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Transportation Killing Monthly MetroCards in NYC?


Staff member

I find it facinating to read the data that shows the increase in ridership in NYC from 1998-2003 due to the increased "extra" rides created by the monthly metrocard. What are big cities going to do when there are unlikely to be the ridership where once was for downtowns for at least the foreseeable future?

If companies aren't looking to grow in downtowns (which currently is very clear, but is less clear once we get a handle on the pandemic), how do you invest in public transportation effectively? The NYC subway works because it has such high ridership numbers. With a HUGE decrease in ridership, and a lack of dedicated need to ride in the future, how do you fill the monumental funding gap?

Obviously funding these large scale mass transit projects will continue to be a challenge until people decide to invest in downtown office again. I think it will be a long time though between now and when downtown office comes back like it was. Why pay the rent, deal with the hassle, etc. when you can have your team work from home and be just as productive? Thoughts?


I do wonder what other mitigating factors contributed to the large increase in riders from 98-03 but I will say -- it's interesting that the article didn't touch on the nationwide decrease in transit ridership since 2014 (far prior to the pandemic). In fact, in 2017 bus ridership attained its lowest point since at least 1990 (the oldest ridership data available).

Based on my own research in the pre-COVID decline, folks were not choosing public transit due to: lower gas prices, strong economy, recent surges in technology, increases in bicycling and walking, shifting populations/ residential location choices, to name a few factors. Not to mention the unbalanced investments in infrastructure and increase in parking availability. (Planners, this is us!)

Now that's not all to say that we don't have a public transit problem that has been exponentially exacerbated by the pandemic. The problems are not going to be solved by an 8% increase in fees or a removal of the monthly passes (since fees do not come close to paying for the system to run). Bailouts like the CARES Act are great but they're not sustainable long term. We, as planners, need to continue focus on downtown -- even if that looks different than we thought 2 years ago...


Keep in mind that while this is happening, the biggest tech companies have been buying more office space and significantly expanding their footprint in Manhattan. I think they are making their bets now that although there will be more regular remote work in the future, there is also a very real competitive edge gained from clustering people together. While the budget issues MTA is facing now are dire and cutting service is an immediate looming threat, I still think long-term the demand for ridership generated by CBDs will come back and then some, certainly in the largest US cities.

I'm pretty skeptical of the article claim that increases in ridership between 98-03 are attributed to "extra" rides based on a new fare structure. Swings in ridership are usually contextual and based on a transit systems' competitiveness with other modes at a particular moment in time, as well as their role in providing a region equitable service (usually meaning service for those who do not have access to a car). NYC is one of the rare urban environments in the US where transit is generally more competitive than driving, therefore you have a much larger share of the "choice" riders who have either gone remote or switched to another mode during COVID. In other parts of the country, ridership has dropped but not as substantially due to a larger ratio of riders who do not have access to a car, and also very often in these smaller systems revenues are not as dependent on fares. In a lot of these regions the long term challenge may have less to do with the agency bringing new and better service downtown and more to do with bringing the right kind of transit oriented development downtown to feed the existing service.

To the point about how to invest effectively in public transportation, that needs to be hinged on clarifying a transit agency's goals. Is the goal to increase ridership? Why? If the ridership goal is implicitly about attracting people who would otherwise drive (e.g. a more walkable/sustainable city), then most regions are working directly against those goals by expanding their highway network and overall capacity for driving. COVID has been really interesting in that despite drops in ridership across the country, almost every transit related referendum this year passed locally (Portland is the only exception I know of). I think that at least should suggest that the focus on ridership as the key transit metric to evaluate a transit agency may not really be capturing the general public's perspective on the issue.

The New York Post is a sensational right-wing, pro-Trump tabloid newspaper that is owned by Rupert Murdoch.

People who have never lived in the NY metro area usually do not know this because so many other newspapers here start with "New York" and look like it.

Wikipedia's description of The New York Post gives you a fairly good idea of what kind of animal you're dealing with:


My commentary:
No matter what, the monthly MetroCards program will definitely be killed.

This is because the technologically obsolete MetroCard system will be completed phased out by 2023.
It will be replaced by the OMNY card system:
Contactless fare payment that can be, (but doesn't have to be), activated/maintained by people's smartphones.

The New York Post staff knew this when the above op-ed was written.

Two days ago the MTA completed its rollout of the OMNY system: