Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
It’s financial redistribution in a capital of income inequality.
When Manny A. lost his job in 2016, finding a new one became a literally distant prospect. For the immigrant contract worker living in Queens, riding the subway in New York City was really, really expensive: Fares currently stand at $2.75 per ride and $121 per monthly pass, rates that have steadily increased in recent years. While searching for work, Manny sometimes had to “decide either to buy a MetroCard or spend on food or rent,” according to a 2016 report by the Community Service Society of New York that highlighted his story. To get to gigs and job interviews, he’d beg police officers and station agents to give him a pass, the report stated.
Now, individuals like Manny appear to be on track for meaningful relief. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council speaker Corey Johnson have reached a deal, as of yet unannounced, to provide reduced-fare transit cards to low-income residents, the New York Times reported Thursday. Under the terms of the agreement, those living below the federal poverty line—a household income of about $25,000—would qualify for half-price MetroCards, according to unnamed sources who were briefed on the negotiation.
About 800,000 New Yorkers would qualify for the subsidized passes, which anti-poverty advocates, transit groups, and rider unions have been calling for for years. One in four low-income, working-age New Yorkers often can’t afford a MetroCard at all, according to that Community Service Society of New York report. Providing transit to people who need it most is a social equity measure of consequence. “This could mean hundreds of dollars less in transit spending by poor families each month—desperately needed funds in a very pricey city,” tweeted Yonah Freemark, a transit consultant and MIT Ph.D. candidate in urban planning. “It also has the benefit of encouraging additional transit ridership and giving more people the ability to traverse the city without worrying as much about the price.”
Indeed, in a town where the cost of living is on the rise, transportation costs weigh most heavily on the very poor. The Community Service Society of New York report also found that workers living at the poverty line in New York City tend to spend more than 10 percent of their household budget on transit, double the share of the next income group (“near poor”). As high rents and home prices push lower-income New Yorkers further to the fringes of the city, their commuting costs increase. From that frame, transit is one of the smartest investments a city can offer vulnerable residents: Where the affordable housing pipeline is clogged, subsidizing transportation is “much cheaper—and politically more feasible,” Emily Badger wrote for the Washington Post in 2015.
The move is also in line with the argument that mobility should be viewed as a human right, not a commodity to be purchased. “Smart and equitable transportation systems connect us to jobs, schools, housing, health care services—and even to grocery stores and nutritious food,” Wade Henderson, the former president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a 2011 testimony before Congress. “But millions of low-income and working-class people, people of color and people with disabilities live in communities where quality transportation options are unaffordable, unreliable, or nonexistent."
In New York City, Council speaker Johnson has championed the concept of a “fair fares” program, which de Blasio had been previously reluctant to fund. Seattle and Toronto have seen success with their fare subsidy programs; San Francisco is considering a similar scheme. As the leading U.S. transit city in terms of sheer numbers, New York City’s move could be an influential one.
It comes after years of incremental steps. In 2016, district attorneys and the New York City Police Department eased up on laws against sharing card swipes; previously, one rider asking another for a MetroCard swipe was enforced as a criminal act. On the surface, the purpose of decriminalizing swipe-sharing move was to free up NYPD officer time and helped turnstiles move more freely. But it may have also been a tacit acknowledgment of the basic need for movement, including for those who can’t afford the going price. “Some people don’t have money on them,” one young man asking for swipes in a Manhattan subway station told the Times in 2016. “But they have places to get to.”
The details of the plan have not yet been fully fleshed out, but it appears that it would be similar to reduced-fare programs for students, seniors, people with disabilities and about 40,000 individuals who receive cash assistance. Many of those programs offer personalized MetroCards at a cost of $1.35 per ride—just less than half the regular base fare.
In New York City, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, local tax coffers are flush. The latest financial report from the state comptroller projects a surplus for the city budget of nearly $4 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30, thanks largely to an unexpected surge in personal income tax collections. According to the Times, the full cost of implementing the subsidized transit fare program could reach $250 million. That money, quite simply, is not just about helping poor workers and students get where they need to go. In this capital of income inequality, it’s financial redistribution.