Home Fare Hikes Amidst fare hikes and cuts, finding other ways to travel

Amidst fare hikes and cuts, finding other ways to travel

by Benjamin Kabak

Before the service cuts went into effect, subway ridership had been on the rise.

Riding the subways in New York City is oftentimes not a pleasant experience. Straphangers wait (for too long) on station platforms that are too hot and too crowded for trains that are too stuffed with fellow commuters. As the MTA had to cut services in June and must raise fares again in January just to maintain service as its current level, some former straphangers are finding other ways to travel.

In amNew York today, Sheila Anne Feeney highlights three travelers who have given up on the subways and, in the grand fashion of The Times Styles Section, tries to turn those three commuters into a trend. These three, she says, are representative of an “underground movement” whose members are looking for stress-free, environmentally friendly and cost-efficient ways of getting to and from work. She writes:

“Being outside and being in control of the destiny in your commute gives you a better outlook on the whole day,” said Michael Auerbach, 26 [of Upper Green Side], who bikes 10 miles from his Greenpoint home to his job on the Upper East Side. He appreciates saving $4.50 a day almost as much as he loves compressing his three-train, 50-minute commute into an invigorating half-hour.

Tracking a boost in walking is elusive, but there was a 221 percent rise in bicycle commuters between 2000 and 2009, to 15,495, with Brooklyn leading, according to the NYC Commuter Cycling Indicator.

New Yorkers resort to a step schlep or pedal push for a variety of reasons: Fare hikes, for example, “always give a bump to bike commuting,” said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. Many people, too, said they resent being held hostage in increasingly crowded trains and buses.

Another attorney Feeney found walks three miles each way to and from her office, stopping at a nearby gym to shower. I’d have to believe these commuters may find their alternate commutes less invigorating as temperatures drop over the winter. Still, that some people are fed up with the service and conditions underground is a timeless tale in the annals of New York’s subway history.

New Yorkers, though, shouldn’t be worried about the walkers and the bikers. For as long as I can remember, my dad, who works a little over two miles from my parents’ apartment, walked when the weather was warm — but not too warm. He enjoys the 40-minute jaunt to the office and did so when subway fares consisted of tokens and a ride cost $1.25. As long as the city encourages biking and sidewalks exist, people will always bike or walk over shorter distances.

The people we should worry about though are the ones who eschew transit for cars. They’re the ones who think their rides are too long, who no longer have direct and convenient bus service to work or a nearby subway stop, who can’t stand how packed the trains are even four or five stops away from a terminal. The riders who switch to cars for the perceived convenience of it and to escape the grind of the subway will contribute to the congestion that cripples our area both economically and environmentally, and a future with more cars on the road is what we must try to avoid.

The MTA is, of course, stuck. As it has done so four times in the past seven years and will again be doing come January 1, the MTA is raising the rates on its fares just to keep service levels constant. To avoid a fare hike in 2009, the authority had to slash service across the board, and as wait times become longer and trains both more crowded and less frequent, the ridership levels will dip. Even an increase of just a handful of cars on the road can prove very costly, and the MTA — that main driver of transit in New York City — is in no position to staunch its economic bleeding.

Those commuters who leave the subway system for bikes contribute to no problems. It’s the people who live far away and can’t tolerate the subways that represent the real underground movement of disgruntled commuters, and the carrots to lure them back to transit are nowhere to be found.

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rhywun August 23, 2010 - 2:11 am

“The people we should worry about though are the ones who eschew transit for cars. “

Yay, more room for me! More seriously, is there any breakdown of the fluctuation in ridership (depicted above) which would indicate what causes it? I always thought the state of the economy, and the rise and fall in the number of “non-peak” trips that people perceive they can afford, are what drive the overall rise and fall of ridership. Commuting by car (to Manhattan) is already so expensive and inconvenient, I have a hard time believing that the recent mini-meltdown would result in any noticeable switch to cars.

