Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A People's History of MTA Fare Hikes

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 12:30 PM


Here's a fun fact: during the two World Wars and the Great Depression, the price of riding the subway stayed the same. When the system opened in 1904, the fare was a nickel and would remain so for decades. Since the first fare increase, though, there have been 15 more, five of them just in the last 20 years. And the MTA hopes to raise it again, perhaps making the price of a monthly Metrocard more than 20 percent higher: $125. People are outraged. "That's insane!" wrote our own Kristin Iversen. People have always had strong feelings about subway fares, and we can prove it: we investigated the archives of the New York Times, mostly its letters and editorials, to bring you a New York People's History of Subway Fare Increases.


By 1919, the system's private operators were complaining about the five-cent fare, and in 1928 one would sue for the right to raise fares. They lost. The year before that, a rider suggested creating a two-grade system like the those in use in Paris and London and, these days, on airplanes. "Many people are glad to pay to ride in first-class cars because they are less crowded," he wrote. (Especially when it comes to smelly poor people!) "The objection of 'undemocratic' would no more apply to this system than to Pullmans on railroad trains."


Talk about fare hikes became particularly heated in 1933. That year, Brooklynite O.L. Mulot wrote a letter to the Times to argue that "the question of subway fares demands adjustment." His beef? The one-fare system that allows riders to pay only five cents "from Coney Island to Flushing or from New Lots, Brooklyn, to 242nd Street, Manhattan..." But his solution wasn't to introduce different fare zones but to charge different prices at different times—five cents at rush hour, ten cents at off-peak times— which would be smarter than a smaller all-around rise. "An increase to 6 or 7 cents involves tokens," he wrote, "which are a nuisance."


A few weeks earlier, Stephen G. Rich also wrote in about a proposed rise, but his solution was to charge more for longer rides, like they did (do?) at the Hudson Tunnel. "Long-haul extra fares in Brooklyn and Queens [and the Bronx] would place the burden of paying for the long hauls on those who actually use them," he wrote in classic hater-from-Manhattan fashion. Earlier that year, Mrs. T.B. Richards was similarly piqued. "It is unfair that the subways should carry a passenger from the far ends of Brooklyn nearly to Yonkers for five cents, but it would be unfair to the public to charge 10 cents for the short rides about town."


In 1934, a letter writer called the five-cent fare a "fallacy... costing the city millions of dollars yearly."


In 1941, the West End Association approved a resolution demanding that the subway fare be increased to seven cents. A resolution! Demanding! The West End Association! Hahahaha!


A 1943 editorial about subway fares argues that the straphanger—"the man who spends an hour or so a day with somebody's elbows in his ribs and somebody else standing on his corns"—needn't worry about what fare he pays. "If he does not pay [the bills] in fares he pays them in direct or indirect taxes," the paper wrote. The real issue was ensuring better service. "It is time we stopped treating the rate of fare as a heathen idol." The piece also notes objections to new subway construction because it "is merely reshuffling our population... there is nothing gained in blighting the center in order to infiltrate the periphery." Hey, who you callin' a periphery?


The following year, letter writer E.V. Mitchell spoke some common sense to those who would raise fares during the war. "With our taxes higher than ever before in history and with the vital need for everyone to buy war bonds and stamps, this seems a very inopportune time to be considering the doubling of the subway fare," he wrote. He also noted it would influence trolley operators to raise their fares, and that many people had to take a trolley to the subway, meaning that "those who now pay 20 cents a day for carfare would have to pay 40 cents." Today, we have a similar problem with ferries.


Even as long ago as 1948, New Yorkers blamed transit workers who don't pay fares for the system's problems. (They also blamed firemen back then, who were allowed to ride for free as well.) "While there may be some reason for the policemen to have this privilege," wrote one reader, "there is not the slightest justification for the firemen and transit employees to have it." I dunno, asking transit workers to pay fares always seemed crazy to me, like if this magazine made me buy copies of it. They work there.


On July 1, 1948, the subway fare finally rose from five to ten cents. "The clinking of dimes dropped into the subway turnstiles today will mark the first departure from a 5-cent fare tradition that had withstood forty-four years of assault in the courts and political arena," read the lede in the Times. The subhed: "Nickel Rate Universal and Inviolate Since the First Subway Ride in 1904." The system's private operators had an agreement with the city to keep fares at a nickel up until 1968, but those companies all went under; the city took over and unified the system by 1940 and quickly found a nickel wouldn't cut it any longer. Years of battles ensued until the legislature approved Mayor O'Dwyer's plan to allow the Board of Transportation to raise fares as necessary.


Ten years and one more increase later, writer Antony Evans revived the idea of different pricing structures for different times of day. Unlike the writers in the 30s, however, he would put the onus on rush-hour commuters. "A logical solution to the need to obtain greater revenues would be to charge a higher fare during commuting hours than during midday and evening hours," he wrote.


