Click to enlarge. Photo by Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: Most New Yorkers do not notice the sign in the station booths explaining the fare, except perhaps to check the price of a seven- or 30-day pass. However, to a tourist, it is essential that this sign be clear and self-explanatory. They were clear until the MTA discontinued MetroCards for a one-way subway trip and replaced them with “SingleRide Tickets,” available only at MetroCard vending machines, costing an additional 25 cents at the time of the last fare increase.

Now it costs $2.25 to ride a bus if you pay cash, but $2.50 for a one-way subway trip. Not that much of a big deal. However, for tourists unfamiliar with the system, it is extremely confusing when they enter the subway and see the fare notice sign on the booth proclaiming in large black and white print that the fare is $2.25 when in fact a one-way trip costs $2.50 if you do not already have a MetroCard. That fact is revealed in the third paragraph, in much smaller print, much like a legal document, where it states that a SingleRide ticket is “good for one ride only.” That is also technically incorrect since a SingleRide ticket permits you to transfer to as many subways as you need as long as you do not leave the system passing through a fare control device. What it does not allow is a free transfer to a bus. The sign only ambiguously states “no transfer” when it really means no transfer between a subway and a bus. A “SingleRide Ticket” should be more aptly named a “One-way Subway or Bus Ticket.” Nowhere does the sign state that  the minimum MetroCard purchase is $4.50.

When I was taught to write, I was told to gear my writing to my audience. That means unless you are writing a technical article or a legal document, you assume your audience knows little or nothing about the subject. When I write my Sheepshead Bites articles, I assume readers have only very basic knowledge about transit in Sheepshead Bay. I have often been complimented that my writing style is very understandable.

By the same token (or should I now say MetroCard), the sign describing the fare in the subway stations should be geared to tourists who have little or no knowledge of the system — not to your typical New Yorker who already knows how to pay his fare and rarely consults the sign.

This fare sign will only become even more confusing when the fare increases to $2.50 in March and a new $1 surcharge for the purchase of a MetroCard takes effect at station booths. Replacing expired cards will be exempt from the surcharge as will out-of-system purchases of MetroCards at authorized MTA vendors. Will that be stated on the sign or that you can also avoid the additional surcharge by refilling an old card? How many unsuspecting tourists will purchase new cards because they unknowingly threw away their old ones when they ran out? Time will tell, but my guess is that other than changes to the dollar amounts and that the bonus begins at $5 instead of $10, the new signs will probably just have an additional line reflecting the new card surcharge.

Imagine Your Confusion Having Just Arrived in New York City

You board a bus realizing you need at least nine coins, soon to be 10 (unless you have half-dollar or dollar coins, which are no longer in common circulation), because buses do not accept dollar bills. You discover you do not have the required change and get off because no passenger can make change for you. If your MetroCard has insufficient funds, you cannot combine cards for a single transaction and still need to find change, and you need twice the coinage for express buses. Instead, you go downstairs to the subway. You see the sign stating the fare is $2.25 and you don’t bother reading the rest. You give the attendant $2.25 expecting something in return that permits you to enter the turnstile.

Instead, you are informed that the minimum MetroCard purchase is $4.50 but you do not want to make a round trip. You are then told to go to the MetroCard vending machine (MVM) to buy a single ride ticket. There you are informed that it is only good for one ride. If your trip involves another train, not knowing you can transfer between subways for free, you instead purchase a $4.50 MetroCard, which you may not need. Starting in March 2013, $6 will be the minimum MetroCard purchase ($5 to ride plus a $1 surcharge for the card). The fare sign now probably will boldly state the fare is $2.50 and, in much smaller print, $2.75, for a SingleRide ticket. The sign will appear more like a bait and switch scam rather than a clear explanation of the fare.

