The Subway Should Be Free

George Haikalis of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, with microphone. Environmentalist Theodore W. Kheel, seated next to him, at far right, would reduce the subway fare to nothing.

On December 23, 1943, the New York City subways carried more than 8 million people, said the labor relations arbitrator and environmentalist Theodore W. Kheel last night at a reception celebrating an exhibit promoting greater integration of the region’s rail systems. Then the nickel fare was raised to a dime and ridership plummeted. Now it is $2, he noted, and the record ridership of December 1943 has never been achieved since. 

Think the subways are crowded now? No way. We’re operating at about half that all-time record, despite more than a decade or more of increasing ridership. "The people haven’t gone away," Kheel noted. "They’re still here. They’ve gone to the automobile."

Kheel would like to lure those drivers back to the subway by raising the cost of driving and making the subway free to the riders.

Why raise the cost of driving? "We should make the drivers pay for the cost they impose on the public through the strangulation of movement and the pollution that they bring about."

kheel.jpgWhy make the subway free? First, Kheel said it would save the city money overall. (He didn’t elaborate on how, but I imagine that savings would come in terms of reduced costs for road maintenance, fewer vehicle accidents and hence emergency services, reduced asthma cases, etc.) Second, the city is in the habit of offering public goods for free. Fire and police protection come at no cost to their beneficiaries, for example. Why should safe, efficient transportation?

Kheel, the president of Nurture New York’s Nature, Inc., put his money where his mouth is last night. He presented George Haikalis of the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility with a $100,000 check so that the institute can conduct a study that Kheel hopes will show that a free subway fare would indeed reduce taxes on the general public.

  • P

    Does the 1943 ridership total include elevated trains that have been dismantled in the interim? How about streetcars?

  • ddartley

    I once again paraphrase something I read from Chris X. Brodeur, who has said that the subways (or maybe all transit, I don’t remember) should be free:

    Fare collection itself is one of the most expensive things, if not the most expensive thing, that the MTA does.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that fare collection is not a NET revenue to the MTA, but it’s still a pretty strong argument for making the system free.

    After reading Brodeur’s idea, I mentioned it to my Dad, who grew up in and lived in NYC for like 40 years, and he said he’d heard it suggested decades ago, and more than once.

  • ed

    This doesn’t seem like a great idea politically. It’s hard enough to get money to expand transit now. Can you imagine all the morons in the NYS Assembly yelling about how we NYCers already get “FREE SUBWAY RIDES!!!!”? It would be painted as a massive subsidy, even if it ultimately saved money, and the subway would probably be even more on the funding chopping block than it already is.

  • ddartley

    If mass transit ever goes on the funding chopping block for any reason, the government should be reminded forcefully of something from Alex Marshall’s essay excerpted in Streetsblog’s later item today on Robert Moses:

    “[Mass transit] is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.”

  • More to the point on 1943, the context was one of gas rationing, rubber rationing, huge gov’t propaganda efforts against SOV motoring, the city as a massive war industry center importing workers and a big trans-shipment point for military personnel. If you look at the broad history of economic and vehicle-miles-traveled growth in the U.S., the 1940s is a big anomaly.

  • AD

    How fortunate, then, that the city had transit infrastructure in place to allow it to remain a productive place throughout the rationing.

  • I would be worried about funding – there is an incentive to increase service if that is offset by the farebox collections. What’s the alternative revenue source?

    I think more likely is a policy that deeply discounts rides at certain off-peak times like the weekends, holidays and late evenings. Also monthly metrocards should be much lower.

  • chris x fanclub


    Can you start a Chris X transit visionary thread? This man — who once stood for two days with a paperbag over his head in City Hall Plaza* — has not gotten the attention from serious urbanists that he so rightly deserves. It would not be surprising if he was one of the first to be rewarded with the new Rockefeller urbanist prize.

    * It had eye holes cut in it, but no mouth.

  • Yes, CXB’s influence is vast yet strangely overlooked, even maligned. I would even go so far as to suggest a conference on Brodeur’s groundbreaking work on the intersection of urbanism and anger management. Streetsbloggers – you’ve obviously got some history to catch up on. Aaron – let’s make this happen.