In a 1965 editorial, the Times wrote that "the 15-cent fare in New York is an anachronism. It has endured for a dozen years only by heroic manipulation of books and subsidy." The next year, the fare would go up to 20 cents.


In 1968, Brooklynite Jack Paul wrote to the Times to argue that "nobody pays to ride an elevator and nobody should pay to ride the subway," especially because fares "deny equal access to competitive markets since, lacking the fare, the poor are limited to shops in their immediate neighborhood." Hey, it was the 60s! Within a few years, the idea of free subway service would be advocated by those as high-profile as the Bronx Borough President.


Though a few short years before the Times had endorsed a fare hike, by 1971 the paper was telling readers that "New Yorkers cannot accept the defeatism shown by [the governor and MTA chairman] on retention of the 30-cent subway and bus fare. Another jump in fares would be a municipal disaster..." In classic MTA fashion, the chairman at the time was talking about maybe a 45- or 50-cent fare before being all like "oh maybe only a nickel then, how about that, that's not as bad as twenty cents is it?"


Like 1933, 1971 was a hot time for fare debate. One letter writer reminded readers about "the growing absurdity" of a single-zone flat-fare system. Another wrote that "the threatened increase in the subway fare would do a double disservice. It would add to the already over-inflated cost of living of the working people of the city"—some things never change!—"and it would tend, as these increases always have, to change the riding habit of significant numbers of New Yorkers from mass transportation to private cars." He proposed Mayor Lindsay bring the fare back to 25 cents, thus eliminating the need for tokens (and the extra expense of creating them) and bringing car-converts back into the subway fold.


In 1977, the Times reported the MTA was hiring an ad agency to sell subway ridership to New Yorkers in order to increase the number of fares the agency collected. The 50-cent fare was scheduled to rise 15 cents within months, and increase gradually to 90 cents by 1982—unless more riders brought more income.


In 1984, Anne Mendelsohn wrote a satirical piece suggesting subway seats be treated like condos and leased to riders. "By eliminating those who cannot manage a down payment on a lease at the initial $10,000, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would go far toward correcting negative stereotypes based on the idea that people ride the subway because they cannot afford limousines."


In 1987, Brooklynites were still suggesting free service. "I have never understood why, in a city such as this, with its brutal social problems and economic inequities, mass transit should not be considered a municipal service like police protection, education or garbage collection," Nancy Reynolds wrote. "Municipal services are paid for, through taxes, by those residents who can best afford them—the people who derive the greatest economic benefits from living in New York."


By 1990, Brooklyn's W. Terry Davis had a great idea: what if the MTA offered some kind of monthly subway pass? Imagine the benefits—no more waiting in token lines!


In 1995, the Times basically said a 25-cent rise could be the end of the system. "The hike is billed as a way to balance the operating budget and finance a four-year rebuilding plan. But its real purpose is to give Gov. George Pataki an excuse for abandoning the state's historic commitment to mass transit," the paper wrote. The extra evenue would be used as collateral for a $4.5 billion loan. "A loan of that size is far too big for the subway riders to repay on their own," the paper warned. "It would shackle the fare box to more than twice as much debt over the next four years as it underwrote in the last 15, sinking the system into a hopeless financial hole." Hey, that's where we are right now! A hopeless hole!


1995 was 1933 or 1971 all over again. One member of the Straphangers Campaign called Giuliani to task for his proposed 25-cent increase. "What's a fare increase? It is a tax increase on the more than four million people who use city subways and buses every workday," he wrote. "Subway riders have an average family income of $38,000, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A two-income family at this level will save $100 or less if an income tax cut is adopted in Albany. Yet that family's yearly commuting costs will go up $260 if the fare is raised by a quarter."


In the late 90s the MTA had a surplus! Crazy, right? Remember when not everything and everyone was broke? Anyway, New Yorkers debated how to spend the money, including Brooklynite Carolyn S. Konheim, who suggested bus fare be lowered. "Bus riders are more price-sensitive than subway riders because they generally earn less than subway riders," she wrote. "With each fare increase, bus ridership plummets and never recovers."


But was the surplus so great? According to a Times editorial from 1998, "what many blithely define as the transit system's 'surplus' is simply the amount by which actual revenues are exceeding a conservative revenue forecast that could finance only a subpar level of transit service to begin with. During the two rush hours, for example, just half the 20 lines have intervals between trains of five minutes or less."


The 90s began with fares at $1.15. Two years later they'd rise a dime, then a quarter, then fifty cents, then a quarter and another one, sort of, bringing us to the present. The MTA wants to raise fares again. Here's the first comment on the Gothamist article about it: "Is this considered legitimate or illegitimate rape?"

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart

Henry Stewart is the Culture Editor at The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine. He has always lived in Brooklyn.

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