Beyond the MetroCard: Faster Buses, Better Access to Commuter Rail, Fairer Fares

Boarding a bus doesn't have to be this slow and aggravating. Photo: TransitCenter
Boarding a bus doesn't have to be this slow and aggravating. Photo: TransitCenter

Changing the way we pay for transit is about much more than carrying around a new type of farecard. Fare policy can speed up buses, expand trip options for riders, and lower barriers to transit access.

With the MTA contracting with Cubic to upgrade its fare payment system, the next few years should be a time of rapid change and improvement, with the agency adopting policies that make transit faster and more convenient for riders.

The key word is “should.” Just because new fare technology will open up possibilities for the MTA to adapt best practices, doesn’t mean those changes are inevitable. A generation ago, it took a sustained advocacy effort to get the MTA to maximize the utility of the MetroCard and allow unlimited passes and free transfers between subways and buses.

Today, with ridership falling and service deteriorating, it’s inexcusable to delay the improvements the new fare system will unlock. In a new report, TransitCenter and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign lay out the opportunities inherent in a contactless fare payment system [PDF]. Here’s a look at what they envision and the current state of play at the MTA.

Faster buses

The plodding process of paying bus fares one-by-one at the front door is a big reason why NYC bus service is the slowest in the nation. There’s a better way: Cities like London and San Francisco took advantage of the features of modern farecards to implement citywide all-door boarding. With cashless transactions and all-door boarding on every bus, every bus route in New York would move faster overnight.

But there’s a big red flag in the MTA’s contract with Cubic, which only mentions “trials of on-board fare collection and all-door boarding” on Select Bus Service routes. This falls far short of what the objective should be. The vast majority of bus routes are not designated as SBS routes. And paying on-board on SBS routes would actually slow down service compared to the status quo, where SBS passengers pre-pay at the curb.

Advocates recommend a system where people validate their farecard at the curb on high-ridership bus routes. With contactless farecards, the curbside validation machines can be smaller and simpler than the ticket-vending machines currently in use on Select Bus Service routes. On low-ridership routes, on-board validators would still enable all-door boarding.

Photo: TriMet
A fare validator in Portland. Photo: TriMet via TransitCenter

Better access to regional rail

LIRR and MetroNorth service runs through the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, but commuter rail fares are effectively siloed from the subway and bus system most New Yorkers rely on. You can’t use a regular MetroCard to buy a trip on the LIRR. So city residents are shut out from transit that ostensibly serves their neighborhoods, while seats on commuter trains sit empty. To be useful city transit and not just suburban commuter rail, LIRR and MetroNorth need to work seamlessly with the urban fare system.

With new fare technology, it’s easier to integrate the different services so transferring from a bus to a commuter train is as easy as transferring from a bus to a subway. The MTA has said it intends to pilot a unified commuter rail/subway/bus fare at some LIRR stations, and advocates want a firm commitment to a permanent integrated fare system encompassing all commuter rail stops within city limits.

In the same vein, advocates are calling on the MTA to integrate its new fare media with other transportation services, enabling people to, for instance, pay for Citi Bike with their MTA account.

Fairer fares

In the current fare system, people who can afford the upfront cost of a monthly MetroCard pay less per ride than people who can only afford to buy one fare at a time. A fairer system would cap the monthly amount a rider spends at the price of an unlimited pass — in effect, they could pay for an unlimited in installments.

It’s not an idea the MTA has broached on its own, but cities including London and Portland have launched “fare-capping” policies, and advocates recommend the MTA do the same.

Advocates also call for the adoption of a “Fair Fares” policy to provide half-price fares for low-income New Yorkers. (As proposed by the Riders Alliance and the Community Service Society, this would be subsidized by the city as a social service.)

Both policies would have the added benefit of creating incentives to pay with farecards instead of cash, which can further improve bus speeds and reliability.

  • Larry Littlefield

    When the Metrocard was introduced, there was a massive cut in the price of an unlinked trip, funded by more debt and deferred maintenance.
    That was the Straphanger’s piece of the “everybody wins” deal that also featured the 2000 retroactive pension increases, soaring prices for contractors, and the cut off of general tax revenues for the MTA capital plan by the city and state. Along with toll freezes and tollbooth removals.
    It isn’t popular to say it, and the Times chose to left it out, but past riders (myself included) own some of what has happened to current riders. The fare per unlinked trip, as of 2015, though up substantially, was still lower adjusted for inflation than it had been before Metrocard.
    But if Straphangers had paid all along what they paid in 2015, that would have been $6.7 billion more in revenues. Which could have been $6.7 billion less in debt (out of $37 billion at the time) or $6.7 billion more in maintenance.
    The Straphangers engaged in a game of chicken. If everyone plunders the system, who would end up losing in the end? Won’t “they” have to make it up somehow? Now we know. “They” have retired and no longer have to ride the subway. In fact they tend to drive everywhere when working, and don’t have to give a crap.
    The Trump tax cut, unlike the Reagan tax reform of 1986, was not “revenue neutral.” It was a huge tax cut today, followed by an automatic huge tax increase in a decade for everyone but the rich, already on the books. A generational pillage. You can blame the Republicans for that and the prior two rounds. Are we going to do another found for fare cuts for the MTA?

  • Mister Sterling

    Agreed. Don’t forget NYC Ferry also. We need this to be truly integrated.

  • Mister Sterling

    I mildly disagree with the assumption that MTA revenues would have stayed with the MTA. Remember, Petaki was governor. Who’s to say that revenues would have piled up? Also, I think part of the reason the MTA didn’t see trouble on the horizon is because ridership kept going up year after year after the MetroCard was introduced. The “Bad Old Days” were over. The subway was popular again. But the signal and track maintenance didn’t improve. No one uttered a suggestion that signals go digital. And while London poured billions into its old system, we didn’t (aside from loans for new rolling stock, starting in 1996 for the new 6 trains). And here we are.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Who cares about NYC ferry? Nobody will actually use NYC Ferry, it’s too slow and inconvinient.

  • Mister Sterling

    And wouldn’t that change if you could use the same card to tap into a ferry, or Red Hook tram (proposed)?

  • Hugh Shepard

    Yes, fare integration with the subways and busses would surely benefit ferry ridership. That still won’t increase the speed of the ferries though. I’m not sure that red hook needs a tram, but that’s a whole seperate argument.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That cynicism may be well founded. Why put more in when others will just grab more out? But then don’t expect that mass transit system to be there in the future, and plan to live without it.

    That’s actually the dark place the Generation Greed era has taken me. It’s the audacity of hopelessness.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/preparing-for-institutional-collapse/

    As I said at the time, after the massive retroactive pension increase for NYC passed just as NYC was going into recession.

    “Letting go of one’s illusions is a difficult process that takes a long, long time, but I am just about there. From a young age I have been a believer in public services and benefits as a way of providing some measure of assurance for other people, people I rely on every time I purchase a good or service, of a decent life regardless of one’s personal income or standing. After all, I initially chose public service as a career. And I have been a defender of the public institutions when compared with those who were only concerned with their own situation and preference put in less, or get out more, as if the community was a greedy adversary to be beaten in life rather than something one is a part of. Now, however, I see that it is probably hopeless.”

    “Under the current generation of ‘leaders,’ ‘the community,’ in its governmental form, is controlled by insatiable interests and sits on top of those who happen to live in New York City, New York State, and the United States. While promising general, universal benefits in the future, or lower taxes in the present, they have already taken so much out of that future for themselves and self-interest groups that it is unlikely that there will be a functioning school system, usable parks, convenient mass transit, affordable health care, or a livable Social Security retirement stipend for my children’s generation. Even at high future taxes. They’ve blown it all, rationalized or just ignored the near certain effects on others, and they won’t give it back. So perhaps all the time, energy and money directed toward trying to reform or improve our social institutions, particularly our government institutions, would be better spent preparing to do without them, or replace them.”

    Bicycles, and E-bikes. Work at home. Dynamic carpooling. Private vans. Stop trying, stop lying and pursue alternatives. Those who are unwilling to pay for things won’t have them. Except in New York where we will not have them even though we paid.

  • I’m glad you can speak for all of us.

  • J. Vogel

    I think that this is an attempt to solve an organizational problem using a technology solution: it is not necessary to adopt a new payment technology to achieve all-door boarding and full modal integration, and new technology won’t solve the turf wars and the obsession of tracking every ride.

    It is possible to have full integration and all-door boarding with current magnetic MetroCards, with current technology, with current equipment. In Rome they have exactly that: magnetic-stripe tickets are validated once, and then they are used only to open metro turnstiles — you don’t need to swipe them again on the tram or bus.

    In detail:

    * In NYC, the only investment really needed to make all-door boarding on buses is to equip fare inspectors with hand-held MetroCard readers. People using unlimited MCs or having already validated tickets could just board a bus using any door and sit down. There is no need to have them swipe again.

    * Only people with single or pay-per-ride cards would need to board the front door.

    * Optionally, the fare structure could be adapted to favor unlimited (monthly, weekly) tickets.

    * Optionally, additional readers could be installed on the stops or in board the buses.

    * The same system can be used on trains and ferries — it only depends on the fare inspectors being able to check the validity.

    But all of it requires the hardest change: to accept the fact that people can ride a bus without registering their journey. As it is done in cities in German-speaking Europe, and almost everywhere in Switzerland.

  • newkai

    I believe handheld MetroCard readers have been dismissed as technically unfeasible due to it being outdated proprietary technology, hence the use of receipts on Select busses. However, the next generation of payment method should absolutely function as you describe.

    Also, if you’re going to have fare inspectors potentially checking a bus then you can let pay-per-ride customers use any door as well, provided you have a terminal for them to “pay” (tap) near them.

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