If New Yorkers Don’t Value Transit, Who Will?

It’s the largest transit system in the United States, moving millions of people daily throughout New York City and beyond and serving as the lifeblood of one of the largest economies in the world. Unfortunately, writes Streetsblog Network member Benjamin Kabak on Second Avenue Sagas, those who depend on the MTA — and those whom the MTA depends upon — are often ignorant of its plight and seemingly indifferent to its fate.

subway_1.jpgPhoto: Jennifer Aaron

As fares are poised to rise this weekend — following the painfully short-sighted last-minute doomsday deal — Kabak lays responsibility for the region’s transit woes at the feet of an apathetic public and disjointed advocacy efforts. Citing a series of recent interviews with straphangers by reporter Heather Haddon of amNewYork, Kabak writes: 

The best quotes from Haddon’s articles are from those who say
they will turn to their cars. “Now I know what I’m going to do next
week. I’m going to pull out the car,” Angela Pacheco of Brooklyn said,
because the 30-Day Unlimited Ride is going up the cost of a whopping
three gallons of gas. Another rider in another Haddon piece echoed Pacheco. “Might as well get a car,” Marcia Roberts, a Queens resident, said.

This is the attitude that explains why our mass transit system
doesn’t have political support. This is why people are going to be fighting with MTA employees

over the new fares. This is why politicians refuse to toll the East
River bridges, refuse to allow the city to implement camera-enforced
bus lanes. This is why the agency that runs our subway system — a
system that transports over 5.2 million people per day — is struggling
to keep it in a state of good repair.

On the eve of yet another fare hike, transit advocates have
themselves to blame. We haven’t united behind the proper message; we
haven’t overcome a powerful auto lobby; and we haven’t made our voices
heard by those who hold the purse strings. One day, that will change.
For now, we’re left with higher fares and a transit authority on life
support.

All of which begs the question: If New York City doesn’t recognize the value of a healthy transit system, who will serve as the much-needed role model for the rest of the country?

In happier Network news, Streetsblog San Francisco reports progress toward lifting the bike infrastructure injunction. Meanwhile, World Streets talks up shared public spaces, Hard Drive advises a reader on motorcycle noise, and Bike Portland bids farewell to Michael Jackson with — what else? — a bike ride. 

  • there are reasons why the public at large has an anti-MTA attitude. some are legitimate and some are not, but its what many people feel:

    -the transit experience generally sucks. dirty, crowded, inefficient, unreliable. Especially if you live further out from the city center. yes better than 20 years ago..but pleasant? hardly

    -mta staff that is underworked, overpaid, not very nice or useful. pensions/retirement/disbaility abuse…the idea of “thats where my money is going? wtf! . . the strike a few years back is fresh any many minds..

    -effective, albeit sometimes innacurate, PR by politicians (two sets of books, “save the fare” faux populism, covering up the lack of proper funding & horrible deals with unions, etc)

    -really stupid management decisions (holiday bonus, a general sense of management waste)

    -housing costs – people are being pushed further away from the city core, often more by necessity than choice which results in relying on longer and less reliable commutes…so any problems with the transit system are more noticed and appears to hit them harder than the “elite” who live in manhattan

    -throw in congestion pricing, which to some seemed to be another punishment for the outer boroughs for the benefit of the elite

    again, i’m not here to agree or disagree with these positions, but its important to know the mindset and to not just blow it off

  • oscarfrye’s analysis is right-on, although I would directly link objections to congestion pricing to the faux populism of our sorry elected officials.

    And I’d add that the structure of the MTA is so byzantine that the average person has no idea of how it is governed, or who is in charge, which somehow makes the screw-ups and fare hikes seem all the more inevitable.

  • oscarfrye’s analysis is right on, except that I would directly link the outer-borough outrage with congestion pricing to the faux populism of our sorry elected officials.

    And I’d add that MTA governance is so byzantine that the average person doesn’t know what the hell is going on — or who is accountable — which make the screw-ups and fare hikes seem all the more inevitable.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The big picture is the culture of Generation Greed.

    Too many people see any institution (right down to the family) as a big blog to try to avoid putting into and suck money out of, to make it as easy as possible in the short run. It isn’t just the MTA. It isn’t just the government.

    And no one wants to hear about their responsibilities, or the consequences of their own action. Interested in doing what you damn well please without any personal responsibility? You are a Democrat. Interested in doing what you damn well please without and social responsiblity? You are a Republican.

    And the politically easy thing to do for the kleptocrats who get in a position to seize our insitutions is to sell out the future, hiding the consequences from the victims in the short run.

    And if responsible people choose to try to put more in to preserve our institutions, the consequence is others treat them as suckers and take more out. As in we will have the Second Avenue Subway when Lucy lets Charlie Brown kick the football.

    Which is why in the long run, we are heading for an institutional collapse.

