By Arthur Z. Schwartz
We hear a lot these days about hundreds of millions spent for bike lanes in NYC. In fact, though the budget numbers are opaque, the City seems to have adopted a capital budget which provides over $900 million for expanded “protected bike lanes,” and bus lanes for its current budget year.
Does spending hundreds of millions of dollars on bike lanes address NY City’s transportation needs?
The answer lies right in an annual report put out each year (the City skipped 2020 and 2021) by the NYC Department of Transportation called the Citywide Mobility Survey. The last full year published, in 2019, had some amazing statistics. It measured the manner in which New Yorkers undertook all sorts of trips, and broke it down geographically. But the most important measure is how people got to work.
- 45% of New Yorkers take the subway to and from work
- 19% of New Yorkers take a bus to and from work
- 30% of New Yorkers walk to work
- 2.4% of New Yorkers drive or take a for-hire vehicle
- 2% of New Yorkers use a bicycle to go to work
The bike numbers for “all trips combined” are similar. Two percent of New Yorkers living in the “Manhattan Core” use bikes for their trips (53% walk). Citywide, two percent of New Yorkers use bikes for any trips, while 41% walk.
Why harp on these numbers? Because New York City and New York State (which has our mass transit system since the 1970s) spends less per capita on mass transit than any state or city in the world. Riders pay more than 50% of the total cost. According to a study done last year by the Community Service Society, low-income riders are the most “transit dependent” of any New York population, with fully 58% relying on the subway or bus. For these individuals, the cost of a MetroCard makes up 10% of their budget, forcing many riders to make tough choices between transit and other necessities, limiting their access to economic opportunity.
You, like me, may ask why is this? Why do we pay $2.75 each time we get on a subway or bus, with the constant threat of a fare increase hanging over our heads? Why, if mass transit is the most climate friendly means of moving large numbers of people, and the most utilized, do we hear of hundreds of millions of dollars for bike lanes, and believe it or not NO City funding for the operation of the subways or the subway system’s capital needs.
Why is an essential service, mass transit, not free, like schools, police protection, fire protection, and sanitation services? Why do major businesses get their workforce delivered to them at no cost?
Other cities are beginning to show us the way forward, and it’s not through giving everyone a bike to ride. Kansas City was hailed in 2019 when leaders voted to make it the first major U.S. city to approve free transit through the three-year ZeroFareKC program. This past year the Council of the District of Columbia voted to do away with Metrobus fares in Washington starting in July, 2023, and Boston, last year tapped into $8 million in federal pandemic relief money to eliminate fares on three Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus routes through at least 2024. (Actually, here in NYC, buses were free from March 2020 through Labor Day 2020.) Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass is considering whether to embrace fare-free transit in her city.
As other cities experiment with fare-free transit, some MTA board members are calling on elected officials to come up with new funding sources that would allow the financially strapped agency to let New Yorkers ride buses for free. And some elected officials, led by NY Senate Deputy Majority Assembly Leader Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, both from Queens, have proposed a four-year plan to gradually eliminate fares on local buses and Select Bus Service proposes yearly funding escalating from $200 million in 2023 to $638 million in 2026.
While Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) officials have warned that higher-than-expected fare hikes may be needed by 2025 if ridership does not return to pre-pandemic levels, others say the time is now for mass transit to be funded similarly to the police, fire and sanitation services that are usually deemed “essential.”
“Not only do I think it’s not a pipe dream, it’s a necessity in post-COVID New York,” John Samuelsen, international President of the Transport Workers Union and an MTA board member, announced last month. “What are they going to do, keep raising the fare until they ice out the people they want to use the transit system?” Samuelsen, who was President of the NYC Local of TWU, Local 100, tweeted in December that transit service should be built into the tax base, noting that “We don’t pay cops or firefighters per use and our children don’t pay to enter schools” and adding, “We need safe, reliable Mass Transit with no fare.”
Prior to the pandemic, the MTA had, for more than a decade, relied on revenue from fares and tolls to cover about 50% of its annual operating budget. But with ridership still far below 2019 levels, transit agency leaders have been calling for new ways to fund a system that now faces the prospect of farebox revenue of around 35% for several years, according to MTA reports. “It’s painstakingly clear that the way they did business in terms of revenue generation can’t work anymore,” Samuelsen said. “They’ve had their asses burned by it.” JP Patafio, a TWU Local 100 Vice President who has been touting free transit for years, called it “an idea whose time has come. “With COVID, the environment and the economy, fare-free local bus service is the low-hanging fruit of public transportation,” Patafio said. “We should seize the moment.”