Another Scenario

You read that a seven-day pass costs $29 and then calculate you must make at least 13 one-way trips to save money. However, you also read you can get a seven percent discount by purchasing an ordinary MetroCard for at least $10, so now you are uncertain what your break-even point will be for a seven-day card. You are further confused by the fact that for $50, instead of $29, you can add express buses to the mix but decide against it. You do not even know what an express bus is and it almost doubles the cost. You end up gambling, and make your choice hoping you made the correct one.

Now your trip to New York is nearing its end. If you opted for the pay-per-ride card, you may have overbought and are left with money on a card you will never use again. You either throw it away, save it — hoping to use it in the future before the expiration date — or give it to a friend. If you have enough remaining for a partial trip, you can add to the card to complete your final trip, but only if you are near a subway entrance with an attendant. On an MVM, you only can only add the minimum amount required, which may be more than you need to spend. You can also completely use up your card if your last trip is by bus, but only if you have the correct amount of change to complete your transaction. If you opted for the seven-day card, you may find that you never reached your break-even point. How many tourists will return home after the new fare and MetroCard surcharge take effect, believing they were cheated by the MTA?

One Final Note

Some of you are thinking the higher subway fare is still a bargain and that I am just looking for something to complain about. However, a friend visiting from California suggested this topic because he was amazed that, after an eight-year hiatus from New York, buses still do not accept dollar bills, especially since tokens were discontinued, and how inconvenient that is.

Other cities are more tourist-friendly. In Chicago, for example, there are 1, 3, 7, and 30-day passes with no additional charges for purchasing the card, for express buses, or for a one-way subway/El trip. A bus transfer costs a quarter but a transfer to a second bus is free and their fareboxes accept coins, bills, transit cards and even smart cards. That is certainly not difficult to understand.

Here, a bus-subway transfer is free but only if you pay by MetroCard — not cash or SingleRide Ticket, except that, at one location (in Canarsie), it is free for everyone. A subway-subway transfer is not free at all locations, and a subway and two buses cost a second fare, except where you can take three buses, or a subway and two buses for one fare. Express buses cost twice as much but a transfer to a local bus or subway is included.

Of course, all that complexity will not fit on one little sign. However, with these signs needing replacement soon, the MTA has the opportunity to not mislead by stating the fare is less than what is required to make a one-way subway trip. The new signs should not state in big bold print that the fare is $2.50 with an explanation in much smaller print that a “SingleRide” is really $2.75. The bold print in the subway stations starting in March should state “Round Trip Fare $5.” Below, it should state the necessary information about one-way fares, reduced fares, and bus transfers. It should note that a “One-Way Subway or Bus Ticket” not a “SingleRide Ticket” costs $2.75, and are available only at MVMs, and that it does not include a transfer between subway and bus, not merely stating “no transfer.” It should also note you can avoid the $1 MetroCard surcharge by refilling a card. There should not be obvious errors like “MVMS” when you really mean “MVMs.” But since the new signs probably have already been sent to the printer, I wouldn’t hold my breath for clearer signage.

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.

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  • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

    Heck, it’s confusing for me, and I lived here all 57 years! I don’t understand it all, and forgive me, Mr. Rosen, but in this case, I don’t have the patience to read it and try!

    • Allan Rosen

      So you can imagine how much more confused tourists are. I guess I made my point.

    • sonicboy678

      I’m about 40 years younger than you and I pretty much got confused! The biggest culprit is that HIGHLY deceptive SingleRide. This is definitely one thing the MTA needs to fix. Hopefully, the next guy will make sure this is changed to help out everyone equally. Even if we don’t reach points other cities have, this is one thing that needs to be dealt with.

      • Allan Rosen

        The SingleRide ticket is paper, like a transfer, not plastic. I think that is the reason there can’t include a transfer to the bus. Otherwise, I don’t see the rationale for it not having a transfer. It’s purpose was to decrease the number of plastic cards printed which get thrown away after only one use. However, the $1 surcharge addresses that issue so it should no longer be a problem. I see no reason to have both. Either the surcharge, or the SingleRide ticket but not both. That’s just overkill and makes things overly and unnecessarily complex.

