Making Public Transit More Affordable

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

New Yorkers are fortunate to have a mass transit system that can take them nearly anywhere they want to go. More than five million people rely on it each day to get to work, pick up the kids from school, to go to the doctor’s office, to museums, sporting venues, and everywhere else.

In the words of the MTA, the mass transit system: “drives the New York regional economy by opening up countless job opportunities for millions – jobs that are miles from home are easy to get to with our subways, buses, and commuter trains.”

Unfortunately, access to jobs is far from “easy” for more than 800,000 working-age riders who live below the poverty line. In fact, more than one out of three poor New Yorkers reports that they have not been able to look for or take a job further away from where they live because of the cost of subway and bus fares. That includes 31 percent of low-income African-Americans.

During the last of the MTA’s biennial fare hikes, fares rose by 10 percent on the single-ride tickets that are disproportionately used by low-income riders, compared to an increase of less than four percent on 30-day unlimited MetroCards that are more affordable to moderate- and high-income families.

A Simple Path to Affordability

The MTA has a responsibility to provide affordable public transit access to New Yorkers of all means. Not just those with credit cards in their pockets who can afford to shell out the money for a monthly pass, but to those with just a few bucks in their pockets who struggle to come up with money to pay for a MetroCard.

A simple path to affordability is one where the most economically-disadvantaged New Yorkers pay half-fares. Where turnstiles at the city’s 469 subway stations are gateways to economic opportunity, rather than potential barriers to upward mobility.  

To document just how burdensome transit fares can be for the city’s neediest riders, the Community Service Society (CSS) has released a new report, “The Transit Affordability Crisis: How Reduced MTA Fares can help Low-Income New Yorkers Move Ahead.” The report, which is based on findings from our annual Unheard Third survey, found that the high cost of transit fares has forced many low-income New Yorkers to choose between transit and other necessities.

Specifically, the report found that a quarter of low-income New Yorkers were often unable to afford bus and subway fares this past year.  That’s not hard to believe when you consider that, at current prices, a year’s worth of subway and bus passes is 12 percent of the annual income for a single earner living below poverty. We also lag behind metropolitan areas in other states that already offer reduced fares to their low-income residents, including Seattle, San Francisco, Charleston, and Madison.

“Fair Fares” Campaign

Along with Riders Alliance, a grassroots membership organization of subway and bus riders, CSS is calling on Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to establish a program that would allow riders with incomes at or below the poverty line to purchase half-fare MetroCards. It’s part of our “Fair Fares” campaign, and has the support of Public Advocate Letitia James, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and a host of transit and advocacy organizations.

Such a program targeted to New York’s working poor could save up to $700 annually for hundreds of thousands of needy New Yorkers. And we can do it without driving up fares for more affluent riders.

We’ve crunched the numbers under a few different scenarios: if we assume a take-up rate among regular subway and bus riders comparable to that for food stamps, we estimate that 361,000 riders would participate at a cost of roughly $194 million a year in foregone farebox revenue. That’s only 0.2 percent of the City budget – a small investment to make sure New York’s working poor can actually afford to get to work.

Discounted fares and transit subsidies are nothing new. We already provide discounted fares for seniors, the disabled, pre-tax transit benefits, and a fare structure which offers the biggest discounts for monthly passes. Yet no discounts are targeted to those most in need. Economic mobility and transit affordability go hand in hand. By making our mass transit system more affordable and accessible, we can help keep New York City affordable to low-income New Yorkers.

 

Editor’s Note: On Thursday, May 5, CSS will convene a group of prominent speakers to discuss the ongoing effect of race, punishment and exclusion in the United States. The panel, “The Color Line of the 21st Century,” will address intersections between the operation of institutional racism and the role of the criminal punishment system in marginalizing poor black and brown people. For more information on the panel please go to www.cssny.org

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