Why MetroCards Are Like Paper Towels

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The MetroCard is a lot like Costco: You can save a lot of money, but you have to buy in bulk.    

That means that the savings, whether for paper towels or subway rides, are not the same for all people: They are higher the more you can afford to spend at one time. And that, according to advocates for low-income New Yorkers, means the fare structure punishes straphangers of limited means.

“The best deal is the monthly unlimited and I think that’s the hardest one for low-income New Yorkers,” said Nancy Rankin, vice president for policy, research and advocacy at the Community Service Society.

The MTA has repeatedly said in filings with the Federal Transit Administration that its fare increases do not discriminate against poor or minority New Yorkers.

But that's not the whole story. A WNYC analysis shows that straphangers using stations in the poorest neighborhoods are less likely than their wealthier counterparts to take advantage of all the discounts available to riders – presumably because it is harder for them to pay a big chunk up front.

In fact, more trips are made with 7-day cards at 53 out of 66 stations in neighborhoods with a median household income of less than $30,000. At some of those stations, twice as many trips are made with 7-day cards as made with 30-day cards. Overall among riders using the turnstiles at those stations, people are 17 percent more likely to use 7-day cards, even though they are more expensive in the long run.

Take Leon Wentt, for example. He’s a dishwasher at a Midtown restaurant. He knows the $112 monthly MetroCard is the best deal, but since he gets paid weekly, and takes home just $275 every Friday, he cannot bear sacrificing such a huge chunk of his check at one time.

“You don’t have anything left — not for food, not to pay your light bill,” Wennt said as he board the No. 3 line in East New York, Brooklyn, one morning last week.

Nor has the 29-year-old been able to squirrel away a little bit each week to make a big purchase. So instead, he spends $30 a week on a 7-day unlimited card.

The MTA board is expected to approve a fare hike Thursday that would go into effect in March. The hike will average about 4 percent, depending on the type of fare card.

Measuring the impact of MTA’s fare structure on different demographic groups is tricky. The authority’s own ridership surveys show that low-income New Yorkers are more likely than wealthier groups to pay the full $2.50 base fare — or even $2.75, which includes a penalty for buying a single ride ticket. But many more poor straphangers do take advantage of quantity discounts: some 42 percent of those with incomes less than $27,000 a year use bonus pay-per-ride cards, bringing the cost of each trip down to $2.38 — so long as you are able to put $5 or more on the card at one time.

Weekly and monthly cards are even more of a bargain, but only for those making frequent trips. When MTA turnstile data is mapped and color-coded however, the pattern that emerges looks a lot like a map of economic inequality: 7-day MetroCards are more frequently used in lower income areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn, while 30-day cards are more commonly used in Manhattan and in pockets of Queens and Brooklyn.

But some interesting exceptions show MetroCard usage is not cut-and-dried. Some of the stations with the highest proportion of monthly card trips are in areas with modest incomes, like the Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard station on the N and Q line in Queens (about 3 times as many monthly card trips as weekly) or the 8th Avenue station on the N line in Sunset Park (more than 7 times as many monthly card trips).

In addition, according to MTA chief spokesman Adam Lisberg, weekly card holders tend to take the bus or subway more frequently than 30-day card holders: 2.3 times a day on average versus 1.93 times. That brings weekly holders’ per-trip cost down below the per-trip cost for monthly card holders. But this phenomenon has to do with the behavior of straphangers, and not with how much, or how little, the cards cost. And the averages could be skewed by other factors, such as whether savvy 30-day card holders are temporarily switching to weekly cards when they anticipate going on vacation later in the month.

Levelling the Playing Field

The MTA has instituted some changes over the years to reduce the burden on low-income riders, Lisberg said. One was to lower the amount needed to qualify for a bonus on a pay-per-ride card from $15 in 1998 to the current $5. (The bonus, however, has also been reduced.)

In addition, starting in 2008, the MTA has gradually lowered the price of weeklies in relation to monthlies. Weekly riders used to pay 30 percent more per day than 30-day holders. Now they pay 14.8 percent more, and after the March fare hikes, they will pay 14.04 percent more.

In some other transit systems, the penalty for buying weeklies is even lower, however: Los Angeles and Boston, it is about 10 percent; in Atlanta it is 7. The Washington D.C. Metro offers no discount at all for buying a 28-day card instead of a 7-day one.

Another idea for levelling the playing field between poor and wealthy riders is to charge straphangers more for rush-hour travel than at other times. According to transit experts, such as Professor Brian Taylor at the University of California at Los Angeles, a larger percentage of off-peak travelers are poor. (Wennt, the dishwasher at New Lots Avenue, for example, sometimes goes home at 5:30 in the morning.)

The MTA did propose peak/off-peak fares in 2007, but later abandoned the proposal. Its finances were too precarious and the authority wanted to avoid a lengthy debate.

“We just didn’t see the time to engage with New Yorkers to explain this concept, which is a little complicated,” said Elliot Sander, who was MTA chief executive at the time.

The Community Service Society has advocated for another solution: have government subsidize transit fares for poor riders, the way San Francisco does and Seattle is planning to do. Riders bring in some sort of proof they are low-income – it could be a Medicaid or food-stamps card — and get a discounted pass.

David Jones, the nonprofit’s president, acknowledges that a lot of details would need to be worked out before instituting a subsidized fare: where the money is coming from, how little a household would have to earn to qualify, etc. But he said it is a discussion worth having.

“This is one of the key areas that is impacting working poor and poor people generally,” Jones said. “We’re going to put poor people in considerable penury and say, ‘There is nothing we can do about them — we just throw them out the bus.’ That’s not acceptable.”

Research assistance by Jenny Ye, John Keefe and John R. Schuerman.