  • chris x fanclub

    The conference is a fine idea. No doubt CXB himself could be persuaded to keynote it. In preparation, less informed Streetsbloggers may want to read Mayor Brodeur’s work “Perverted Little Creep.” (2001)An unfortunate title perhaps, which belies it’s trenchant insights into the psychology of GOP presidential contender Rudy Giuliani.

  • Q.R.

    I think the biggest problem with the free subway is ridership stats, actually — the MTA really needs to know where people get on and off in order to secure funding. Even just using clunky old metal turnstiles that didn’t charge a fare, the cost of tracking is probably really high, and without it, it’s probably somewhere between hard and impossible to get funding from upstate.

    I still think it’s a good idea, mind you — but the implementation would be really messy. (Plus I’m sure the MTA is locked into a gazillion-year contract with whomever makes MetroCard machines.)

  • CX3

    I’m hoping the Chris X event will include a retrospective exhibit of his complete “Screeds of the 1990s” work, with special focus on the fevered manuscripts shoved through T.A.’s mail slot in the dead of night.

  • Didn’t CXB tally more votes in the Bronx than Gifford Miller?

  • momos

    The free subway ride commentary obscures the larger purpose of the exhibit (currently on display at 4 Times Sq): merging all NYC metro commuter rail systems (LIRR, Metro North, NJ Transit) together into one cohesive whole.

    This is a visionary proposal that would be made possible with one simple, feasible step. Connect Penn Station and Grand Central with a simple two-track connection from Amtrak’s West Side Line into existing platforms and tracks at Penn Station.

    The connection would make thru running of trains possible, greatly enhancing efficiency and service. It would:

    1. Make it far easier for NJ commuters to reach East Midtown. (This would reduce subway congestion, while NJ commuters, after a brief stop at Penn Station, would continue to the East side and then easily walk to their destinations)

    2. Negate the for the multi-billion dollar “deep cavern” NJ Transit wants to build under 34th St and Macy’s. (The money could instead be better spent on broader system upgrades.)

    3. Increase train capacity at Grand Central

    4. Improve access to West midtown for rail riders in The Bronx, Westchester, and CT

    5. Allow routing of upstate intercity trains through Grand Central to Philadelphia or Washington

    6. Improve rail access to Newark Airport for people in White Plains and Westchester

    7. Vastly improve operating efficiency of rolling stock (The need to store trains in close-in rail yards would be reduced; trains instead would be in revenue use throughout the day)

    Berlin, London and Philadelphia already have such configurations of their commuter rail systems. Philadelphia’s of course is barely hanging on because of poor and unstable funding. But there’s so much potential to transform NYC’s regional rail system. A zone stretching from the Queens-Nassau border and west across the Hudson, including Newark, could become a central zone with frequent, 10-min headway service. The plan calls for 60 new and existing stations to become hubs for locally planned, transit-oriented development. Penn Station would be transformed into three side-by-side thru stations. Virtually all regional rail stations would be connected to each other, opening many new travel possibilities. Penn Station becomes a hub with many passengers using thru services or finding it convenient to transfer at Penn Station.

    With frequent service, integrated fares and thur operation, many passnegers passing through Manhattan would find it more attractive to use regional rail service rather than crowded highways and river crossings.

    The regional benefits could be incredible, especially for NYC.

    See more here:

    and here:

  • AD

    momos, thanks for enumerating all those benefits to these. I am sold! How far along is this idea in the planning/funding process?

  • J:Lai

    Hey, for all those proponents of market solutions to transportation issues (e.g. congenstion pricing, et al) how would you feel about . . .

    Pricing mass transit for congestion as well? For example, charge more for rides during peak hours than off hours on the subways and buses? Metronorth and LIRR already have a rudimentary system of peak/non-peak.

