Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guest Post: Jeff, New York City

The following post is written by my friend Jeff, a friend from high school who graduated from The Pennsylvania State University and moved to New York City in August 2009.  All opinions are his.

Chad and I have been friends since high school. We have many things in common, one of which being our love of public transport. When Chad first informed me about his quest to live without a car for a month (and write a blog about it), I was all about it.  When he asked me to write a guest post, I was honored.

By way of background, I'm currently in my second year living in New York City. Unlike Chad, I didn't have a choice in the matter of getting rid of my car.  I live in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan where it is difficult to rent a parking spot for less than $300 a month.  The truth is, I work 1.2 miles from where I live and I eat/drink within 2 miles of where I live. In short, I simply don't need a car.

It was tough to think of what I wanted to discuss in my guest post, but having spent time living in DC without a car, I thought I'd make sense to compare the two transit systems. I am an accountant by trade, so I thought taking a look at the two systems from an economic perspective would make sense. The topic of my post is the following: WMATA is not set up to encourage people to get rid of their cars.

Considering its insolvency and soon to be third fare hike in three years, I clearly don't believe the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is the best run system in the country.  That doesn't mean that WMATA couldn't learn a few things from the MTA.  So if anybody from WMATA is reading, I'd encourage you to Bolt to NYC, take a ride on the 6 train to 28th Street, and walk to my apartment. I'd love to discuss a few items with you.

1.  Charging per use discourages ridership.

My guess is the majority of the readers here are from the DC metro area, so let me take a few moments to explain how things work here in the Big Apple. I currently pay $89 a month for a 30 day unlimited Metrocard. That allows me to use any of the subways or local buses as many times as I'd like at any time of the day (none of that peak or off-peak garbage). I can't conclude on the entire population of NYC, but I'm comfortable saying that the majority of my friends have the same type of card.

Once I pay for my monthly card, the marginal cost per ride is zero. For me, that means I have to really need to get somewhere in a hurry to drop $15 or $20 on a cab. Its no lie that waiting for a train or bus is less convenient than taking cabs, but because the difference in price between a cab and the subway is so extreme, I'm willing to deal.

Compare this to DC where you pay for every trip.  If you're going somewhere by yourself, you're probably willing to pay $3 and wait for the Metro for a few minutes rather than pay for the cab.  What happens if you check your iPhone and see the next train will be 30 minutes?  What if there are 4 of you?  In that case, the Metro just doesn't make sense (spend $12 for the metro or $15 for a cab).

In NYC, running a few errands isn't a big deal. If I want to do some shopping in SoHo, then get some Shake Shack on the Upper East Side, then take the cross town bus to the Upper West Side to visit my friends, and then head down to the West Village for dinner, it costs me nothing more.

Compare this to DC where you may want to take the Metro to Foggy Bottom to shop in Georgetown, then get some Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, then take the bus to Adams Morgan to visit a friend, then take the Metro to DuPont for dinner. You may have just spent $12 on transportation. At that point, it probably would have been easier just hop in the car and pay for the gas and parking meters.  Worse, it may discourage you from going to these places and enjoying the city in which you live because its just so expensive to get around!

2.  Zone pricing discourages ridership. 

When you think about it initially, charging more to go further may make sense.  On the flip side, it doesn't encourage those who have alternative forms of transportation to chose to ride the train or it almost certainly squeezes additional cash out of those who don't have alternate means of transport (by choice or otherwise).

The further you live from Midtown Manhattan, the less the rents usually are.  The average income in these further areas are likely less (i.e., Harlem, the Bronx, Bed-Stuy). In NYC, whether you live out in East New York (45 minutes to Midtown) or the Upper East Side (10 minutes to Midtown, you pay the same (unlimited monthly or $2.25 pay per ride).

Let's think about DC.  While living in the District certainly isn't cheap, living in Clarendon or Bethesda isn't either.  That may indicate the people in these areas are wealthier and have other options to get around.  It costs more for transport from these areas, so the Metro simply isn't competitive from a cost perspective considering the large fixed cost of vehicle ownership.

Regardless of the economics, living without a car is simply a healthier, less expensive, and greener lifestyle.  Those of us who have been living without personal vehicles recognize the challenges that it entails (e.g., carrying home groceries or getting caught in the rain walking from the subway).  Some people say that waiting for the bus is inconvenient, but I say that waiting on an oil change or changing a flat tire is much more inconvenient.

Really, who wouldn't rather be chauffeured everywhere for $89 a month?


  1. Hey Jeff! (Hey Chad!)

    I just moved to DC Metro (I will not use the DMV term here) from Atlanta, where you'd better have a car and a fairly decent one at that if you are to have any semblance of a "normal" life. But I digress - being a fairly new WMATA consumer, I thought it was quite odd that there is no unlimited monthly card option - even the crappy MARTA system in ATL offers a monthly pass.
    I suspect the absence of such an option is mainly due to the federal workforce being the captive audience it is - there is no real push to change any of the nonsensical things about the WMATA system.

    I'm totally car free during the week (live in Silver Spring/ work in DC) but on the weekends if I want to roll into the District with my fam, we pile into the ride and drive down. It's quicker/ cheaper to feed the meter/ or find a parking lot in a central location and hike around than it is to hit up Metro.

    Keep up the good work Chad (and thanks for the tip about the RideOn bus racks...LOL!)

    Great post Jeff!

  2. " WMATA is not set up to encourage people to get rid of their cars."

    Amen! Great post Jeff!

    -your CARM