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December 19th, 2008
On the Grid

Rick Karr, Blueprint America corespondent

There’s a gaping hole in our recent story on how the economic crisis may affect New York City’s transit system: We failed to point out that the fare in New York is cheaper than those in many other major cities. Which means that maybe bridge tolls and a new payroll tax shouldn’t be the only new revenue proposals on the table.

Let’s look at how public transit hits commuters’ wallets:

New Yorkers now pay $2, at most, for a single ride. That’s exactly what commuters in Chicago pay and more than riders in Boston. It’s also more than the minimum fares in Washington, DC and the Bay Area. But those systems charge fares that depend on the length of the ride – the farther you go, the more you pay – and so most riders in those cities pay more than the minimum. Commuters in the Washington area can pay up to $4.50, while those in the Bay Area can shell out as much as $8 for a single ride.

New York fares look like even more of a bargain when you check out the cost of riding public transit in some European cities. Riders in London can pay about $4.75 to go to the very next stop. The ride that I took to graduate school every day – which was shorter than my daily commute from Brooklyn to Channel Thirteen in Manhattan – can cost a Londoner $6.00.

Commuters in Paris and Berlin also pay more than New Yorkers – $2.23 and $2.92, respectively, at today’s exchange rate. And Berlin uses a zoned system, which means that’s the least you’ll pay to ride the S- or U-Bahn.

Of course, most riders on most of these systems don’t pay full fare all the time – there are transfers, bulk tickets, passes, even smart cards like London’s Oyster Card that automatically calculate the cheapest fare for whatever combination of rides you’ve taken over the course of a day. The New York Times offered up a great graphic to look at the actual cost of riding many large U.S. public transit systems, the cost of poroviding each ride, and how much of each system’s income actually comes from fares.

According to that Times graphic, even with the low fare, New Yorkers pay a higher proportion of the cost of running the MTA than commuters in any major U.S. urban area except the Bay Area. People we interviewed while researching our story said it’d be great if Albany – and Washington – coughed up more subsidy money. But that’s unlikely. Many of our sources also admitted that fares have to go up – maybe even significantly, even to London-like levels. But that process is politically fraught – no politician wants to run as a supporter of $4 subway fares. The Ravitch Commission’s report includes proposals to make the fare-increase process easier – automatic, in fact, based on the cost of living. That’d go some way towards bringing the MTA more revenue at the fare box, but New Yorkers will still probably be getting a bargain every time they swipe their MetroCards.

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