New York City’s MTA is planning to extend a successful program that increases transit equity by pegging discounts to underserved locations rather than people.
Programs to improve transit equity often focus on making transit more affordable and accessible by discounting fares for low-income individuals. But for the past year, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has been discounting fares on commuter rail lines in neighborhoods that lack good subway access for travel to city business centers. It has served the triple purpose of creating better flow of travelers; increasing take-up on underutilized lines, and providing more rapid transit to people who needed to opt for cheaper, longer alternatives.
This summer, the MTA announced that the Atlantic Ticket, a pilot program that offers cheaper Long Island Railroad (LIRR) tickets for rides to Atlantic Terminal, would be renewed for another year after the successful pilot. The program allows LIRR passengers from some Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods to pay just $5, instead of the standard $10.25 for a one-way trip between eligible stations, and $60, down from $104.25 for a weekly unlimited ticket.
“We originally envisioned it as being usable on both the LIRR and Metro North [the MTA’s two commuter rail lines], in places where we have this great infrastructure running through neighborhoods, but it’s priced out of the reach of many of those residents who don’t live near a subway,” said Andrew Albert, MTA board member, chair of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA (PCAC) and chair of the New York City Transit Riders Council, one of the PCAC’s three member organizations. In 2015, the PCAC proposed a new fare option that they called a “Freedom Ticket,” to the MTA. While the MTA did not adopt the entire proposal, the Atlantic Ticket is based on part of it.
The reduced fare is offered to commuters traveling to Atlantic Terminal—a major hub in Brooklyn that connects to the subway system—from the stations Nostrand Avenue and East New York in Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Hollis, Queens Village, Locust Manor, Saint Albans, Laurelton, and Rosedale in Queens; neighborhoods that are known to be underserved by the less-expensive subway system.
Trev Williams, 30, of Cambria Heights in Queens Village, said he used to drive to the A train in South Ozone Park and commute into his job as an analyst in the Financial District everyday. Sometimes he’d take the LIRR, but he would generally stick to the subway to keep costs low.
“The Atlantic Ticket has allowed me to cut my daily commute by 30 minutes each way (an hour total everyday) by taking the LIRR daily,” Williams said. “When Councilman Daneek Miller first proposed the idea, he stressed the fact that many of the suburban working-class neighborhoods in southeast Queens are not near a subway station. As a New York City homeowner and taxpayer who doesn’t live near a subway station but who lives near multiple LIRR stations, I find the Atlantic Ticket a great way for outer-borough residents to get to the city at a fair cost.”
“This is attractive to anybody who doesn’t want to take a bus to a subway just to get to work,” said PCAC’s Albert. “It’s a win-win. The MTA is occupying seats that were previously unoccupied, and riders really get a great bargain.”
According to 2012-2016 Census data analyzed by TransitCenter, an advocacy and research group for transit reform, two-thirds of the 40,400 Manhattan workers who live within a half-mile of LIRR stations in eastern Queens commute on the subway even if it takes longer. A trip from the Queens neighborhood Jamaica to Manhattan, for example, would take about an hour to an hour and a half when commuting via the bus and subway. On the LIRR, it takes 30 minutes to Atlantic Terminal and then 10 to 15 minutes more to lower Manhattan, and even less time to Brooklyn’s downtown business district.
“For residents in the outer boroughs, the fact that they are essentially forced to take two buses to a subway, endure hour-long commutes and unreliable transit options, has tremendous impacts on their mental and physical health and their ability to access different jobs,” said Hayley Richardson, senior communications associate at TransitCenter.
In some areas, even though the LIRR provides faster service with far fewer stops compared to outer-borough subways, thaat run local and are known to have frequent delays, many commuters opt to take the long, arduous route on a daily basis because it’s hard to beat the price point.
A subway trip costs $2.75 no matter how far one goes, while an LIRR trip from Queens to Manhattan could cost up $10.75, and that’s only if you had time to purchase your ticket before boarding. A simple one-stop ride on the LIRR would run the forgetful, on-board passenger a whopping $12, making the LIRR look like quite the luxury. The Atlantic Ticket has cut many commuters’ costs or transit time in half.
“[The Atlantic Ticket] has helped me a great deal because I have to go to Brooklyn a lot to visit my mother,” said Joanne Brown, 55, of Hollis, Queens. “My daughter also uses it quite a lot because she goes to and from the Atlantic Terminal for school everyday. It’s quicker, easier, and faster than spending maybe two hours on the bus and subway. But if the tickets went back to full price, I’d go back to the subway.“
However, Brown thinks it needs to be more available: “You can only buy it at the station. Not on the train or on the app. How are they gonna incorporate the younger generation? They live their lives on their phones. Ridership would go up if they made it easier to buy tickets.”
And that is one of the main complaints, that it’s not well advertised or easily accessible: “It seems like the MTA doesn’t want people to know about it, which is strange because it’s a popular program that’s not costing the agency much money,” said Richardson.
The MTA has released statistics indicating the impressive take-up: According to numbers released by the agency, 30 percent of customers said they previously traveled by bus or subway and are now able to afford to ride the LIRR, a number that doesn’t surprise observers.
“City residents face unequal transit systems,” said Steven Higashide, director of research at TransitCenter. “Basically, there are fast trains for those who can afford it and slow ones for those who can’t. When you look at the success of the Atlantic Ticket so far, you can see it’s a proof of concept that shows lower fares do make a difference.”
“Making the MTA more affordable is helping people choose the mode of transit that’s actually faster and more convenient for them,” said Higashide. “But if we’re going to further equity, we have to make transit more affordable and convenient throughout the city.”