first. When that happens, you just buy the next one.

John Paul N. July 13, 2010 - 4:35 pm

That’s a good way of looking at it. The big unknown is if riders would like to pay for a 24-day card (for example, as the 90-trip limit is reached) or a 30-day card with fewer trips.

Adam July 13, 2010 - 1:22 pm

I’ve always wondered why my 30-day Unlimited card couldn’t be refilled. Seems like a waste and a poor design.

Todd July 13, 2010 - 2:33 pm

I like the idea of charging for new cards. Make it a $20 fee for the card, then sell a special MTA-approved card sleeve to protect it from wearing out. Step 3: Profit!

It would be nice to cut down on the waste though.

Nabe News: July 13 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle July 13, 2010 - 1:29 pm

[…] the new limited “unlimited” MetroCard, and at a higher price to straphangers [Second Avenue […]

Scott E July 13, 2010 - 1:35 pm

I agree that 90 is low. Just three trips per day. If someone has a routine, 5 days a week (20 per month) where they take their child to child-care, go to work, pick up their child, then go home, that’s 4 trips in a day already, or 80 trips per month. Not much room is left for weekend trips, shopping trips, etc.

Logistically, the free out-of-system transfers do not exist (to my knowledge) for unlimited cards. When you swipe it, it says “GO”, not “XFER” on the turnstile. Hopefully, these wouldn’t count against any sort of cap.

John July 13, 2010 - 2:02 pm

Does anyone but tourists typically use the 7-day card? I know when I come into New York I generally get a 7-day card and probably use way more than 21 rides. When you’re a tourist who takes the subway, you’ll use up 21 rides in a hurry.

Todd July 13, 2010 - 2:20 pm

If I know I’m traveling out of the city for a while, and if I can time it correctly, the 7-day card can be helpful.

Justin..... July 13, 2010 - 3:24 pm

I know when I come visit New York, I burn through way more than 21 rides on the 7-day card. I think that the 21 ride cap is clearly directed towards tourists, as a way to make a bit more money off of them. This, of course, I support…and I wish we had more tourist money grabs down here in DC.

Gary July 13, 2010 - 2:14 pm

At 90 rides on a 30-day card, I’d go through it with anywhere between 2-8 days before the period is over.

John July 13, 2010 - 2:41 pm

I think the 90 ride cap is way too low. That is only 3 rides per day, which could easily be used up if a person has to make a double transfer (Say, from a Staten Island bus to the subway to a Queens bus). In both directions, that would actually bring them over the 3 ride limit.
I would rather they raise peak fares to, say $2.75 to encourage off-peak travel so they can eliminate a lot of deadhead runs. They can raise the price of the Unlimited MetroCard to $100 and have it good for both peak and off-peak travel.

Benjamin Kabak July 13, 2010 - 2:44 pm

I too think the 90-ride limit is probably 10-15 rides too low, but do you legitimately know anyone going from Staten Island to Queens via a bus, a ferry, a subway and a bus on a daily basis? That’s a bit far-fetched.

John Paul N. July 13, 2010 - 4:30 pm

I don’t think it’s that implausible. If someone lives in Glendale and needs to get to the College of Staten Island, that would exactly be the itinerary. (Technically, you’re supposed to have a free transfer from a Staten Island bus or Staten Island Railway train to a bus or subway at the Manhattan South Ferry terminal.) A similar situation is an itinerary for someone from Glendale who works at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. Former X32 riders, as well.

Benjamin Kabak July 13, 2010 - 4:31 pm

Again, how many people are we talking about here? 20-30, maybe? I doubt that many go from Queens to Staten Island via four different modes of transportation on a daily basis. It’s too long a ride. They’d drive or move.

John Paul N. July 13, 2010 - 4:52 pm

Personally, I don’t make such regular journeys. (I do take multiple trips in a day, such as when I use the subways and buses as part of my shopping, which I don’t know if it is the same situation, I doubt it.) But long daily commutes aren’t uncommon, such as 4-hour trips from the Poconos to NYC. So while the numbers are probably low, I think it’s probable particularly because of the flexibility the Unlimited gives. Now if it was another city like Philadelphia, where transfers cost extra, then you would not see four modes of transportation in a single directional trip.

On a related note, a friend of mine had to decide whether to attend Baruch College or Queens College from his home on the border of Ridgewood and Glendale. Depending on whether he gets a car, he is more likely going to attend Baruch because it takes too many buses and a circuitous route to get from his home to Queens College.

R2 July 13, 2010 - 2:58 pm

I easily hit 110 rides per month because of my high quantity of off-peak trips to visit family plus regular errands after work plus going out at night.

