Christina Greer: Let’s Get Creative About Solving NYC’s Transit Affordability Crisis

Professor Christina Greer speaking at TransitCenter. Photo: David Meyer
Professor Christina Greer speaking at TransitCenter. Photo: David Meyer

The NYC transit system is what connects residents to their city, but for many low-income New Yorkers, it simply costs too much to ride. Fordham political science professor Christina Greer thinks policy makers can help address that — if they’re willing to get creative.

A 30-day unlimited MetroCard is the best bargain for people who ride subways or buses every day, but at $121 the upfront cost is too steep for many low-income riders. Poorer New Yorkers tend to pay per ride, weighing the $2.75 price of each trip they take. Moreover, the cost of a single-ride has increased 37.5 percent since 2009 — more than double the 15 percent rate of inflation — as rising debt and fixed costs have compelled the MTA to squeeze more revenue out of riders.

For poor New Yorkers, the ability “to move about the city freely,” said Greer, is constrained by these rising costs.

“[Low income riders are] less likely to afford a monthly pass, they’re less likely to afford an automobile, they’re more likely to work farther away from home than the rest of us, and usually in another borough, and they’re more likely to work nontraditional hours,” she said.

Greer isn’t a transportation policy wonk or professional transit advocate, but her interest in how city politics and policies affect marginalized communities drew her to support the “Fair Fares” campaign earlier this year.

Since the campaign launched last year, advocates have used it to raise awareness of how low-income New Yorkers struggle to afford transit, often to the point of jumping the turnstile. In 2015, there were more arrests for fare evasion in NYC than any other offense.

“I was really on board with the Fair Fares campaign,” Greer said. “We have to figure out some way to make the subway affordable to communities where $2.75 is just not feasible.”

To do that, Greer thinks policymakers have to be creative. She suggested a handful of rough concepts that could complement a Fair Fares program to improve transit access for low-income people:

  • A “reverse zone system,” where people boarding in neighborhoods far from the center of the city, who typically have longer commutes, would pay less
  • A sliding scale for fares
  • Increasing the cost of monthly passes to equalize the financial burden on rich and poor

On that last point, a related idea that has traction in a growing number of cities is to make monthly transit costs more affordable to low-income riders via “fare caps.” The idea is that riders who buy single rides would not have to pay more in a given month once the total they spend on fares reaches a certain threshold.

Solutions are out there, it’s just a matter of acting on them. “There are a lot of excuses when it comes to trying to figure out things for the poor,” she said. “The subway’s not going to be frozen at $2.75… Now is the time to think about it, not when the subway is $4.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Or the minimum wage could be increased, particularly for those working in Manhattan.

  • Vooch

    spend $50 million a year for 5 years to create 100 miles of PBLs in each Boro.

    500 miles of PBLs would do more for mobility of the poor and under privileged

  • sbauman

    Solutions are out there

    Solutions are easy, the difficult task is to find the problems to which these easy solutions apply.

    [Low income riders are] … more likely to work farther away from home than the rest of us,” she said.

    That’s easy to check. The LEHD census data gives an income bracket and census blocks for every worker. This data is gathered from the unemployment insurance forms that are filed in every state. It’s a reasonable way to track journey to work, since the census hasn’t provided it since 2000. It does not cover independent contractors, workers those who get paid under the table or the unemployed. There are some problems in identifying employer location because work place may be different from the company address that files these forms. Given these caveats, it’s probably the most reliable, nearly current data that’s available.

    Using the 2013 data (2014 data is available) and primary private sector jobs I investigated those who live and work in NYC for the 3 income brackets. These brackets are: less than $1250/mo ($15K/yr); between $1250 and $3333 per month ($15K to $40K) and greater than $3333/mo ($40K/yr). Here’s the data for: distance between home and work; distance between home and closest subway stop; distance between subway stop and job location in a form to cut and paste into a spreadsheet.

    “1. tot dist”,5.38,5.28,5.55,5.31
    “2. home-sub”,0.45,0.45,0.47,0.44
    “3. sub-work”,0.28,0.32,0.33,0.23

    As can be seen, there’s no significant difference between the three income categories. Average distances are within 0.1 mile.

    There is an affordability problem. The $121 monthly unlimited card represents much more than 10% of the lowest bracket take home pay. That needs to be addressed.

  • Larry Littlefield

    However, compare that with what the average American spends on transportation — generally their own automobile — and you see that’s still cheap relative to income.

    For a family with one unlimited ride card, a pay per ride card use occasionally, and a bicycle for a second worker who lives closer to home, it’s cheaper still.

    But if it isn’t cheap enough for you, raise the minimum wage.

  • Vooch

    PBLs equals free mobility

  • sbauman

    I don’t know what the average American spends on transportation to work as a percentage of his income. Housing, food and taxes also need to be included for a fair comparison between regions.

    I was trying to focus on the question of public transportation to get the poor to/from work within NYC. One proposition is that the poor live in public transportation deserts. I have not been able to prove this from the data. This analysis may not apply to other cities.

    There are public deserts in NYC. However, they appear to affect the well off and the poor in nearly the same proportion.

    and a bicycle

    A bicycle is probably the quickest, as well as least expensive, home-to-work transportation mode for trips under 6 miles within NYC. Nobody will pursue a course unless there is money to be made under capitalism. That’s the biggest problem confronting expansion of bicycling for commuting. There isn’t enough money in it for anyone to promote it. There’s big money in automobiles (personal or shared), as well as BRT.

  • sbauman

    Under capitalism, free is a subversive concept.

  • Vooch

    we don’t have capitalism 🙂

  • Larry Littlefield

    Find what people in different income groups pay for different things here.
    You might find it interesting.

    I help out at a food pantry every month, and since I bike their often I was told savvy immigrants use the system. It is just as I said.

    The monthly Metrocard is used by one spouse to go to work. A bicycle is used by the other. The kids walk, or use school passes.

    When one family member is traveling other than to work, they use the monthly, as one would use the family car, back when people had only one.

    When more than one family member is traveling, they supplement with a pay per ride. But mostly, they walk to things in their neighborhood.

    A good life, for those who know how to do it. Kind of like cooking your own meals.

    Relative to the U.S. average, our cost problem is housing, and the cost of government. Our transit problem is declining quality and increasing crowding — much worse for the transit-dependent than the cost.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Tell that to Silicon Valley.

    In the future, everything will be free. The companies that produce it will make revenues through advertising the goods and services people no longer have to buy.

    Private sector non-executive worker pay will drop to zero, but their lifestyle will maintained anyway by ever-increasing public and private debts.

    All it takes is linear extrapolation.

  • Joe R.

    My vision for citiwide rapid transit system for the masses is a ~1 mile grid of bike non-stop highways. Legalize e-bikes, perhaps roof over these highways, and now you have an all-weather transit system which would rival the subway in terms of speed. Price of entry could be as low as the cost of a clunker bike.

    As you said, there would be no interest in it because there’s not enough money to divvy up among the special interests. The contruction industry would get something for building it, but once built very little labor would be needed for ongoing maintenance or operations. There would be no revenue stream, either. It would be great for the masses and the city, but that’s never how we vet projects. It’s always how many jobs for contractors, construction workers, operations, etc.