    For example, make weekend and late night rides free, while charging full fare for weekday.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree with you that this would be a good idea, Momos, but I do want to point out another obstacle: the incompatible electrical systems on the Harlem/Hudson lines (third rail) and NJ Transit/New Haven (catenary) lines.

    In order for your Goals 5 and 6 to be achieved, either the Harlem and Hudson lines need to be converted to catenary power (catenary is generally considered more reliable technology than third rail), or a substantial portion of the Harlem/Hudson Line rolling stock needs to be converted to dual-mode operation, through retrofitting or new purchases.

    I think the first option is best, but you’re talking about a major operation that in itself will probably require as much time, money and political capital as the tunnel.

  • CXB Election Team


    Since you asked (#13). There were no write-ins recorded in the Bronx in the 2005. However these results were collated by a computer scientist at a major local university from official NYC board of election results.

    2005 mayoral election
    Votes as reported NYC Board of Elections
    Total New York City
    CXB 35
    A.Weiner 31
    G. Miller 11
    R. Giuliani 4

    Bklyn NY Qns SI
    CXB 17 14 3 1
    A.Weiner 10 14 6 1
    G. Miller 3 7 1 0
    R. Giuliani 1 1 1 1

    Note all of the above are write-in candidates.
    Special note: Jesus Christ, god and Serpico all got one vote a piece in Queens. Gene Russianoff got 2 votes in Brooklyn.

  • CXB Election Team:

    I am frequently amazed at how fast the team of commenters on the blog can produce results.

    Gene Russianoff deserves more write in votes than that. Come on NYC!

  • crzwdjk

    The two different power systems are not the worst of the problems though, in fact, NJT/Amtrak and LIRR have no problem sharing the East River Tunnels despite their incompatible system. The problem is that MNR’s third rail and pickup shoes are not compatible with LIRR’s third rail and pickup shoes, so MNR’s dual mode cars from the New Haven probably can’t even run into Penn Station without knocking over the LIRR’s third rail. The old New Haven trains had retractable third rail shoes, as do Amtrak’s dual-mode diesel-electric locomotives. Also, I’m not sure there’s room to hang overhead wires in the Park Avenue tunnels, clearances there are pretty tight, and 12.5 kilovolts does require a good bit of space between train and wire as well as between wire and tunnel. I think the eventual solution will be to live with dual-mode AC/DC trains, and change almost all lines over to international standard 25kV, but keep DC in the tunnels around Penn Station and Grand Central to allow for higher clearances.

  • “Hey, for all those proponents of market solutions to transportation issues (e.g. congenstion pricing, et al) how would you feel about . . .”

    I’d be for it. I can’t really get too excited about a free subway when I avoid the one we have not because it costs money but because it’s crappy. My hunch is that a free subway would degrade even further. I can’t wait to be told, “What do you expect, it’s FREE,” by some lounging MTA worker. But then I don’t think this is going to happen anyway.

    In addition to peak/off peak fares, we could do something about the inequity of a ten-block ride costing the same as one spanning the entire line. I’m sure it’s thought to be helpful in getting outer Queens motorists into a train (all you need is that and boat hook), but it mucks up incentives all over the place and is a global oddity. If LIRR, Metro North, and NJT ever do integrate with the subway the way they should (like RER + Metro in that other city), faster rail service could replace subway service at its extremes and shrink the flat-rate area to make fares more… fair.

  • dreamon

    Most people ride mass transit because options are limited and users are a deprived lot. Riding underground is far from pleasant. Charging for it adds insult to injury. Most likely riding above ground in human-scale distributed and on-demand personal transport is very achievable simply requiring well-thought-out industrial design based on extensive user-input easily at a greatly reduced rate compared to current tranportation options.

    Volkswagen spent 400 million dollars to design its new beetle and the Second Avenue Subway costs 2 billion per mile.

    Underground transport and real estate might be better reserved for freight delivery or waste removal, or on a different level provide the infrastucture for geothermal heating and cooling a large portion of a truly sustainable and enlightened city.

  • P

    Funny, I don’t feel deprived.

  • crzwdjk

    “In addition to peak/off peak fares, we could do something about the inequity of a ten-block ride costing the same as one spanning the entire line.”