  • Andrew

    It’s a typical legalistic notice. Fortunately, there’s a person inside the booth that it’s affixed to who can answer questions and explain how the system works. I’m more worried about incomplete information given at MVM’s, where there’s nobody to ask.

    A few corrections and comments:

    They were clear until the MTA discontinued MetroCards for a one-way subway trip and replaced them with “SingleRide Tickets,” available only at MetroCard vending machines, costing an additional 25 cents at the time of the last fare increase.

    I don’t think MetroCards could ever be purchased for less than twice the base fare. Here’s an excerpt from a brochure comparing the then-new unlimited MetroCard to the old-fashioned pay-per-ride card, and this one’s from a brochure about the new MVM’s.

    Prior to MVM’s, if you wanted only one ride, you bought a token. The SingleRide ticket effectively replaced the token (which was eliminated a few years later) and is still subject to essentially the same transfer policies that applied pre-MetroCard.

    Nowhere does the sign state that the minimum MetroCard purchase is $4.50.

    It does under “Booth Transactions” but not, for some reason, under “MVMS [sic] Transactions.”

    If you have enough remaining for a partial trip, you can add to the card to complete your final trip, but only if you are near a subway entrance with an attendant. On an MVM, you only can only add the minimum amount required, which may be more than you need to spend.

    Last I checked, MVM’s will allow you to add as little as 5 cents to an existing MetroCard. (The $4.50 minimum is only for new cards.) So the most you’d have to overspend is 4 cents.

    Other cities are more tourist-friendly. In Chicago, for example, there are 1, 3, 7, and 30-day passes with no additional charges for purchasing the card, for express buses, or for a one-way subway/El trip. A bus transfer costs a quarter but a transfer to a second bus is free and their fareboxes accept coins, bills, transit cards and even smart cards. That is certainly not difficult to understand.

    You neglected to mention that cash fares paid on buses, at the inflated price of $2.25, come with no free transfers. At all. Not even to other buses.

    Also, it’s worth noting that fares go up in a week. The 1-day and 3-day passes, of most interest to tourists, are going up the most – 74% and 43%, respectively. And the fare from O’Hare station (only!) is jumping from $2.25 to $5.00 if paid with a Transit Card. From the FAQ:

    Why is a trip from the O’Hare Blue Line Station going up to $5?

    CTA will charge a $2.75 premium fee on top of the $2.25 base rail fare from O’Hare. CTA’s service from O’Hare provides an affordable, convenient way for travelers to get downtown and around the city that saves time and money by avoiding traffic congestion and $50 cab fares. Transit agencies around the country/across the world provide affordable transit service for a small premium.

    What if I meet a passenger at the airport – will I be charged $5 to ride the train back into the city?

    No, residents meeting arriving air passengers will pay just the 25-cent transfer fee for a return trip within two hours.

    Who will pay the new $5 O’Hare fare? Who is exempt?

    Customers who pay per ride will pay the new $5 fee – that includes those who use a magnetic stripe card at O’Hare that is not a 1-day, 3-day, 7-day or 30-day pass.

    Exempt from the $5 fare are reduced fare riders; customers who use 1-day, 3-day, 7-day or 30-day passes; and Chicago Card Plus users who have selected a 30-Day Pass option (meaning, the customer’s card’s value is set up to be replenished every month with unlimited 30-day pass privileges).

    Special note: Also temporarily exempt through July 1, 2013 will be all Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus customers who pay per ride for trips originating at O’Hare. CTA will work with the Chicago Department of Aviation to develop a system to ultimately exempt employees working on O’Hare International Airport property; however, until that system is developed, the Board approved a temporary solution through July 1, 2013, to exempt all Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus customers. CTA will work with employers that have operations at O’Hare to encourage their employees who currently use magnetic strip pay-per-ride cards to sign up for Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus.

