By Arthur Schwartz
I am going to start by using numbers, not rhetoric. Forty percent of all commutes to work are done by subway or bus. Another 40% are done by walking (yes, walking). Two percent are accomplished by bicycle. Walking and taking the subway and bus (if it is an electric bus) are sustainable modes of transportation. But bikes and bike lanes get a lot more talk from politicians.
Here are some more numbers. Until 1970, when I graduated high school, the fare was 20 cents. In 1980, it was 50 cents. In 1990, it was still only 80 cents. Now, a one way MetroCard fare is $3.00.
Another interesting fact. Why is the subway system called the NYC Transit Authority? Because until 1978, it was a city agency, not part of a state agency. The system was created under the NYC Board of Transportation in 1940, when it bought several private subway lines (the BMT, the IND, and the BMT), and then in 1953 the Board of Transportation became an authority. Sometime in the 1970s, when NYC teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, funding and control of the NYC Transit Authority (NYCTA) shifted to the state, and city funding of day-to-day operations (the operating budget) began to decline. Transit funding essentially disappeared under Mayor Bloomberg, and transit fares began their steep rise. Last week, the New York Times described the NYC subway system as the most rider-subsidized transit system in the United States.
The Pandemic and Ridership
Just prior to the pandemic hitting, ridership on the subway system had increased to record numbers: 5.1 million rides per day. And NYCTA bus ridership had risen to over 3 million trips per day. This was despite only an 80% on-time record for subways, and who knows what metric for buses, despite bus lanes on many major streets. After the pandemic hit, by mid-April 2020, subway ridership was down to 300,000 per day. Bus ridership fell from 2.4 million trips a day to 600,000. Until September 2020, no fares were collected on buses. (I held a press conference on Labor Day last year demanding that this remain the policy; at the time, no one listened).
As the city recovers, subway and bus ridership has moved up. Subway ridership is now about 1.9 million rides per day and bus ridership is 1.3 million. NYCTA has restored subway service to pre-pandemic levels, except on the F and C lines, both of which service our community. Those lines were cut by 30%, and were seeing crowded (unsafe) cars, and crowded (unsafe) platforms with longer waiting times. The Transport Workers Union, my client, wanted that service—and the jobs—restored. So, they united with the Fulton Houses Tenants Association and took the F and C lines’ service issue to court.
Turns out that we are going back to the days when NYCTA was a city authority. It is required, under the Public Authorities Law, to notify the Mayor of any permanent cuts in service, and to ask the “Board of Estimate” (a city governing agency replaced by a revamped City Council in 1989) whether it wants public hearings. The NYCTA hadn’t done that.
We went to court and asked Judge Franc Perry to issue a restraining order stopping an employee job changeover which would have cemented the cuts to the F and the C. On March 18, Judge Perry did that, but just for five days. On the fourth day, NYCTA asked to extend the temporary restraining order for another two weeks so they could reconsider the question. Politicians perked up their heads, and on March 23, the City Council held an emergency hearing. I presented our facts and figures there. My lawyers’ hunch is that since we exposed the permanent nature of the cuts—and reminded everyone that the City Council could demand public hearings about the cuts—the NYCTA and the MTA will back down. How can they invite the public back to the subway, and then tell people that there is less service and more crowding? Stay tuned.
And Judge Perry went on to issue a second injunction, in a second lawsuit, prohibiting NYCTA from locking station booths during booth clerks’ lunch hours, instead of providing lunch relief. NYCTA was not only trying to skimp on service, but it was also skimping on safety.
The Fares Should Be Lower—Aided by NYC Money
When the fares were low, and NYCTA was part of city government, most of its operating budget came from the City of New York, not from passengers. Trains and buses are key government services, up there with public safety, schools, health care, and sanitation. But over the years, with the opportunity to say to the Governor and the State Legislature, “You fund the subways, they are your problem,” the city has cut its contribution to the operating budget to almost nothing.
Subway and bus fares are too damn high. Someone who rides the subway or takes a bus to and from work pays almost $1,200 per year for that ride. If the city put one percent of its budget into NYC Transit—about $1 billion—we could return to free buses, like we had in 2020, and lower the subway fares. One percent! What better year than this, when the federal government gave the MTA $14.6 billion in the COVID-19 stimulus package to aid its operating budget?
I made this proposal when I testified before City Council, and got lots of nods. This issue is high on my agenda, and I will make a lot of noise to make sure it is on their agenda too.
Arthur Schwartz is Special Assistant to the President of the Transport Workers Union of Greater New York, and Greenwich Village Democratic District Leader.