Benjamin Kabak August 23, 2010 - 2:16 am

Transit is anticipating a drop in ridership of approximately 0.7 percent — or 16 million rides — in 2011. We’ll know next month how the service cuts impacted ridership between May and June of this year. That of course doesn’t equate with 16 million more car rides.

Marc Shepherd August 23, 2010 - 11:21 am

I think you’re right. Travel by car is SO expensive, that I doubt a 50-cent fare increase or an extra 2-minute wait for a train would be the tipping point to push someone from mass transit to automobile.

Alon Levy August 23, 2010 - 2:41 am

The weekday numbers track unemployment pretty strongly. They peaked in late 2008, even after oil prices came down, but then crashed in early 2009 with the recession. They started recovering as employment slowly started to rise again. The fare hike in the middle seems to have had no effect.

Jonathan D. August 23, 2010 - 11:19 am

So a couple of things, I suppose:

1.) Peak ridership is incredibly inelastic. As mentioned above, it fluctuates with employment and little else. Unlike DC, driving is not really a viable alternative, and so people are not starting to get to work by car.

2.) Off peak is much more elastic, but is still bounded by the fact that car ownership in NYC is only 50% compared to other places where it goes from 70-100%.

3.) With any price increase, the first things to go are always discretionary trips. When the price of gas rises, people don’t necessarily spend less money at Walmart, but they do combine trips. Instead of stopping at the grocery store every day on the ride home, one might stop once a week. In NYC, with an unlimited card, these discretionary trips are, for all intents and purposes free, having no marginal cost. They’re looking to eliminate this by going from being an “unlimited card” to a bulk discount. A better idea would be to buy a “heavy discount” card which would cost, say, 50$ up front, and then only charge you a dollar a ride. This would create a similar break even while collecting money on trips over the amount to offset the cost. As the unlimited card works now, many people buy them but do not hit the break even, and the MTA collects that additional fare.

4.) Thanks to cross elasticity, the easier trick to keeping people on the subway is for NYC to peg driving prices to subway prices. This is maybe the best part about the MTA owning some of the bridges. They always raise fares and tolls together, thus negating the “advantage” to driving. This would work even more if the MTA controlled the east river crossings as well as the parking tax in the city. There also should be some sort of vehicle registration fee/residential parking permit program that would provide another letter. Too often the rich people who own cars cry poor and the poor people who need the help don’t have a voice to cry anything. This is disgustingly unfair.

Renshaw August 23, 2010 - 1:38 pm

The most pronounced reductions in transit is to bus service outside of Manhattan, not Manhattan bound service. It also where car commuting makes the most sense, and transit use is probably most elastic given alternatives like car pooling, legal and illegal van and livery service. Our data collection is completely skewed towards hub bound, peak trips, but this is not where commuters might switch modes. Lastly, there are no before and after fare hike bike counts, so nobody really knows if more people bike after a fare hike. Nor are there robust bike counts within boroughs. They are all hub bound and ACS samples are not granular enough to pick up noticeable trends in bike use when bus service is cut in say Eastern Queens.

Michael September 3, 2010 - 1:11 am

This is what I came here to say. I live and work in Queens now. The bus that takes me to the train is gone and the alternate bus I used to take is cut to hours that only make sense for people working 9 to 5. I don’t. I’m also unwilling to bike past Bell Blvd and Northern. People talk about being invigorated, I would have an aneurysm. I’m also not about to get into an unmarked commuter van at 10:30 at night. That seems like the start of a horror film.

For the people going to and from Manhattan public transit makes sense and most people will do that but it you want to actually cut large amounts of cars out of this city we desperately need more service throughout Queens, the half of Brooklyn that the hipsters don’t live in and Staten Island.

If they would announce the construction of a light rail down Francis Lewis Blvd and Union Tpke I think I’d cry.

Despite cuts, 2010 ridership sees an increase :: Second Ave. Sagas February 16, 2011 - 1:09 am

[…] the subway for surface transit. An amNew York article found a few commuters who said they were going to bike while other stories featured interviews with people claiming they would begin to drive instead. […]


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