THE COMMUTE: In the first two parts [Part I, Part II], we examined the history of free transfers in New York City, discussing types of trips requiring a second fare and how unfair it was. We asked the question if we are moving backwards by not allowing a second bus transfer for those using a local bus to access a Limited Stop Service or Select Bus Service since those who do could be faced with a double-fare. Today we discuss a fairer fare and why the MTA would be resistant to such a change.
Limited Stop And Select Bus Service
Recently, the MTA has been converting-heavily used bus lines into Limited Stop or Select Bus Service (SBS), with more routes to be converted in the future. Both these types of services provide fewer stops than traditional local bus routes. The advantages are several. Fewer stops mean faster bus running times and therefore lower operating costs.
There are also advantages for the bus riders. Local bus travel is notoriously slow, averaging from about four miles per hour (even slower in Midtown Manhattan) to about 12 MPH. A taxi or car, which makes no stops, only travels about 20 MPH on average on local streets. Shortening the running time can cut travel time significantly for those making longer trips. There is a downside, however. Those not able to walk up to a half mile to access a Limited Stop or SBS route are inconvenienced. They are forced to use the slower locals, which do not operate as often as they did before the introduction of the new services, and also wait longer for them. The alternative is to walk extra distances or take a local bus to access the SBS or Limited route.
For those who can walk the extra distances, the extra time involved and the odds of missing a bus while walking to a further bus stop can cancel out your savings if you are not making a longer than average trip. Whatever the case may be, the introduction of Limited Stop or SBS service should not have an impact on the fare you pay. If you merely switch from the local, it will not. However, if you cannot walk the extra distances and still want to take advantage of one of these new services, you will have to pay an additional fare if you use a local bus to access the SBS or Limited Stop and you still need to transfer to a third bus or train to complete your trip.
What Should Be Done
It would make more sense to change the transfer policy so that any change between a local and Limited or SBS route can be made at no charge and will not affect another transfer to a bus or train rather than making specific exceptions, as will be done in the case of the S79 SBS.
When SBS comes to Brooklyn on the B44 in 2013, only one SBS stop is proposed between Avenue H and Avenue U: Kings Highway. Anyone who currently uses the Limited or local bus and gets on or off between those points and wants to use the SBS will be faced with an additional fare if they can’t walk to either Kings Highway or Avenue U if they first take a local to get to the SBS then transfer again to another bus or train. Those living near Avenue K or Avenue R would be especially vulnerable since it is doubtful that those passengers would walk to an SBS stop.
The MTA is trying to keep three-legged transfers to a minimum granting them only to those who speak up. If we say nothing, many who want to take advantage of the SBS will be faced with extra fares or slower trips on the B44 local than they had on the Limited, because locals will operate less frequently once SBS comes to the B44.
The Fairest Fare
The zone system is the fairest. The further you travel, the more you pay. It works best in areas where there are distinctive zones such as a route passing through distinct cities and towns. We have never had a zone system in New York and probably never will because all our neighborhoods run together. Wherever you draw a zone line, someone could always walk several blocks extra into the next zone lowering his fare. That would be just as bad as when some bus routes transferred to others with seemingly no rationale. So what would be the next fairest system that would make sense for New York?
I submit that it would be a time-based fare. Currently, one free bus transfer is allowed if made within two hours of entering the system. An unlimited amount of subway transfers are also allowed regardless of the time it takes to make them. Since no record is kept of when people exit the system, wouldn’t the fairest system be one where you can make an unlimited number of transfers, whether it is to a bus or subway, provided the final transfer is made within a certain time of you entering the system? I propose that other than late at night, when there would be no time limit, that the time limit be either 90 or 60 minutes. That way the only passengers who would require a second fare would be those traveling extra long distances, for example from Coney Island to the northern Bronx, from Staten Island to eastern Queens, or from the Rockaways to The Bronx. That seems fairer to me than charging someone a double fare for a short trip within his home borough just because the trip requires a third bus, as is presently the case.
Why The MTA Would Probably Resist Such A Plan
The MTA and the New York City Transit Authority preceding them have had an irrational fear of riders making a round trip for a single fare, which they feel would be detrimental to their bottom line. They have taken every measure possible to try to prevent this. Yet, it still can be done in some areas where there are multiple bus and subway routes and you are willing to do a little extra walking. For example, what is preventing someone from taking the 86th Street bus in one direction and making their return trip on the Bath Avenue bus for one fare if the trip is completed within the current permissible two-hour time limit? Technically, you are cheating the system if you do this, but it is not fare evasion since such a trip is legally permitted.
Why shouldn’t all short round trips that are completed within about two hours be permitted? Would not that encourage use of mass transit, a goal we want to accomplish? Yes, some revenue would be lost, but most people who currently use the system do not use it for short errands but for trips encompassing a good portion of the day — to work, school, hospitals, beaches etc.
In fact, the current fare structure discourages such short trips. Is it really worth it to pay $4.50 — soon to be $5 — just to travel a half, or three-quarters of, a mile and return? Don’t many without unlimited passes just choose to walk instead? Would not a fare permitting unlimited trips within a two-hour period encourage new travel, perhaps even add more revenue than would be lost?
Increased revenue would also be obtained from those who currently travel 20 miles or more on a single fare and might have to pay double fare for that long trip if the time period for transfers were shortened from two hours. Determining the actual time limits, so that total revenue would not be lower from such a change, would necessitate further study. Just as free bus-to-subway transfers and unlimited passes added many new trips, I submit that permitting short round trips, within two hours on a single fare, would also greatly increase system usage and revenue.
It just makes sense that the fare you pay should not be dependent on luck, if the routes happen to serve your needs or not. The fare that you pay should not be a matter of chance but based on a rationale. Fare equity is less of a problem today than in years past, but we are moving back in the direction of larger percentages of passengers needing to pay double fares to make one-way trips. A fairer fare structure, based more on distance traveled than on the number of vehicles required, needs to be studied before a fare increase is made. The MTA’s fear of losing revenue by allowing short round trips for a single fare is irrational. They attempt to prevent such trips and, at the same time, have paid little attention to real fare evasion until recently.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.