    And if you want to avoid the O’Hare surcharge by obtaining a Chicago Card, good luck! They cost $5 (except for first-time users who register their cards) and they’re not sold in stations.

    Not difficult to understand? Tourist-friendly?

    • Allan Rosen

      “It’s a typical legalistic notice.”

      True, but that doesn’t mean it has to be confusing. But I’m surprised you didn’t criticize my suggestion that it say Round Trip Fare $5 after March 1st, because that would also need a footnote that more than one bus in each direction may require extra charges.

      You say SingleRide tickets replaced tokens. Unless they were available at station booths, the sign would have then been misleading back then if they only could be purchased at MVMs.

      Yes, now I see the $4.50 minimum note, but that should have been a footnote to the Fare 2.25, not sitting somewhere by itself where it gets lost.

      “Last I checked, MVM’s will allow you to add as little as 5 cents ”

      I asked two people before I wrote the article and both thought the minimum was more than a nickel, but neither could remember the exact amount so I left it vague. If it is only 5 cents, it would not be a problem.

      ” (Chicago) You neglected to mention that cash fares paid on buses, at the inflated price of $2.25, come with no free transfers.”

      I did mention that transfers cost 25 cents, and $2.25 (+ a 25 cent transfer is only inflated when it is compared to the NY fare. Since the Chicago subway fare is $2.50, charging a quarter for a transfer merely makes it the same as their subway fare so it would not be inflated and no different than our free bus to subway transfer.

      Regarding the FAQs, the only thing I was confused about when I was there was what was meant by first time users of the Chicago Card would be exempt from the surcharge by registering their card. Who is a first time user, what is a Chicago Card and how do you register? (I found everything else on the FAQs perfectly understandable.)

      But that really doesn’t matter for tourists since most would only be interested one of the unlimited passes. And having 1 and 3 day passes is more tourist friendly than only 7 and 30 day passes.

      As far as the O’Hare surcharge, yes that would be unfair to tourists if the 1, 3 and 7 day passes are not available at the O’Hare Station so you could avoid the surcharge. At least you don’t have to pay the surcharge when arriving at the Airport, only leaving it. With Airtrain, you pay the $5 both ways. So now who is more tourist friendly?

      • sonicboy678

        You just reminded me of the 1-Day Fun Pass. They discontinued THAT card because so few people used it. Problem is, it’s actually designed with tourists in mind.

        • Allan Rosen

          It wasn’t discontinued because few used it. There were too many buying it and standing at the turnstile selling swipes. They would buy a half dozen of them and alternating cards so one is used every 18 minutes. Also messenger services were buying a few passes for an entire staff to share all day.

          • sonicboy678

            That’s worse.

      • sonicboy678

        *It was designed with tourists in mind.

      • Andrew

        True, but that doesn’t mean it has to be confusing. But I’m surprised you didn’t criticize my suggestion that it say Round Trip Fare $5 after March 1st, because that would also need a footnote that more than one bus in each direction may require extra charges.

        You want me to criticize it? Okay, if you insist. There are a lot of things $5 can get you aside from a round trip. Maybe you’re making two unrelated trips, or maybe you’re taking one trip with a companion.

        Speaking of which, a large majority of tourists travel in groups of two or more. As long as they realize that MetroCards can be shared (in some cities, only one person can use each fare medium), the SingleRide issue is unlikely to come up.

        You say SingleRide tickets replaced tokens. Unless they were available at station booths, the sign would have then been misleading back then if they only could be purchased at MVMs.

        I have no idea what the sign said; I never looked at it. Before the machines were introduced, if you wanted only one trip, you bought a token, since MetroCards were only sold for $3.00 and up (the base fare at the time was $1.50).

        Yes, now I see the $4.50 minimum note, but that should have been a footnote to the Fare 2.25, not sitting somewhere by itself where it gets lost.

        I never said the sign was well written. All I said was that I don’t think it much matters, since there’s a person behind it who can answer questions.

        I asked two people before I wrote the article and both thought the minimum was more than a nickel, but neither could remember the exact amount so I left it vague. If it is only 5 cents, it would not be a problem.

        The MVM’s allow transactions on existing cards in nickel increments, from 5 cents on up. That means, by the way, that if you find a card lying around and don’t mind reusing it, you can add $2.25 for a single ride without the usual SingleRide restrictions on time limits or transfers.

        I did mention that transfers cost 25 cents, and $2.25 (+ a 25 cent transfer is only inflated when it is compared to the NY fare. Since the Chicago subway fare is $2.50, charging a quarter for a transfer merely makes it the same as their subway fare so it would not be inflated and no different than our free bus to subway transfer.

        With a fare card (Chicago Card or Transit Card), the fare is $2.25 for the subway or $2.00 for the bus, plus 25 cents in either case for a transfer. But if you pay in cash on a bus, the fare is $2.25 (not $2.00) and no transfers are available. That’s why I called it inflated.

        But that really doesn’t matter for tourists since most would only be interested one of the unlimited passes. And having 1 and 3 day passes is more tourist friendly than only 7 and 30 day passes.

        At $10 for the 1-day pass (equivalent to 4-5 subway rides) and $20 for the 3-day pass (equivalent to 8-9 subway rides), they’re not great bargains, and many tourists would be better off paying per ride. (And, besides, since when are you only concerned with what “most” would want? That’s not like you at all!)

        As far as the O’Hare surcharge, yes that would be unfair to tourists if the 1, 3 and 7 day passes are not available at the O’Hare Station so you could avoid the surcharge.

        Only if one of the passes is of use to you. If you’re not going to be writing much more transit that day – maybe your flight landed in the evening and you’re simply going to go to the hotel and go to sleep – you’re stuck paying the $5.00, unless you can get your hands on a Chicago Card and avoid the $5.00 fee.

        At least you don’t have to pay the surcharge when arriving at the Airport, only leaving it. With Airtrain, you pay the $5 both ways. So now who is more tourist friendly?

        I didn’t realize it was a competition. You declared Chicago’s fare structure to be tourist-friendly. It doesn’t seem particularly tourist-friendly to me.

        You certainly won’t find me defending the AirTrain fare setup. To my dismay, the Port Authority opted to fund the entire system on the backs of transit riders. So while most riders – riding between airport terminals or to/from the parking lots – don’t pay a fare at all, transit riders are socked with the absurd $5 fare in each direction.

        Some systems prefer to mislead tourists rather than overcharge them outright. Prague requires an additional child fare (half the adult fare) for luggage – and since the Prague system uses POP (like SBS, with fines issued to riders found without the proper tickets), tourists often hit nabbed with fines for unticketed luggage.

        And Paris hides information on the reasonably priced day (Mobilis) and week (Navigo) passes on their French-language pages – the translated pages only mention the pricier Paris Visite card, which includes a discount book at tourist sites. To compare, a zone 1-3 (there is no zone 1 or 1-2 card, even though most attractions are in zone 1) Paris Visite card costs €10.55 for one day or €33.70 for 5 days; a Mobilis card costs €6.60 for zones 1-2 or €8.80 for zones 1-3; a week Navigo pass costs €19.80 for zones 1-2 or €25.65 for zones 1-3 (and there are options for other zone combinations, as well as monthly passes for longer-duration tourists). The only catches are that the Navigo Découverte – the version available to non-residents – itself costs €5, and that the week Navigo pass must begin on a Monday. But the only way for a non-French-speaker to discover the Mobilis and Navigo options on the official RATP website is to ignore the enticing English option and stumble through the French page (Google can translate it, somewhat).

        By the way, have you tried to use your American credit card at a European ticket vending machine? Unless it has a chip (ubiquitous in much of Europe but very, very uncommon in the U.S.), it won’t work in many countries.

