As I wrote last week, the transit portions of "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz's transportation proposal just feel kind of bizarre and divorced from reality. Sometimes it seems that the entire city's transportation advocacy discourse is dominated by drivers and cyclists. If occasionally a transit rider like Jay Walder may get a little bit of influence, they still don't get the support they need when the chips are down.
When drivers and cyclists make big plans that include transit, as in the current proposal from Gridlock Sam, the transit component runs the whole range of uninspiring, from mediocre (we'll consider restoring the 2010 cuts, but only on local bus routes) to other people's fads (elevated busways!) to WTF. The WTF in this case includes reducing the fares on buses "in neighborhoods with no subways" by a dollar, i.e. from $2.25 to $1.25.
Part of the problem here may be due to Powerpoint. It's possible that this is better thought out than it sounds, and it was edited into inanity to fit in one bullet point. But honestly, if your bus proposals don't get their own slides, what does that say about your priorities?
Anyway, so what's wrong with reducing bus fares to a dollar twenty-five in neighborhoods with no subways? In principle, nothing. But there are costs, and unforeseen consequences, and it's not clear what it will accomplish, if anything. The main cost is the opportunity cost: what else could we do with that money? Increase frequency on the buses; build bus bulbs or physically separated bus lanes; implement traffic signal priority or offboard fare payment. Or we could even use it to extend the E train to Valley Stream. With all these possibilities, why did Schwartz choose to spend the money lowering the fare?
Then there are the unforeseen consequences of lowering the bus fare. Many years ago I bought an "Apollo" inkjet printer for a hundred dollars; the sales people told me that it was made by Hewlett-Packard, and had the same technology as HP-branded printers. Why did HP go to the trouble of creating a separate company and brand for this printer? Because they didn't want anyone to see a brand new HP printer selling for a hundred dollars. They didn't want anyone to associate "HP" with "cheap" in their mind.
Buses already have a reputation in Staten Island, eastern Queens, southeastern Brooklyn and the eastern Bronx as cheap, crappy transportation for people who can't afford cars. A $1.25 bus fare will just reinforce that image. That's something that Schwartz seems to have no problem with - but it means giving up on the possibility that these areas will ever increase their transit mode share. I have a problem with that, and I hope you do too.
So reducing bus fares would spend money that we could instead use to expand the system and make it better, and it would probably reinforce the reputation of buses in the outer boroughs as cheap, crappy transportation. But is it worth that?
Well, is what worth that? Schwartz doesn't say what he expects to accomplish by reducing bus fares. On one level it seems obvious: save people $40 or more a week! But why save those people money, and not lower the fare for subway riders, and for people riding the buses in neighborhoods where there are subways? The answer can only be to encourage more people to ride buses in the outer boroughs. Presumably this is instead of driving, but it could be that Schwartz wants to encourage people to make bus trips that they wouldn't otherwise have made, or that they would have made by walking, but it's not clear to me what the value of that is. Mobility for mobility's sake?
It's not clear, anyway, that lowering the fare will do either of these things. To begin with, take a look at this chart from the most recent MTA Transit Committee meeting:
That's right, almost half the fares are paid with unlimited-ride Metrocards. There's no way to take a dollar off if you're not paying per ride!
Now, it's quite likely that the percentage of people paying with unlimited Metrocards is lower in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan, but I'll bet it's still pretty high. But beyond that, a lot of the people riding buses in "the two-fare zone" are transferring to subways, or even to buses that go to "neighborhoods with subways." A rush hour visit to Kew Gardens, Pelham Bay Park or Flatbush Avenue will give you a sense of how many. Presumably, when they make the transfer, and when they come back, they would spend that dollar anyway. Thus, the discount would only apply to trips that begin and end in neighborhoods without subways. How many is that, really?
For that tiny number of trips, the $2.25 fare is already lowered by the 7% pay-per-ride bonus if the passengers pay with Metrocards and not cash. Many of the people riding those trips would be disabled and senior citizens eligible for the 50% discount on top of that. Whether the fare is $1.10, or $2.05, how often is that really a deterrent? Keep in mind that many of these people already pay a market price of $2 for "dollar vans."
Finally, if we're talking about getting people out of their cars, we know how much people pay to own and insure a car, and drive and park it on the streets of New York City. How many of them are sensitive to a few dollars in bus fare?
As you can see, I've tried mightily to make sense of this. I probably spent a lot more time on it than it deserves. And I'm pretty damn sure that I put more time and thought into it than Sam Schwartz or anyone who's working for him on this plan. A dollar reduction in fares in "neighborhoods without subways" is hard to implement, would accomplish very little, would probably be counterproductive, and would take money from more worthy uses.