Hope folks at the hearings scream and howl against this (and propose other funding sources and tell the pols to stop dipping into MTA’s coffers….dedicated funding my *ss!)

Shabazz July 13, 2010 - 3:54 pm

There are several factors that I think are being overlooked by the media so far on this issue.

Will ending unlimited ride metro cards (that is effectively what the MTA is proposing) actually raise revenues? I’m not convinced. As a college student, I’m not going to necessarily pony up $2.25 whenever I want to take an extra trip. On a given Saturday or Friday night, I can easily rack up 6 rides on the subway or more. Most of these rides are long distances or even inter-borough, instead they are short haul (i.e. times square to union square, williamsburg to cobble hill etc). I know alot of people who use their unlimited ride metro cards this way. These people probably wont pay more, but just end up staying with one destinations instead of hopping around town. Currently its very easy to stop and get groceries on your way from work, and then go back out to meet some friends at a bar in another borough. It won’t be as easy if this proposal becomes reality.

The MTA is assuming that people who are currently on unlimited cards, will convert to pay-per-ride metrocards when they surpass their limit. This is a flawed assumption. It is very likely (in my opinion) that people will cut back on their travel (esp. recreational travel) and/or find other ways to travel (i.e. bicycling). The effect on the bottom line could end up being nill or even worse.

The Unlimited Ride system has been a vital part of the historic ridership increase. It incentives mass transit use. Cutting back on their availability lessens that incentive.

This could even have a detrimental effect on city businesses (I understand that this can be seen as a stretch). NYC nightlife and restaurants depend on a highly mobile citizenry served by a cheap and fast subway system. If the population becomes less mobile because transit becomes less affordable, I am almost sure that there will be some effect on the city’s economy.

Don’t take my word for it, just look at other cities that don’t offer weekly and daily metrocards (i.e.) Boston. From my experience, subway usage is far less casual than in a city like NYC.

Also, would the caps affect yearly and daily cards too (these two haven’t been mentioned).

Benjamin Kabak July 13, 2010 - 3:55 pm

What do you mean by a yearly card?

The daily unlimiteds are generally pegged to the base fare to incentivize purchases so the cost of those will probably remain constant with some swipe limits.

Al D July 13, 2010 - 4:51 pm

The TansitChek MetroCard is conceptually an annual card. It is a monthly card that automatically replenishes pre-tax from employee pay. The cards are valid for 1 year at which time presumably a new card would be issued.

Alon Levy July 13, 2010 - 7:47 pm

In some cities, there are yearly cards. They’re popular in Germany, where a yearly card costs 10 times as much as a monthly card. The fare is deducted from your bank account in monthly installments, to avoid requiring you to front hundreds of Euros before you earn them.

In addition, Japan has six-month unlimited cards. I believe they’re upfront, but you shouldn’t quote me on this.

In both cases, the reason to do this is that it makes it easy to obey the law rather than to dodge the fare. In addition, it reduces the number of financial transactions and requires fewer TVMs (=lower collection costs), makes ridership more reliable (it’s a hassle to decide midway that you’d rather drive instead), and fronts the agency the money weeks or months before people actually ride.

John July 13, 2010 - 8:04 pm

Part of the savings might result from decreases in service as a result of fewer people using transit. For example, if there was a 10% decrease in travelers making short trips from Williamsburg to Cobble Hill, they could reduce some service on the B62, though they probably couldn’t reduce it by 10%.
I think the cons outweigh the pros, and I agree that the Unlimited MetroCard has really helped the city’s economy. I remember reading an article that said that businessmen from Wall Street could take a train up to Union Square for lunch without thinking twice about it. With the cap on Unlimited rides, as you said, people won’t go out to places on weekends like Greenwich Village and Alphabet City, as well as other places with a lot of nightlife.
I just don’t think this fits in with what should be the MTA’s goal of reducing pollution. At least with the service reductions, the majority of the neighborhoods affected still had an alternate route, but with the cap on Unlimited rides, you might see an increase in the number of people driving and even taking cabs, as now it isn’t the difference between the cost of a $10 cab ride and a free ride on the bus. Now it is the difference between a $10 cab ride and a $2.25 ride on the local bus. Factor in the waiting time and you might very well see a decent chunk of people opting for the cab ride.

Avi July 14, 2010 - 3:18 pm

I just don’t think this fits in with what should be the MTA’s goal of reducing pollution.

The goal of the MTA is not to reduce pollution. It is to provide the most efficient transit system given its budget. If the city/state want to encourage MTA usage to reduce pollution then they should provide more money for the MTA to do that. Otherwise the MTA has to make do with what it has.

John July 16, 2010 - 3:25 pm

Still, it is more effective to transport a load of people in a bus than to have them each take a private car. That is what I meant by reducing pollution.

Shabazz July 13, 2010 - 4:06 pm

Ahh, my mistake

I would have sworn at some point that there was a yearly unlimited option as well. For a very high price.

But oh well.

John July 13, 2010 - 5:18 pm

I just hope they clearly state ON THE FRONT OF THE CARD how many rides it’s good for. If I wasn’t a SAS reader and came into town for a week, I’d be pretty confused when I hit 21 rides on my 7-day card and I have to buy a new one.

I’m not necessarily against it (though I too question if it will actually gain them anything), but they just have to not call them “unlimited” cards (obviously) and clearly print what the limit is on the physical card.

Caelestor July 13, 2010 - 7:18 pm

You know, they might as well abolish “Unlimited” cards and brand it as 90 rides for $100 or whatever, with an expiration of 28 days. Of course, that would kill the Pay-Per-Ride cards.

John July 13, 2010 - 8:21 pm

I can’t see it killing off the Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard. The advantage of the Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard is that it offers a long time period that it is good for. They are useful for families like mine that use transit frequently, but not nearly enough so that an Unlimited MetroCard is a better bargain.
Even if you use a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard twice a day to get to and from work, the $1.96 fare (when you include the 15% bonus) * twice per day = $3.92 * 20 workdays per month is $78.40, when an Unlimited MetroCard costs $89. You may simply not need to travel a lot outside of work and not use an Unlimited MetroCard.
There are other examples of people who need to get around frequently on public transportation, but not frequently enough that an Unlimited MetroCard would offer better value-seniors who need to get to doctor’s appointments, families that often carpool on trips together, etc.

Alon Levy July 13, 2010 - 8:42 pm

I switched from an unlimited monthly to a pay-per-ride a few months ago. My number of swipes was just barely above the minimum at which an unlimited monthly costs less, and I had some conference trips, which reduced my number of swipes below that threshold.

The cost of an unlimited monthly is 46 pay-per-ride swipes, which encourages this behavior. In Germany and Japan, where the same multiplier is in the low 30s, I would keep my unlimited monthly. This is why I advocate a larger increase in the cost of cards other than the unlimited monthly, for example $3 single-ride, $2.50 pay-per-ride for large-volume purchases (say, $20 or more), and $98 unlimited monthly. This would lower the multiplier to 39.2. The next fare hike should have similar characteristics, to lower the multiplier further, to about 33-35.

rhywun July 13, 2010 - 8:22 pm

“Unlimited” cards are a generous benefit that we can’t afford anymore. In bad times like this, the public might start wondering at the fairness of charging an average user double or triple what a heavy user pays. Sure, it sucks but money doesn’t grow on trees anymore.

Alon Levy July 13, 2010 - 8:45 pm

In light of the fare collection costs, I’d argue the opposite – cheap single-rides are a generous benefit that the MTA can’t afford.

Shabazz Stuart July 13, 2010 - 10:37 pm

I too would argue the opposite.

At the current, I believe that unlimited rides have had a significant impact on subway ridership and the city’s economy. All I’m saying is that curtailing unlimited rides might have an impact that is far more significant than just a few people riding on some busses.

Again, we have gotten used to casual and cheap subway usage. That will change

rhywun July 14, 2010 - 6:48 pm

It’s not the MTA’s responsibility to prop up the city’s economy, whether it puts us in billions of dollars of debt or not.

Alon Levy July 13, 2010 - 8:25 pm

A small but substantial number of riders use the unlimited cards 90+ times, and even 100+ times. They can’t all be cheaters.

Chris July 13, 2010 - 10:15 pm

Another option would be to use the turnstiles for both station entry and egress. The fare would be charged on the way out (on entry the turnstile would verify that there was adequate funds to pay the fare or was a valid pass). This would make it a bit harder for people to sell swipes since they would need to do so twice. There could be some type of a penalty for swiping a different card on exit to discourage people buying swipes (such as having to pay an extra $5 dollars). This would require some station redesign, but it could probably be done.

Shabazz Stuart July 13, 2010 - 10:39 pm

Also, I’m not MTA bashing, I know that neither Albany nor the city has paid their fair share, but at the same time…. look at the bigger picture, I don’t think we can, far hike our way out of this problem. The MTA’s budget gap will inevitably continue to grow at some point, something has to give. Fare Hikes like these can’t be the answer alone.

Alon Levy July 14, 2010 - 5:10 pm

It’s too expensive. Because NYCT was never designed with two-way swiping in mind, the total linear length of turnstile space in its station is limited. If you compare NYCT (or the Métro, another one-city-one-fare system) to newer systems featuring distance-based fares, for examples the RER and the Shanghai Metro*, you’ll see there’s just much less space there for the extra turnstiles.