  • I don’t agree that New York has a disjointed transit advocacy effort. Since the 1990s, the Empire State Transportation Alliance (ESTA) http://www.rpa.org/2008/10/esta.html has brought together the business community, environmentalists, labor, and transportation riders group to successfully advocate for fully funding MTA’s capital plans, which will enable projects like the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access and important station rehabilitation projects across the region. Most recently, ESTA, working with the Campaign for New York’s Future and the road coalition- NYRIC, helped obtain the funding package that averted the “Doomsday” scenario of fare hikes and service cuts. (See their campaign website http://ga3.org/campaign/adv_keepnymovggen.) That the New York region now has a regional payroll tax in place to help fund the region’s transit system (and already cross-subsidizes transit from road and bridge tolls) puts us light years ahead of other regions in the nation and their approach to funding transit.

    I think the greater problem here in New York is the public’s general distrust and dislike of the MTA, as noted above, and perception that it is bloated, corrupt, wasteful, etc. This attitude is evident in the amNew York article. This was a serious challenge in the recent battle in Albany for transit funding. The MTA would benefit from a major effort to improve its image with the public by simple customer service improvements and a more savvy P.R. campaign.

    But no matter what you do, when you conduct a man-on-the-street interview while raising fares, you’ll always get negative responses

  • Just my opinion, but I say the fares are too low. Ever since they got rid of the two-fare zone, added the unlimited-ride options, and the bulk-purchase discount (and especially since I got transitcheck), the price has become just about notional. According to the MTA’s own materials (one-page PDF), at the 15% federal bracket, the new cost of a pay-per-ride fare is $1.31, and a monthly unlimited pass, $59.55.

    Now that the subway fare costs less than a cup of cart coffee and the Daily News, is it any wonder that amNY interviewees Angela and Marcia are coming up with any excuse to switch modes?

    If the face-value fare was $3.50 or $4 (and to help the less well-off the state let you sign up for transitcheck out of your unemployment or SSI benefits), maybe the system could cover its own operating costs and not be at Albany’s mercy, and we could get consistent and decent quality of service. That would bring back Angela and Marcia for sure.

  • Ian Turner

    Jonathan, agreed, but let’s not forget that our roadways are also way underpriced, yet they seem to have no trouble attracting adequate funding.

  • Ian, I’m not going to get into the fairness aspect of it today, but I recall that before I sold my car it cost me quite a lot of money to take advantage of those underpriced roadways, much more than $720 a year. I spent more than that on insurance alone.

    That actually is the crux of my argument: folks like the quondam me who spend thousands of dollars annually on the necessary equipment to navigate those underpriced roads are the constituency for road funding. As the transit fare continues to sink, transit users are less and less invested in the transit system.

  • Shemp

    The MTA make-over Petra is talking about can’t happen soon enough. I think that’s the take-away from all of this. It’s likely to await a new governor, however. I think Lee Sander was well-meaning, but he didn’t exactly clean house at the top of the agency or change the way it presented itself.

  • johnson

    The road system does not in any way cover it’s cost just like the air transportation system. Subsidies all the way. Why not then give the same amount to public transit. You did not add in the cost of shoes for the bus rider in your analogy.

  • Johnson, the argument I made has nothing to do with fairness or subsidies or relative costs. When I spend a lot of money on something, I am very interested in the quality of the experience of using it. When I don’t spend much money on something, I don’t care about the quality so much.

    The cheaper it gets, the more transit falls into that latter category.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    “…the 30-Day Unlimited Ride is going up to the cost of a whopping three gallons of gas.” Up by? I could only wish that a 30-Day Unlimited Ride was under nine dollars.

  • That was a screw-up on our end, Jeffrey. Corrected.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The debate came down to this: transit riders — we don’t care enough about the future of the transit system to pay. Everyone else — we don’t care either.

    And as a result of that attitude over many years, it is becomming more rational, as decline and collapse becomes likely as a result of past decisions regardless of future decisions. Unless with get a bankruptcy to cancel those past decisions.

  • Brian Topping

    The only time I ride MTA is when it’s dangerous to ride my bicycle or motorcycle. I’m very grateful for those alternatives, and wish there was a way to get more people turned on to them. Manhattan is notably challenging to store either a motorcycle or a bicycle, even if you do have the cojones to ride one there. And even though I suspect that Bloomberg is creating bike lanes in order to *create* congestion (congestion pricing turns the streets into commuter lanes for the limousine-class), something has to be done.

    Having spent enough time in Japan to know what a public transportation infrastructure SHOULD look like (clean, efficient, safe, and no more than 600 yards to any station in the Tokyo suburban area), I’m going to be surprised if we can reach it. Japanese intercity train as well as SF BART (I’m sure there are more examples) are charged by distance traveled, which makes more sense than a flat-fee, but the entire economy of NYC would shudder if we implemented that here.

    And echoing the comments of @oscarfrye, I just don’t think anyone has the trust in MTA to allow the change to be made.

    Sigh. It would be easy to give up hope, but I save money as long as I don’t buy an unlimited pass. Works okay for me.

  • TKO

    Look at the fight the fellow over at Atlantic Yards blog and Develop Don’t Destroy have been doing. All that energy and they still don’t get anywhere with the MTA. Need to be Ratner or a Yankee then they will listen. Money equals access.