        New York isn’t perfect to tourists, but frankly I think we’re a lot better than many other cities when it comes to transit.

        • Allan Rosen

          You made your point. Other cities are unfriendlier. But since when do two wrongs make a right. I never said New York was the unfriendliest. I was only initially talking about the sign and because of its not being clear, which you also admitted, it would be more of a problem for tourists than for New Yorkers. There is no reason for blowing that out of proportion as you often do by listing focus and drifting to other topics.

          Regarding my statement in the article regarding Round Trip Fare, I realized that mistake before being reminded by you which you would have seen if you noticed a general comment I made not directed at you. The major point is just that the MTA could do a much better job with that sign by displaying the information in a more understandable format that doesn’t mislead. Saying the sign doesn’t matter because someone is there to answer questions is sort of a cop out. You wouldn’t say the clarity of IRS instructions aren’t important because everyone uses tax preparation software these days or because they provide a phone number to answer questions, would you? Perhaps you would.

          • Andrew

            As I’ve already said twice, there’s a person in the booth that the sign is attached to who can answer any questions. Yes, the sign could be clearer, but I don’t see how it really matters.

            The MVM’s, on the other hand, leave a lot of open questions and could be much easier to use. They’re going to be retired in a few years with the new smartcard system, so it’s really too late to radically improve them at this point, but they could have been designed much better than they were.

  • Someone

    I couldn’t make anything out of that sign, even with me being a Native New Yorker and all that.

    The MTA should list these in a real column instead of listing these in irregularly-shaped boxes.

    • BrooklynBus

      I’m not sure that columns would help or could even work. There is a lot of information that has to be displayed in a small sign and the font can’t be too small. There might have to be larger posters in areas where there are many tourists for it to be real clear. The problem is they keep adding complexity with these surcharges and restrictions.

  • Allan Rosen

    I was thinking about this a little more. Now I, don’t think that stating the round trip fare woud clarify things since more than one person can use a pay per ride card. They just need to display the same information pretty much in a clearer fashion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aemoreira81 Adam Moreira

    I thought I was going to see a different article. IMO, the MTA needs to be forthcoming on that issue; with the next fare hike, it will be soon $6 for a MetroCard purchase at the minimum (remember the $1 surcharge). That said, it is really confusing and I see the point.

    • Allan Rosen

      Funny, no one on Subchat sees the point. They all think everything is clear now and tourists are just too lazy to read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659271111 Robert Marrero

    The reason why dollar bills are not accepted is because a vacuum system is used to remove money from the fare box at the end of the day. This process would practically destroy paper money, so it’s limited to coins only.

    • Allan Rosen

      So what process did the private companies use to remove money? Couldn’t the paper money go into a separate compartment?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659271111 Robert Marrero

        The private companies used a different model of fare box (I want to say it was the GFI Cents-A-Bill, but I’m not 100% sure; it was definitely a GFI box though) before the introduction of MetroCard, and Cubic IFU fare boxes, to those buses.

        I remember one express bus operator mount a box next to the IFU, with signage directing passengers to insert bills into that box, but the practice was limited to that one operator, and was abandoned by the time the MTA took over.

        I don’t remember what model of fare box the MTA used prior to the Cubic IFU, but IIRC, that didn’t take bills either. It didn’t matter much back then since the fare was still a dollar and change, an amount that is easier to produce entirely in coins.

  • Subway Stinker

    Instead of debating the finer points of the fairest of the fares, you two Brainiacs should work to convince the T.A. to improve the signage on the machines that sell MetroCards (MVMS?) I travel into and around the City every weekday and even on some weekends, and am moved to tears seeing yokels from North Overshoe trying to decipher the secret code it takes to buy MetroCard. Meanwhile, needy NYers who are trying to get to work or a playdate impatiently cool their heels on line. How about a solution to this really pressing need, talking about visitor friendly.