A full-priced single ride on public transit costs New Yorkers $2.75. The price is double that if there is a return trip. And for those working five days a week, a single-ride commute on public transit comes to $110 a month.
While a 30-day unlimited MetroCard offers modest savings — $11 a month less than single fares over the same period — for many who many who depend on one of the world’s busiest transit systems, especially low-income residents, the fact remains: It is just too expensive.
“I try to run all my errands in one stop because I need to save my money,” said Sophia Vechnyak, a 22-year-old sales associate at a retail store in Midtown Manhattan.
Ms. Vechnyak is one of 58 percent of low-income New Yorkers who rely on public transit. One out of four of those with low incomes cannot afford an unlimited MetroCard, according to a report from the Community Service Society of New York. A seven-day unlimited card costs $32, while a 30-day unlimited pass is $121.
In March, the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, announced a proposal that would slice MetroCard fees in half for the approximately 800,000 low-income residents who use public transit. Mr. Johnson said the proposal would save qualified residents $726 a year. An advocacy group, Riders Alliance, backed the proposal and started a campaign encouraging residents to call Mayor Bill de Blasio and request him to adopt it.
Mr. de Blasio swiftly replied “no” to the proposal in April, explaining that the city could not afford to offer any more transit discounts. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city’s subways and buses, already has half-priced fares for riders 65 years and older or with a qualifying disability, costing the authority an estimated $212 million a year.
Instead, Mr. de Blasio wants to add a millionaires’ tax to subsidize reduced-priced MetroCards, which would have to be approved by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“We all know that plan is dead on arrival and I think that’s a lame response,” said Robert Gangi, a community activist who ran against Mr. de Blasio in the 2017 mayoral election. “Instead of trying to put it on Cuomo, he should be doing what he needs to do to help his constituents. The City Council believes he can fit it into the budget.”
Requests for comment from Mr. De Blasio were not answered.
Mr. Gangi, the executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, which works to end abusive police tactics that target poor people of color and the L.G.B.T.Q. community, said the high MetroCard fares are not just a poverty problem, but also a racial issue. He said that poor people of color are the ones mostly targeted and punished for jumping turnstiles to avoid paying subway fares.
Mr. Gangi helped launch #SwipeItFoward, a campaign that encourages unlimited MetroCard holders to swipe others through when they reach their destination. It works only in this manner, because a card cannot be used again at the same subway station or the same bus route for at least 18 minutes.
Julian Marshall, an independent dog-walker from Harlem, said he was once in such a financial bind that he had to decide whether to spend his money on fares or food. “You can’t afford to eat because you got to go to work,” Mr. Marshall said. “And you can’t afford to go to work because you got to eat. It’s a crazy thing.”
He said he bought food, went to the subway station, and asked another rider to swipe him through.
Now, Mr. Marshall buys an unlimited ride card and is part of the #SwipeItForward movement.
“You know when someone needs a swipe just by how they look at you,” he said. “We all know the look. De Blasio isn’t going to do anything, so it’ll be better if we all just swipe it forward.”
Not everyone thinks fares are too high. David Ball, a programmer in his 20s who works remotely for a California-based company, makes about $80,000 a year. He said he faced no issue with paying for public transit, which he uses five or six days a week for business.
“It’s not up for the average person to say whether MetroCards are expensive or not,” he said. “Because they don’t know how much it costs to keep the rails up. I think the more fundamental question to ask is whether the funds are being used efficiently to maintain the system.”
Last year, The New York Times reported that the authority’s budget for maintenance has barely changed in 25 years, when adjusted for inflation. In late May, the authority revealed Fast Forward, a plan to update and modernize the subway system. The project would cost $37 billion, according to The Daily News.
Some cities have made a commitment to improving access to its public transportation. In King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, people living in households with income less than double the federal poverty level qualify for a reduced-fare card. The city’s budget includes $30 million each year to address crowding, reliability and expansion needs. In 2017, the county led the nation with the highest growth in people using public transit.
In New York, some residents said the never-ending maintenance and construction of the subway system justified the proposed fare discounts. Ebony Miller, a junior at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, rides the subway to her job in Manhattan and often has to reroute and walk 10 to 15 minutes to the next train because of construction.
“They shut off half the trains after midnight and there’s a 30-minute wait for the rest,” Ms. Miller said. “I have to be at work at 5 a.m. and I don’t feel safe out here like that. We spend all this money, and the system is so inconvenient.”
Some people have found ways to get around paying full price to ride public transit.
Ms. Vechnyak, the 22-year-old sales associate, said she does not ask other mass transit riders for a swipe, she asks transit workers themselves.
“I just ask the bus driver if I can get on and he’d wave me on,” she said. “He doesn’t care. He’s a New York City bus driver. He’s got bigger problems.”
At 4-foot-11, Ms. Vechnyak has even crawled under the subway station’s turnstile. But she said she would prefer paying her way through with a reduced-priced MetroCard. It would allow her to have a better social life. “I would probably get out my apartment more and do things.” she said “I’m literally stuck in the house.”
Ms. Vechnyak should expect another increase, not a reduction: The authority’s chairman Joe Lhota, threatened another fare increase for 2019, The Daily News reported.
Jordan Sosa and Langston Williams, both 16, said their parents often complain about the price increases.
“He always says that he’ll be paying $8 just to get back and forth to work in five years,” Jordan said of his father, who works for an insurance company in Times Square.
Jordan and Langston have student MetroCards that allow them to ride the public transit at no cost Monday through Friday. They said they were not looking forward to when they are no longer eligible for the free student cards.
“I know it’s going to be a hassle,” Langston said.
NOTE: This article was updated to correct the name of a group that works to end abusive police tactics. It is the Police Reform Organizing Project, not the Police Reform Organization.