Swipe It Forward

The MTA is about to screw New Yorkers (again), by making the subway more expensive (again). Here’s how you can protest, and rightfully screw them back.

By Foster Kamer


“The only way to preserve and improve a subway system that a working person can afford and ride on safely is civil disobedience.” — Jimmy Breslin, July 1982, “Fare Beats Must Be Trim

Hey, New Yorkers! In January, the MTA approved yet another a system-wide fare hike that went into effect on Sunday, including increasing the price of an unlimited 30-day MetroCard to $116.50! We should definitely bitch and moan about this, and even more, we should find crafty ways to screw the MTA over, too. Why?

Because they’re awful. Because they’ve consistently put commuters last, and politics first. And short of not taking the subway, we’re mostly shit out of luck in terms of how we can protest them!

Mostly, because there’s one, small, wonderful option we actually have:

Whenever you can, every single time you leave a station, give your swipes away.

You’ve totally seen hordes of people rush out of a station as someone begs to be swiped through. These are people who for whatever reason don’t have the $2.50 (or $2.75) for a single ride. Let alone the $116.50 for a monthly. Maybe they’re truly on hard times. Maybe they’re hustling you. Maybe they lost their wallet. Whatever the case may be, the facts are so: If you have a monthly or weekly unlimited MetroCard — and unless you need to go back through that same station in less than 15 minutes — swiping someone through on your way out of a subway station takes two seconds of your time. It will make someone’s day. And it will cost you nothing.

It’s a simple act of perfectly legal charity. Yes, you can get arrested for selling a MetroCard swipe. But you can’t get arrested for giving one away. You won’t read about your right to do this on the MTA’s official site, because they don’t want you giving away swipes. Of course they don’t! The MTA will tell you that depleting their revenue to protest a fare hike is an absurdist response and also, an inefficient form of charity.

The most simple response to this is that the impetus for efficiency is on the MTA, first, and they have failed us. How?

When the unlimited 30-day MetroCard was first introduced in 1998, it was $63.

  • The 2015 fare hike represents an increase of $53.50 (or 84.9%) for a 30-day MetroCard since 1998. That’s $3.14 or 3.7% per year over seventeen years, and most New Yorkers have probably not seen a yearly 3.7% increase in salary since 1998.
  • If we’re only to account for inflation, the 2015 MetroCard would still be absurdly pricy: The cumulative rate of inflation between 1998 and 2015 is 45.2%. Adjusted for inflation, a $63 MetroCard in 1998 would reasonably cost $91.48 in 2015.

But that’s totally reductive! you might say. Your math is garbage and there are other factors! And that’s fair: I’m not even close to any kind of economist — clearly — so I can’t even begin to imagine all of the various issues and numbers that factor into rising MTA costs.

What I do know is the exact cost of a monthly MetroCard on September 20, 2005 was $76. And I know this because it was the first thing I paid for in New York City on the day I moved here. Maybe New Yorkers were already griping about the costs then, but for my purposes — 20 years-old, then jobless, with enough money saved to float me on bare necessities for two months — it wasn’t expensive. In fact, it was a patently fair deal: If you took a minimum of two trips a day — to and from work, say — at a base rate of $2 for a single fare, you were saving $44 (two single-ride trips a day in 2005 would’ve run you, on a 30-day month, $120). And I was taking way, way more than two trips a day. And anybody who lived here then definitely remembers what happened three months later:

The Transit Workers Union went on strike. Mayor Bloomberg had the TWU’s union leader arrested. The strike pissed everyone off, and mostly affected those who relied on the MTA the most: Lower and middle class commuters who definitely do not have the job security and insanely great pension that MTA workers were negotiating for. It sucked. But funny thing: New Yorkers didn’t unilaterally side with the MTA, against the transit workers, even though they were the ones who were causing the city to go into total transportation chaos. Why not? Because a month prior to the strike, we learned of the MTA’s budget surplus, which was $1.04 billion. This surplus number was revised twice before by the MTA during 2005, from $76 million to $833 million to $1.04 billion.

Or as The New York Times put it then:

The wide variation in budget predictions vividly illustrates how the authority seems to lurch unpredictably between dire insolvency and sudden windfalls.

DAFUQ, right? Back to the fares:

  • In 1998, a 30-day was $63.
  • By 2008–10 years later — a 30-day had increased in price to $81 (a $18 or 28% jump from 1998).
  • Seven years later, in 2015, a 30-day has now gone from $81 to $116.50 (a $35.50 or 43.8% jump).
  • In other words, while it took 10 years for the monthly to go up 28%, it only took seven years after that for the monthly to go up in cost almost 44%. Year by year, the MTA’s money situation is getting objectively worse. Why?

If you live in New York State — let alone New York City — you pay some of the highest taxes in America. You pay them for things you love (like Central Park!) and things you hate (like racist, brutal cops) and things you don’t have feelings about but kind of need and should just assume are wasteful in some way (the MTA). You also pay rising rent costs, which are insane. But as a taxpayer, you ultimately pay not just for this city’s upkeep, but for this city’s growth. And as your salary does not grow, New York City continues to grow into a city none of us can afford. You are paying for the New York City of the future, as you and everyone else get priced out of that future, and this is bullshit.

You also pay the salaries of one of the most consistently corrupt and power hungry legislatures in America (hi, Shelly Silver!). This is worth mentioning because much of the MTA’s woeful mismanagement stems directly from these goons, who have a mandate of running an efficient civic government, who can’t. Because they are a bunch of corrupt goons. To say nothing of the overpaid and almost perennially incompetent goons running the MTA themselves, both figuratively and literally. But at the end of the day, you’re gonna sit there and take it, because realistically, nobody you can vote for (or have been able to vote for) has really made a difference in fixing the MTA, and nobody’s going to try. It’s a big political mess and a struggle for power — it’s rich people screwing over poor people, and less-poor people screwing over poor people, and so on — and you are the collateral damage!

This is why giving away swipes as a rebuke to these people is more or less your only option. But it’s also a great one that makes sense. And it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Again, the MTA will argue that you, Taxpayer, are taking money out of your own Taxpaying pocket. This is true! But so are they, and at least this will put you in control of how that money is spent, as opposed to the people who have been spending it poorly for the last decade, and passing the cost onto you. And how much money are we talking, here?

Let’s say 1,000 people a day are swiped through. That’s $2,500 a day, $912,500 a year. That’s not even an iota of a drop in the bucket for an organization that wants to spend $32 billion over four years. In other words, the MTA telling you this will cost you money is nothing short of insane, given their ambitions for growth, and how much they want to spend on an exciting project like growing the MTA, as opposed to the less exciting prospect of figuring out how to cut through civic inefficiencies and make the subway cheaper for you and I.

Again: Who cares why someone asks for a swipe? You can commit, at the very least, a small act towards helping another human’s dignity (and need to get somewhere) at zero cost to you, and maybe recoup some of the indignity the MTA lays on all of us with these now regular and egregious hikes in the process.

[Special thanks to New York Times Metro reporter Matt Chaban for the Breslin reference, up top. And thanks to Medium users Paul Harris and Matthew Webber for helping me with my math.]

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