    That’s because you shouldn’t be riding the subway for ten blocks. Of course, currently there’s not much choice because surface transport is even worse than the subway, but the way to solve that is to build some decent surface transportation. Streetcars in reserved lanes, perhaps.

  • Richard

    Subways should be free. There are far too many cars in this city. Congrats to Mr. Kheel for the forsight and bravery of his vision.

  • Andrew

    The problem with the free subway idea is that it doesn’t really increase ridership. Simply put, cost is not a barrier to public transit usage. Certainly not if your goal is to lure people away from the automobile. In countless surveys, people who could easily afford public transit (and who could in fact save large sums of money by giving up their cars) choose to drive because of “convenience”. To be slightly provocative, I would suggest that upping fares and raising the quality of service to lure middle and upper-class people to transit would be much more likely to have a positive impact on ridership than lowering fares.

  • P


    I think you’re right that ridership numbers are less elastic in NYC than elsewhere yet it’s hard for me to make that leap of faith to believe that paying, say, 75 cents more would result in more reasonable headways. But I certainly agree that New York’s transit system could be vastly more reliable and popular- if only I felt the MTA could be trusted with a higher fare.

    At one point I heard that an upgrade of the signaling in the subways could reduce the gaps between trains. This makes a lot of sense on the Manhattan Bridge for instance but on a train like the L that doesn’t share it’s line with another train service is so infrequent that the trains nearly always standing room only (at least for the first third of the line).

    All of which is a rambling way to agree- yes we need better transit service.

  • “That’s because you shouldn’t be riding the subway for ten blocks.”

    Um, thanks. I never take ten block trips with the system we have. But you’ve probably noticed our buses charge the same flat fare as subways. And with the physical structure of our subway (trains just below the streets) they could service short trips splendidly if anyone working at MTA gave a damn. Makes a lot more sense than a two-hour underground odyssey to Far Rockaway. If service were more predictable (why not have the signs at street level announce approaching trains, instead of just advertising products?), and the next fare increase excluded intra-borough trips somehow, I just might take it my fifteen blocks to work occasionally. Surface options would be nice too, but we might want to properly manage the multi-gazillion-dollar system we have before we start screwing up a new one.

  • P

    (why not have the signs at street level announce approaching trains, instead of just advertising products?)

    Great idea. I love the ones they have added to the Lorimer Station on the L. They would be even more useful at street level.

    I would think that putting the signs along with the advertising would increase the visibility of the advertising enough to pay for itself. Currently, I suspect the ads are widely ignored but if train information was on the sign every single rider would look at the sign before entering the system.

  • ddartley

    Great idea, P about joining the street level advertising with approaching train info.

    But even without joining the two things together–it bears repeating: the convenience to riders of approaching train info appearing OUTSIDE the system, on the street level, (before they have committed to using that (possibly disrupted) subway by swiping $2 or 18 minutes off of their Metrocard, makes too much sense not to happen. I have been wondering for years why they don’t do it.

  • David Chesler

    Motorists ought to be in favor of free subways, because every driver who decides to take the subway instead because at a savings of $20 it wasn’t worth it, but at a savings of $25 it is, is, as they say, “one less car” competing for road and parking space.

    Strongly agreed that the net cost would be much less than the lost revenue. (The same can be said for highway toll collections in many places.)

    A counter-argument I haven’t exactly seen here is that a free subway would attract even more scummy types who park themselves and don’t leave than now, and would encourage people to abuse the system in other ways. I don’t know that that’s true. (Among other things, with a 24-hour system and the entire system one fare-paid area, if you’re intent on sleeping on the subway, darling, that one fare isn’t going to be that big a deal.) I’ve used (and driven) free shuttles and haven’t seen that; I’ve taken joy rides on the Staten Island ferry when its price was so ridiculously low that it was like being free.

  • J.S.

    The media have taken note of Kheel’s free subway proposal. Both the Sun and the Post carried articles, and Channel 11 and 5 both ran stories. For the news articles, see and


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