November 18, 2002
Amid Talk of Increasing Transit Fares, a Study Calls for a CutA new study of New York City subway and bus fares recommends lowering the $1.50 base fare and introducing several new MetroCard fare options as part of an effort to increase ridership and make discounts more accessible to low-income riders.
Arriving in the midst of a dire budget crisis and rumors of a fare increase, the proposal to lower fares may sound like wishful thinking. But if adopted, the overall package would ease the burden on low-income riders and not reduce the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's revenues, according to the study's sponsor, the Straphangers Campaign.
The recommendations include a new five-day unlimited ride pass that could be used on nonconsecutive days; an offer to replace lost or stolen 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCards; a new 14-day unlimited pass; and a reduction of the base fare to $1.40.
The study, prepared by a Brooklyn-based consulting firm and scheduled for release today, is based on a telephone survey of 805 New York City residents in September, and the new discount ideas were mainly generated during focus groups with riders earlier this year. If adopted, the new fares would be the first since the introduction of the current MetroCard discounts in 1997 and 1998, which spurred a large increase in ridership.
The current discounts are a one-day unlimited ride MetroCard for $4; a seven-day card for $17; and a 30-day card for $63. Riders also get a 10 percent bonus for MetroCard purchases of $15 or more, and can transfer free between subways and buses, or between bus routes, within two hours and 18 minutes of the trip's start.
"Our sense is, the increase in ridership generated by the current discounts has topped out," said Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign. "With rumors of a fare hike in the air, we thought we ought to look at ways to soften the blow."
Paul Fleuranges, a spokesman for New York City Transit, said, "We'll take a look at the Straphangers report in the context of our overall fare policy." He added that despite many rumors of a looming fare rise, the agency has not decided whether it will be necessary.
Mr. Russianoff said that he had discussed the study's proposals with transit agency officials, and that there did not appear to be any technical obstacles to carrying them out.
The authors say the $1.50 base fare can be reduced to $1.40 if the city eliminates the current 10 percent bonus on MetroCard purchases of $15 or more. The study contends that the bonus provides an unfair advantage to middle- and upper-income riders. Only 13 percent of people whose household incomes are under $25,000 use the bonus, whereas wealthier people are far more likely to put up the extra money and enjoy the savings, the study found.
The most popular idea among those surveyed was a new five-day pass that could be used on nonconsecutive days, to be sold for $16. The survey found that many riders now avoid buying a seven-day unlimited ride pass because they are not sure how much they will travel in the coming week, or because they may not travel enough to make it worthwhile. With the new card, riders could choose which days to use it, and not worry about wasting money on days when they do not travel.
The study's authors also found that many more people would buy 30-day cards if not for the fear of losing them. Two-thirds of those surveyed who now use seven-day passes said the possibility of losing a 30-day pass was a "very important" reason for buying a seven-day pass instead.
That worry prompted the proposal to replace lost or stolen 30-day cards, which the city does already for elderly and disabled people who register their cards. Under a broadened program, registering the cards with the authority would probably be necessary — a feature that would deter some people who do not want to sacrifice their privacy, Mr. Russianoff noted.
But a similar plan is already in place in Washington, where riders who register their cards can have them replaced for a $5 fee.
Some Metropolitan Transportation Authority riders are deterred from buying 30-day cards by the $63 cost, the study found. One in nine low-income riders buy 30-day passes, compared with two out of every three upper-income users, the study said. That discrepancy could be reduced with a 14-day unlimited ride option, for $31.50, the study's authors wrote. Some other cities offer similar passes already, including Los Angeles and Detroit.
The study also suggests that transit officials work harder to promote the TransitChek, a program in which the federal government offers a tax benefit to employers and commuters who take part.
The study ruled out reducing prices for unlimited-ride passes — a popular idea among those surveyed — because it would reduce the authority's revenue.