  • J:Lai

    Jonathan, I don’t quite understand your point. As the price of a subway fare goes down, demand should go up. It’s true that fares are low, compared to the cost of owning, parking, and operating a car. But that is good. If it cost as much to ride the subway every day for a year as it does to drive a car every day, there would be far fewer subway riders and the traffic problems we have now would look like nothing in comparison to what would occur.
    Perhaps you are saying that marginally higher fares would allow the MTA to pay for more of its operating costs out of revenue, which is possible, but I believe there are 2 major problems with this approach.

    1) the elasticity of demand for transit will likely become greater above a threshold which effectively caps the total amount of revenue (higher fares will result in fewer riders after a certain point.) I admit this is speculation as there really isn’t much data, but do you really think that $10 per ride fares are not going to drastically reduce ridership?

    2) Fares should remain lower than the operating cost because they are a public good and should be subsidized. Everyone in the area benefits from transit, not just the people who use it, so in order to get the maximum aggregate value you have to subsidize ridership.

    Most everyone agrees on #2, the debate is mainly about how much to subsidize transit relative to competing public goods like roads and car infrastructure.

    Back to the original point, yeah we badly need a way to get people to recognize that transit is good and should get much more resources than it does now. The reality is that even in the best scenario it will take a long time to improve transit to the level where people choose it over cars on the basis of speed, convenience, or comfort.
    Right now it can only compete on price. One logical thing to do in this situation is to increase the price of driving a car relative to transit to the point where a significant number of car trips switch to transit. Congestion pricing was one attempt to do that. People rightly recognized that it was a tax on their preferred mode of travel.
    How do you convince people that transit needs more funding when right now it is very few people’s first choice of how to travel, given the option?
    The MTA doesn’t help, and if there were a way to bring NYC transit back under city control I would say that would be a place to start.

    Bob Moses really screwed us. Again.

  • Bob Moses really screwed us. Again.

    Actually, J, I think in this case it was Nelson Rockefeller.

  • 216

    While I agree that our transit system could use some work, I fail to understand why NYers continually bitch and moan about these rising fares, and it makes even less sense to view a car as a viable alternative.

    In Miami, FL I easily spent about $500 a month for the privilege, and “convenience” of driving a car. That figure is based on my monthly payments for a fairly reliable car, insurance, and gasoline, but it does not figure in maintenance, repairs, and the joys of grid-lock.

    I will gladly pay $89 a month for unlimited rides, and I’m perfectly fine with paying double that if it will insure the reduction of “trash” on the trains.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    Transit advocates also err in ignoring the elephant in the room: labor costs. New Yorkers do not support new money for mass transit in part becuase they know that the new funds will go toward supporting unsustainable pension and medical benefits that are no longer available in the private sector.

    B. Kabak brought this up a month or so ago, but few others do. Until the MTA gets the political support it needs to reform its labor costs, it will serve not as a public-transit agency but as a funnel through which money is transferred from the unorganized public to a powerful, organized special interest.

    And yes, the Atlantic Yards decision is a horrible joke, and also hurts informed public support of the MTA.

  • Ann

    Nicole,

    Reform labor costs to what end? So the MTA conductor no longer makes 55K and is treated like the rest of Americans who work in the private sector and can barely pay the bills?

    There are probably savings to be had, but we should not do it at the expect of our transit system’s safety and reliability.

    I would also say the mounting debt service is a much bigger problem than paying qualified people living wages to safety driver our trains.

  • Boris

    Ann,

    No, of course not- public workers should be treated better; after all, they are more equal than others. I never think more of Soviet Russia, with its dual system of stores (empty shelves for the commoners and tons of black caviar for party members) than when I read about New York’s unions.

    “can barely pay the bills” is normal in much of the world, and in our modern economy we are competing with the entire world. America has been getting poorer and living on more and more borrowed money since the 70’s. In dollars adjusted for technological advancements and inflation, we have all become poorer, and it no longer makes sense to prop up certain groups of people at the expense of others. So yes, all Americans should be held up to the same standard, whether they work in the private sector or not. Doing otherwise is socialism, a system we (like the Soviet Union) can no longer afford.

  • Streetsman

    To the end that flagmen don’t make $120K/year and can retire with full family benefits and half salary at age 55. It’s not like we’re talking about minimum wage for coal miners here. There are savings to be had. The greedy unions are as responsible, if not more, for dragging down the system as are the incompetent management, the deceitful politicians, the capricious media, and the disenchanted riders. At the end of the day I think riders are right to feel that the system is generating plenty of revenue but it is not getting enough bang for its buck.

  • al oof

    the costs of owning a car are, largely, not related to maintaining or fixing roads, or counteracting the effects the cars have on those roads. you can’t compare the cost of buying and maintaining your car, and of insurance costs, with the cost or riding public transportation. almost all of the money you’re paying for your car is going to private companies. who is paying for the highways to be repaired? who is paying for the electricity in streetlights and traffic lights? certainly not just drivers, who are using those things. and yes, i know pedestrians use traffic lights also, but we wouldn’t need them if people weren’t driving.

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