This is an issue where the New York way is genuinely unfixable.

* There are way more systems with distance-based fare, but the RER and the Shanghai Metro I have the most recent personal experiences with.

Nathanael July 19, 2010 - 5:06 pm

Actually, it’s not a serious problem to convert, if you have several years to do so.

It’s *far* less of a problem than the original Metrocard conversion; replace the existing turnstiles with London-style reversible turnstiles with the same footprint. You have to do something about the auxillary “exit only” exits in various stations, but usually the response is to just close them.

In any case, the plan is to convert to a tap-card system, which will require replacing everything ANYWAY, and they might as well set up “tap out” policies when they do that.

Then they could finally start charging by distance.

wayne's world July 14, 2010 - 11:47 am

I think it makes sense to charge more to those who use it heavily for business. Why should the MTA and the rest of the riding public subsidize their businesses? When used for business, it also becomes a deductible business expense though I realize that many of those who use it for business don’t itemize their taxes.

A lower pay-per-ride discount among fare hike proposals :: Second Ave. Sagas July 14, 2010 - 12:20 pm

[…] closer, details of the 2011 fare hike proposal are beginning to emerge. Yesterday, we heard how unlimited cards will become limited, and today, we know more about the authority’s plans for single-ride and pay-per-ride users. […]

Mike G July 14, 2010 - 4:16 pm

so basically if your daily one way commute includes bus-subway-bus, you’ll be paying for two unlimited cards per month.

or if your commute is home-1st job-2nd job-home, you’re commuting costs will double.

there are thousands of people that have that kind of commute (myself included) and they don’t travel through 3 boros

Avi July 15, 2010 - 12:12 pm

If your commute is home -> 1st job -> 2nd job -> home then you’re using 3 trips/week day. That still leaves you 8 weekend days and 3 trips/day for them. Or to look at it over a month, that means you have 24 non work trips left before hitting the cap.

Also, if you go over the cap your costs aren’t doubling. These are not calendar month cards where you will now need to buy two cards. The cards are good for any 30 days or 90 rides. If you were to hit the 90 ride limit in 20 days instead of 30 then you’re costs increase by 50%. For your costs to double you would need to hit 90 rides in 15 days, meaning 6 rides a day. And remember at peak usage the unlimited ride card is half the price/ride of pay-per-ride, why is it unreasonable for the MTA to ask for you to pay more?

Andrew July 16, 2010 - 12:42 am

Because chances are only two of those rides per day (at most) are long rush hour rides, which cost the MTA the most to provide. The rest are off-peak and are probably fairly short. The point of an unlimited card is to promote off-peak ridership.

What about people who have bus-subway-bus or bus-bus-bus commutes? What about people who use unofficial out-of-system transfers?

hal p July 16, 2010 - 12:57 pm

This is all background music. When will we ever get to a peak/off-peak system on the subways and buses? I know it has complexity that some people may miss, but don’t we need to start talking about this as an option? Someone taking 90 rides with 45 trips during the peak period has a different impact on the system than someone taking 90 rides with 5 trips during the peak.

John July 16, 2010 - 3:29 pm

That was my logic-that rush hour service is more expensive and that encouraging off-peak travel as opposed to peak travel would save them money because they wouldn’t have the cost of the deadheads.

In fare hike plan, more unlimited cards get the axe :: Second Ave. Sagas July 27, 2010 - 11:22 am

[…] responsible for revolutionizing the way New Yorkers use mass transit, these cards are set to become limited in January 2011. Now, we learn that a few unlimited ride options may be on the chopping […]

The impending circus with a MetroCard at stake :: Second Ave. Sagas September 13, 2010 - 12:00 am

[…] learned in July, this year’s fare hike proposal came with a huge hitch: The MTA may very well do away with the Unlimited ride MetroCard. To combat the fact that the average fare today is lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than what […]

Catbus» Blog Archive » The STM and the illusion of participation December 3, 2010 - 11:16 am

[…] either. They simply get announced. Unlike in New York, where the recent fare hike was part of a long and angsty debate (the conclusion of which was to make the unlimited ride card more expensive, […]

Chantay F. January 25, 2011 - 12:03 pm

The whole limiting the times you use your
metrocard is so not fair for single
Parents like me who need an unlimited
Metro for work,daycare and school at
Night I use my metro at least 30 times
A week. So who would this limit benefit?

Benjamin Kabak January 25, 2011 - 12:05 pm

This post is from last July. It’s not happening. It’s been discussed over and over again in the news and on my blog. Please read further.


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