Home Asides Metrocard math, without a small discount

Metrocard math, without a small discount

by Benjamin Kabak

When MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota let slip yesterday the discussions surrounding the end of the pay-per-ride discount, New Yorkers engaged in a favorite pastime: hand-wringing. The Straphangers Campaign led the charge with the claim that low-income riders will suffer the most. That’s basically true any time the price for anything increases, but just how must would New Yorkers suffer without the discount?

Based on the assumption that the base fare will remain the same, I calculated the losses without the discount. Essentially, after 13 rides — that’s over six days of two rides each — riders would be in the hole for $1.95. On the 14th ride under the current cost structure, a $29 weekly Metrocard becomes more cost-efficient. Similarly, in a 30-day period, after 49 rides, riders would be out $7.35 for the month – or a dime more than one hour’s worth of work at New York’s current minimum wage. On the 50th swipe, the $104 monthly pass is the better option.

In that light, losing the discount doesn’t seem that bad, but that’s only half the story. The MTA could increase monthly prices as they did during the last fare hike or they could raise the base fare at the same time they eliminate the bulk purchase discount. No matter the outcome, a fare hike is a fare hike is a fare hike. Without another options, the MTA needs to generate revenue, and riders will once again be asked to shoulder that burden. If we can escape without yet another steep increase in the cost of the unlimited cards, I’d consider that a victory for riders.

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Frank September 13, 2012 - 2:25 pm

The appropriate reform would be to get rid of the unlimited cards, too. The people who can afford a pass are the ones who are least in need of discounts. In the days of tokens there was no such thing as a monthly pass. Somehow, we survived.

Bolwerk September 13, 2012 - 4:00 pm

I would think unlimiteds can be credited with making the NYC Subway such a viable option for trips that don’t involve going to work. They certainly encourage off-peak usage.

Henry September 14, 2012 - 12:39 am

The subways haven’t had their highest ridership since the 50s because the stations got cleaner.

Getting rid of unlimiteds would cause a severe drop in weekend and mid-day ridership.

Alex September 13, 2012 - 3:13 pm

The backlash for eliminating the monthly pass would be many times greater than the loss of the pay-per-ride discount. Even suggesting limiting the unlimited card last year drew harsh criticism. It would also set the NYC subway system behind other large metro systems in yet another way. Virtually all other major system in the US and Europe have monthly options. Raising the price would be painful, but it’d be a better option that cutting it out altogether.

Alon Levy September 14, 2012 - 5:52 am

Not only that, but the breakeven point is usually much lower than in New York. It tends toward 32-36 rides per monthly pass, vs. close to 50 in New York.

Among the cities with unlimited cards, only Paris is comparable to New York in its high breakeven point, and this is because it has a large discount for carnets of 10 tickets; versus single-rides the breakeven point is low. But the carnets are incredibly inconvenient to use: you just get 10 individual tickets, rather than a reusable card, or even an orderly booklet with the tickets marked so that you can distinguish them from one another.

Boerumhillscott September 13, 2012 - 3:18 pm

Getting rid of unlimited cards will largely reduce ridership during off-peak times when there is space capacity.

Bushwicked September 13, 2012 - 3:31 pm

Exactly right! Many people have jobs that require using the subway several times a day and they aren’t millionaires.
Charging for the new MTA card will absolutely be necessary if the discount goes away. Too many people will just wait to pay each time creating vending machine chaos.

Benjamin Kabak September 13, 2012 - 3:32 pm

I don’t see why people would wait to pay each time if the lines and processing times are that long. The value of time still dictates that riders won’t simply stop buying rides in greater multiples just because a meager discount goes away.

Bolwerk September 13, 2012 - 4:05 pm

I dunno about that. Besides the fact that people seem to prefer to hang onto their money, poorer people won’t have incentive to make larger transactions anymore. That may not be very costly, but it probably means more transactions.

Anon September 13, 2012 - 7:46 pm

THIS ONE IS EASY. Keep a partial discount if you use a Metrocard Machine (Less than we have now). Zero discount if you go to the “Token” Booth / Human.

Larry Littlefield September 13, 2012 - 4:19 pm

“Getting rid of unlimited cards will largely reduce ridership during off-peak times when there is space capacity.”

Or, they could go all pay per ride but have different fares for different times. It wouldn’t cut the marginal cost to zero, but it might affect when people travel more than the unlimited ride card.

Bolwerk September 13, 2012 - 4:51 pm

They could do that anyway, and include those costs in the unlimited.

Phantom September 13, 2012 - 6:13 pm

I agree with getting rid of the unlimited cards.

An awful lot of them get shared, a lot – I’ve done it – which absolutely defeats the purpose. Some are used by messenger and delivery companies.

Keep the discount, and the fare is still pretty damned reasonable for what is a good, 24 hour service, that gives you easy transfers.

Bolwerk September 13, 2012 - 9:41 pm

I can’t see a thing wrong with sharing them. As far as I’m concerned, the more use they get the better on the whole. All the better if messenger and delivery companies are using the subway, most likely at times when it’s being underutilized, instead of pumping hydrocarbons into the air with POVs or knotting Steve Cuozzo’s knickers by biking with the intent to kill. If this option didn’t exist, they probably wouldn’t use the subway at all.

Duke September 13, 2012 - 6:26 pm

Get rid of the unlimited card and you will discourage ridership. Often I will take the subway somewhere on an occasion where it would be faster and more convenient to drive because, since I have an unlimited card, the marginal cost of that ride to me is zero. If that ride meant another $2.25 (or whatever) out of my pocket, it would lose its allure and I’d be more inclined to just drive since the saved money of taking the train would no longer be worth the lost convenience of doing so.

SEAN September 13, 2012 - 6:56 pm

You hit the nail on the head.

The only large transit system that is pay per ride for commuters is WMATA, but they are in process to change that. Don’t you want to give every insentive to encourage ridership? Remember it is easier to keep riders than to reatract riders who abandoned the system because you didn’t cater to their needs.

Anon September 13, 2012 - 7:42 pm

OFF TOPIC: Why doesn’t MTA team up with NYC to put this system in place? Coming Soon to NYC: Futuristic Trash Tubes?

Henry September 14, 2012 - 12:36 am

I disagree with the idea of getting rid of unlimited metrocards – for commuters, they’re indispensable, especially from the outer boroughs.

Getting rid of those would probably cause falling ridership in the outer boroughs, because it’s not like Manhattan where you can go to the nearest subway station and fill up a Metrocard. People would be less likely to take trips during off-peak hours. Also, some rides would become two-fare – not every bus rider has the luxury of having only one transfer to get to their destination. In the outer boroughs, paying $4.50 for a slower bus ride would probably be worse than driving in most cases.

Unless the MTA changes its transfer policy to one that doesn’t charge riders for ANY transfers until the two-hour time limit is up, I doubt the abolition of the unlimited Metrocards would be good for ridership.

BBnet3000 September 14, 2012 - 10:31 am

Cant disagree more with getting rid of the unlimited. Marginal cost of a trip being 0 = one half of complete freedom (the other half is high frequency service, thanks to Jarrett Walker for that idea).

The complete freedom provided by transit here is something that very few cities have. I really believe that unlimited passes is a big part of that.


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