Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
Discounted MetroCards would provide affordable transit access to those who need it the most.
Every few years, it becomes more and more expensive to ride the New York City subway. Last year*, the cost of a single ride increased by 10 percent, from $2.50 to $2.75. For many New Yorkers, this fare hike is a small price to pay for more reliable service and greater speed and efficiency. But it seems the city has forgotten about low-income citizens who depend on the subway to get around, and may not be able to bear the cost of an additional 25 cents per ride.
A new report from the Community Service Society of New York looks at how to best address this affordability problem for New York’s low-income workers. In a city where public transit is often crucial to mobility, 58 percent of poor New Yorkers rely on the subway and buses as a means of transportation—more so than any other income group. In fact, New York’s low-income workers typically spend more than 10 percent of their family budget on transit, according to the report. While unlimited monthly passes present a more affordable alternative in the long run, most low-income workers have trouble fronting the initial $116.50 each month.
This leaves many poor residents in a precarious situation as prices go up while their budgets remain the same. The report tells the story of one man who had to make the difficult decision between purchasing a MetroCard or paying his rent, and another who had to walk for over an hour from West Harlem to attend his college courses in the Bronx. Indeed, many residents cannot attend job interviews, pick up their children from school, or have immediate access to healthcare because they can’t afford the MTA’s steep prices. The report notes that about a quarter of low-income, working-age New Yorkers often can’t afford a metro card at all.
One solution suggested in the report is to cut transit costs in half for the working poor—those at or below the poverty threshold—so that a single ride costs around $1.35. With this program in place, an estimated 361,000 subway riders could save nearly $194 million a year, according to the report.
In New York, half-price fares are already available to seniors and qualifying disabled residents regardless of their economic status. Students in grades K-12 also receive unlimited metro passes at the beginning of each term. In addition, some New Yorkers enjoy pre-tax commuter benefits from their employers. Most low-income workers, however, don’t receive such benefits.
“We’re already giving tax breaks and discounts to lots of groups. Why not do it for those who are least able to afford [transportation]?” asks Nancy Rankin, a co-author of the report. It’s a question that’s on the minds of many New Yorkers these days: The report shows that two out of three New Yorkers support a half-priced fare program for the working poor.
The estimated cost of the program is $78 million for the first year and $194 million the year after, which Rankin sees as a reasonable goal. “In an $80 billion city budget, the city could probably find $200 million for this,” she says. As an alternative, the report includes suggestions like raising the state gas tax or extending the current millionaire’s tax to offset the costs.
Should New York decide to implement the program, the city would not be alone. Already, cities including Seattle, San Francisco, and London offer fare discounts to low-income or unemployed residents. Rankin says she is hopeful that New York will follow suit in the near future. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office recently stated that they “look forward to reviewing the report in greater detail."
In the meantime, high transit prices continue to hinder the upward mobility of low-income, working-class residents. The report’s authors hope that this discounted program will reverse this effect somewhat, allowing a greater number of New Yorkers to seek out jobs in higher-income areas. As Rankin puts it, “the turnstile should be the gateway, not the barrier, to economic opportunity.”
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated. The 10 percent fare increase was made last year.