Before I got laid off, I used several strategies to make my trips to downtown Manhattan less stressful. I used to wake up right before the sun came up at about 4 a.m. The trains were usually either delayed or extremely packed. Sometimes I felt as if I was trapped in a can of sardines. I eventually gave up taking the train altogether. I finally settled on a combination of three buses from the Bronx to Manhattan. It wasn’t the most convenient way to get to work, but it was my way of feeling more relaxed before a hectic day at the office.
My long ride to work often meant not enough change to transfer from bus to bus. Although I felt embarrassed to ask for a free ride the few times it happened, I eventually built up the courage to do so because I had no choice. But on some buses, this isn’t possible since you have to obtain a ticket before entering. Transit cops would fine you if you didn’t have the ticket by the end of the route. In 2019 I witnessed police waiting at busy bus stops — mostly in high-poverty, predominantly non-white areas — attempting to apprehend fare evaders. I once saw tickets handed out to at least ten people in two minutes. Each fare evasion ticket carries a $100 fine.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) announced this Spring it had formed a “blue-ribbon panel” to look at the issue of fare evasion. I believe a more affordable transportation system should be the focus.
On a recent trip to the market, I used my debit card and paid for the $2.75 fare. A short while later, I noticed a young woman who boarded a few stops after me. She was holding on to a small child, while also carrying a large picnic bag and a diaper bag. The toddler let go of her hand as he made his way to the back of the crowded bus. She screams out his name but he doesn’t listen. As she rushes to catch the child, there’s no time to reach inside her pockets to grab a MetroCard or even some change.
This time they both take a seat and ride for free. An onlooker stares at them and shakes her head. So does the bus driver who doesn’t say a word. He makes sure he notes her free ride by pressing a button on his monitor which makes a loud beeping sound that all the passengers can hear. As I am nearing my destination and exiting through the back doors, I press the yellow strip that automatically opens the door, but it doesn’t open. I yell, “Back door please!” while several other passengers wait outside to hop on via the back entrance, which sometimes allows them to avoid paying.
Over the last two years, I’ve noticed this happening more frequently in the Bronx. It makes me wonder if the young woman or the people who made their way through the back know about the NYC Fair Fares program, a city-run program that was created to help New Yorkers with low incomes manage their commute costs. Former Mayor Bill De Blasio launched the program back in 2019. In addition to pay-per-ride MetroCards, it provides weekly and monthly unlimited cards at a 50 percent discount.
MTA Changes on the Horizon
New York City has seen its fair share of changes in its public transportation fare systems, ranging from token booths to MetroCards. Initially tested in 1993, the MetroCard was launched to the wider public in January 1994. But just like the gold tokens, the shiny bright yellow MetroCards will soon be a thing of the past, as they are being phased out and will disappear completely by sometime in 2023. According to the MTA, the phase-out will be completed once the city’s new contactless fare payment system, One Metro New York — better known as OMNY — is fully operational in all locations where MetroCards are currently being used. Right now, OMNY is available at 472 subway stations and on all MTA buses.
“OMNY is convenient for people who use it, but there are a few issues to iron out before phasing out the MetroCard entirely. OMNY cards should be available free to help speed the program’s adoption among low-income riders and riders of color.” said Danny Pearlstein, Policy and Communication Director for Riders Alliance in New York. Privacy advocates cite surveillance concerns about OMNY coupled with a phone or credit card, he adds. “Anyone who wants to ride transit should be able to feel confident that they are not being tracked.”
There are more unanswered questions about what the implementation of OMNY will mean for the city’s low-income residents. Will programs like the Fair Fares program be automatically shut down once the phase-out is complete? And how will low-income communities adjust to the new system if some don’t even have access to bank accounts or credit cards? When I tried to get answers or clarifications to my questions about the phase-out of the MetroCard and the OMNY services, MTA didn’t immediately respond to my initial requests but then finally sent me an article to read, in lieu of providing answers.
“Generally, moving the NYC MTA fare payment system to a more modernized payment system is a good thing, but the MTA needs to ensure that customers who don’t have access or utilize traditional banking methods can pay cash to use the system. Setting up ways for people to pay cash for, or add cash to, OMNY cards is critical,” said Stephanie Lotshaw, Program Director for Transit Center.
To date, only 266,869 New Yorkers have enrolled in the Fair Fares program.
Taking Cues from Other Cities
Making mass transit accessible and affordable to all of a community’s residents isn’t a challenge unique to NYC, so we can explore how other cities have handled these issues to think about possible solutions.
For low-income families “Every day is a pandemic,” said Cheryl Stephens, a community organizer for Pittsburgh for Public Transit (PPT), a grassroots organization that aims to raise consciousness about the importance and value of safe and accessible public mass transit. As Stephens points out, low-income families must scrape together money to make ends meet and to keep the lights on.
Although she says PPT has been calling for fare equity for years, Stephens feels optimistic as a result of some positive steps Pittsburgh has taken. In January, a new fare structure went into effect that might make things a little easier for low-income residents.
Pittsburgh Regional Transit riders who pay with their Connect Cards will get a discount that allows for unlimited transfers for up to three hours — which would normally cost an extra dollar for each transfer, but the discount does not apply to riders who pay with cash. People are encouraged to go cashless, which can be beneficial, but may also create a barrier for people who need this help the most since Stephens says, “People who tend to use cash are lower-income people and Black people because of concerns around banking.”
Those concerns include costs associated with banks, like overdraft fees. Moreover, she says there is a huge disconnect between the transit agency and communities, many of whom are unaware that changes to the fare structure even took place.
We need to expand public transit access
“While the transit system faces many serious challenges, there have been some big achievements in the past decade. One is the new busways across the city, beginning with 14th Street in 2019, which have considerably sped up certain bus routes and commutes for many riders. Another is the Save Safe Seconds or SPEED Unit, which has sped up subway service, helping cut train delays in half or more during the past four years,” Pearlstein said.
Pearlstein began advocating for better public transportation in high school. He said, “More frequent and more affordable service will improve ridership because it will make transit more competitive with other ways of getting around.”
He supports an expanded Fair Fares program that would offer free fares to people living below the poverty line and half-price fares to people living between 100-200% of the poverty line, which includes families of four earning $50,000. Currently, the program income guidelines allow an 8-person household with a yearly income of $46,630 to qualify for the half-fare discount. A 3-person household earning more than $23,030 annually does not qualify.
“Fare discount programs like Fair Fares are an important way to address the needs of riders at various income levels — many agencies across the US and internationally use them and the MTA should expand it in any way possible.” said Lotshaw.
I’m worried about what some of the current and upcoming changes will mean for working-class NYC residents who use public transit, but I have also seen some positive improvements that give me hope for progress.
Recently one of the local buses changed its route, leaving me closer to the mall on 174th street in the West Farms section of the Bronx. I feel relieved, as I can avoid some of the sweltering heat of the summer or the freezing temperatures of the winter months in New York City. In the Bronx, eliminating certain routes like the BX 15 LIMITED heading to Manhattan and creating the M125 — which replaces service along 125th to the HUB — has brought much relief to crowded buses and long wait times at the Hub on 3rd Avenue and 149th Street.
Due to income limitations and now that both my sons are working, I do not qualify for the Fair Fares program. I and other public transportation advocacy groups hope to see more changes to make public transportation more equitable and accessible. Meanwhile, for many low-income riders like me, it’s still a matter of rationing your change.