Shut Up and Swipe

In last night’s Public Policy for Metropolitan Regions class, we had the privilege of hearing from Peter Derrick, a transit historian, former planner and assistant director at the MTA (1982-1996), and Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy. Derrick gave us the rundown of NYC subway planning and building all the way back to the 19th century. He touched on everything from the late 1800s annexation of the outer boroughs to the “Cash Cow” status of the MTA’s Bridges and Tunnels, but one topic that was particularly timely and insightful was his discussion of the history of the subway fare.

Last week, the MTA increased the subway and bus fare from $2.25 to $2.50 a ride. Every New Yorker has been affected and every one of us has an opinion about it. Almost all of those opinions are negative, many of them angry and a handful of them sympathetic; but what most New Yorkers do not understand is that, as Derrick explains it, “there’s no other way to do it!”

The “it” Derrick refers to is the overall management and maintenance of our public transportation system, and he is absolutely right. Most MTA riders do not know that the price of their swipe does not even cover half of the cost of maintaining the system. While part of the increase is due to state allocation cutbacks, another part is simple inflation; and the fares seem to be increasing faster than regular inflation rates mainly to pay off the bonds that paid for these systems in the first place!

Did you know that in the 1930s when every other major US city was increasing their transit fares to a whopping 8 cents, NYC kept it at a cool 5 cents in order to maintain the authority’s belief that public transit should remain affordable? Sure, $112 feels a lot less affordable for a monthly MetroCard than say, the $81 it cost you just five years ago! But the truth is, for all the complaining we do, we fail to focus on all the positives – like extraordinarily low collision rates and relative cleanliness of subway cars and buses.

Back in October, a Rudin Center study proved that compared to other major US systems, the NYC subway system is truly the biggest bang for your buck:

Even if the base fare is raised to $2.50, you’re still able to go about six times farther on a MetroCard than the MBTA Charlie Card, WMATA SmarTrip or any other city fare. As Americans’ commutes get longer, NYC Subways remain one of the best bargains in the country.

Well, it happened. We hit $2.50, and WE ARE GOING TO BE OK. The only reason I am upset about the fare hike is that now with the additional $1 charge for a new MetroCard, where’s the incentive for my friends to give me their empty ones?

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