The two Queens state lawmakers revealed a financing plan in mid-December. “The idea is to be bold, and make the point that this incrementalism that we’ve been using to support the MTA is not working,” said Gianaris. “We need to go big enough to support the mass transit system because it affects every aspect of our lives. Housing is conditioned on having access to mass transit, education is conditioned by it, public safety is conditioned on it. It’s the spine of the city, and we need it to be healthy.”
The four-year process would begin with free buses in the Bronx in year one, followed by Brooklyn the next year, Queens in the third year and Manhattan and Staten Island in the fourth year. The sequence is based on a Community Service Society study of median household income, poverty rates, share of commuters and bus riders in each borough according to Mamdani and Gianaris.
In addition to the free buses, the legislators’ spending bill comes with $488 million per year for 20% more bus service, an escalating amount of money $114 million in 2023 rising to $360 million in 2026) for a four-year freeze on fares and $300 million per year to run subways every six minutes during off-peak hours.
Mamdani and Gianaris are calling their bills the Formula Three Act, for the three Fs of freezing fares, funding frequency and free buses, and they say that when fully up and running, the state can fund free MTA buses for $638 million. The package also includes legislation previously introduced by State Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Alicia Hyndman that would expand the MTA’s ability to do camera enforcement in bus lanes and ensure the ABLE camera enforcement system is made permanent.
“This is an urgent and a necessary demand,” said Mamdani. “And it’s not one that should be thought of as a wish list come to life. This is in response to the conditions that New Yorkers are facing right now. We should not separate free buses from freezing fares and funding frequency. Those three things are tied together, most especially frequency and free buses.”
MTA Board Member David R. Jones, who is also President and CEO of the nonprofit Community Service Society—which was instrumental in the creation of the “Fair Fares” program that provides low-income New Yorkers with a 50% discount on subway and bus rides—noted that side benefits to fare-free transit could include enticing people onto mass transit and out of more expensive forms of transportation, such as for-hire vehicles.
Samuelsen, Jones and others concede that the idea of free bus rides could become a reality only if federal, state and city elected officials come up with alternatives for funding a transit system whose farebox revenues have been clobbered by the pandemic — yet service frequency and quality must not decrease.
In a joint Action Plan announced by Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams on December 22nd, they acknowledged the need to get more people to use buses by increasing speeds, and to add more subway service. (Somehow the next day, MTA Chair Jano Lieber, announced a plan–which TWU threatened to fight in court— to cut subway service on Mondays and Fridays, because ridership is down on those days.)
Some critics decry the proposal as giving a government “subsidy” to people who do not need it. But New York has struggled to enroll people in the city-funded Fair Fares program that offers half-priced MetroCards to low-income riders. Assembly Member Mandami’s response: “Oftentimes when you talk about providing relief to the New Yorkers who need it the most, you start to hear proposals around means-tested programs. But last year, the Community Service Society found that 48% of eligible New Yorkers had not applied for the Fair Fares program. If we want to make an impact on the lives of working class New Yorkers, we have to do so in a manner that does not require them to apply for something. All it must require them is to simply use the service,” he said.
Mamdani also compared free bus service to the state’s ill-fated gas tax holiday, which mostly enriched gas companies under the guise of providing relief to New Yorkers.
“In a moment where New Yorkers are being crushed by inflation, you often hear people talk about how we need to see relief at the pump, which is why New York State spent $500 million last year waiving the gas tax for six months. What we are talking about here is providing relief at the farebox when people board the bus,” he said.
In Boston, the MBTA’s most comprehensive study of its fare-free pilot on Route 28 was published in March 2022. The report found that pilot led to a 38% increase in ridership and a 1.7 second decrease in average dwell time per passenger, but also added four minutes to the average trip time, which indicated to the MBTA “that reductions in travel time will require infrastructure improvements.” The study also found that five % of riders had replaced car trips with bus trips on the 28, though that mode shift was second behind the eight % of riders who said they replaced a walking or cycling trip with a ride on Route 28 bus.
Of course, here in NYC, our leaders already want to spend hundreds of millions on bus lanes. Faster, free buses, would do a lot to eliminate car and taxi usage.
And from there? Freeze subway fares, and start to lower them.
Arthur Z. Schwartz, in his day job, is Special Assistant to the President of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Though he agrees with the views of union leaders he quotes, he was not asked by the union to write this piece.