New York City

Could ‘Fair Fares’ draw more riders — without clogging the MTA?

June 19, 2019 Jeffery Harrell
A subway rider swipes a MetroCard. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

A new report from Boston shows that reducing fares for low-income straphangers significantly increases their ridership.

The report comes as New York City slowly rolls out its “fair fares” program, which has now enrolled over 50,000 New Yorkers to receive half-priced MetroCards.

“The study shows what we already knew: Reducing fares works,” said Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director at transit-advocacy group Rider’s Alliance.

“New York has a large low-income population, and the rising degree of inequality is growing that number,” said Pearlstein. “Rent, medicine, food, clothing, all this competes with paying for transit for people.”

The MIT study conducted in Boston found that low-income riders given transit discounts rode public transit 30 percent more than low-income riders paying full price. It also found that many of the additional rides were used for trips to access health care and social services.

Jeffrey Laurence Rosenblum, the urban planning Ph.d. candidate who conducted the study, gave half-priced CharlieCards — the Boston equivalent to New York’s MetroCard — to people receiving SNAP benefits.

“Studying the habits of low-income riders really hasn’t been done that much,” said Rosenblum. “Nobody was in agreement with what reduced fares really accomplish.”

Opponents of reduced metro fares have argued that low-income riders don’t ride the subway any less because people are forced to bear fare hikes to get where they need to go. Rosenblum’s study disproves this.

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Other opponents thought that reducing fares would bring a flood of new riders onto the subways during rush hour, clogging the already crowded trains.

But Rosenblum’s study also found that most of the increased rides low-income riders with the discount took were outside of peak hours. This means the influx of new riders should be easily absorbed into the current transit system without much friction.

Pearlstein, who worked with the Rider’s Alliance to champion the fair fares program, explained why access to transit is so important for the health of the city.

“As housing costs rise, and people are scattered across the city, transit is a social lifeline,” said Pearlstein. “It connects people to their community, family and civic institutions.”

The city moved too slowly for many advocates to extend discounted fares to eligible New Yorkers. Since the program began in January, just over 50,000 people are enrolled out of what Pearlstein estimates are around 700,000 eligible participants.

Pearlstein hopes the city will continue to expand the program to all eligible New Yorkers.

“There’s so many different aspects to creating equity in an urban environment, transit is one of the most important.” said Pearlstein. “This program is crucial to the life of our city and the progressive vision of New York.”

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