On my way to work today I saw the following sign on the subway, courtesy of the MTA:
“Believe it or not. In 1986 the subway and bus fare was $1. That’s $1.89 in 2008 dollars. Today a 30-day Unlimited Ride MetroCard brings the fare down to $1.17. Believe it.”
Now I try to avoid joining the clamoring mobs that shake their fists over every fare hike and think that every increase is a result of mismanagement and greed, but should we believe this? It’s a powerful statement taken at face value: People in 1986, straphanging with their Walkmen on their way to see Top Gun, would happily fork over $1 to get on the train, which would have been a whopping $1.89 today, and they would have been happy about it, darn it, while we spoiled New Yorkers only have to pony up a measly $1.17 per ride. Clearly things are getting better. Believe it.
There are some obviously unfair comparisons going on here that don’t even take any fancy maths to get to. The first is just the fact that they’re comparing two entirely different types of fares, namely single rides in 1986 versus unlimited rides in 2008. Here’s the easy correction to that, comparing two single rides in 2011:
“Believe it or not. In 1986 the subway and bus fare was $1. That’s $1.98 in 2011 dollars. Today a Single Ride MetroCard is $2.50. Believe it.”
Not so impressive. OK, but that’s not completely fair either, because people in 1986 didn’t have the option of Unlimited Ride MetroCards, so maybe we should give the MTA a break and let them treat this as a study of “How much it costs you to get to work in 1986 vs. 2010″, in which case Unlimited Rides are fair game. Also, according to the MTA, about 32% of all cards bought in 2009 were Unlimited Ride cards, so clearly there’s a sizeable chunk of people using these, which raises the validity of the comparison.
However, to get to $1.17 per ride, you’d need to use your $104/mo MetroCard 89 times a month, or about three times every day. If you stop somewhere after work every day before going home and then go out a lot on the weekends, maybe that’s a fair usage pattern. If you’re like me, however, (i.e. boring) then you probably ride to work and home every day and then go out on the weekends. If we just call that 2 trips a day (might be a little low) then you’re taking about 60 trips a month, getting you to $1.73 a ride. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a lot better than $2.50, but it’s not as staggering a difference from $1.98 as the ad leads you to believe.
Also important to note is that, when this ad aired in 2009, Unlimited Ride MetroCards were only $80/month, implying the MTA thought that riding 68 times a month was a fair usage pattern. For the ad to make sense today, that number had to rise to 90. The MTA may have realized it can use this ad indefinitely with the unstated caveat that you just have to ride as many times as it takes to get to $1.17, whatever that may be. Looking forward to seeing this in 2020, when I’ll have to ride 130 times a month for it to make sense.
My verdict is that the spirit of the ad still holds – Unlimited Ride MetroCards, used frequently, aren’t such a bad deal, even given inflation – but the MTA is being misleading in its comparison to exaggerate how “good we have it”, and that’s really the point of this post. If someone’s going to throw numbers at you on the subway followed by the imperative to “believe it”, you’d better know what you’re believing and why.
And for people who love charts, here’s Wikipedia’s chart of Single Ride MetroCard fares, adjusted for inflation, over time. Clearly rates have been rising even given inflation, so you can still use that to feel good about shaking your fist while muttering about the “crooked bums” over at the MTA.