The real goal should be fare-free mass transit

An M55 bus travels along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
An M55 bus travels along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Photo Credit: David Handschuh /David Handschuh

Almost two years ago in this space, I supported the “Fair Fares” idea to subsidize MetroCards for poor New Yorkers. The proposal seemed like a strong step toward knocking down economic barriers that lead some people to jump turnstiles — and get arrested or fined. I was wrong.

After finally agreeing to begin providing half-priced rides to people who can’t afford fares, NYC bungled the rollout of Fair Fares on Jan. 1, creating confusion. No one — not even the MTA — knew where to sign up. When the smoke cleared, the details pointed to a weak, watered-down program.

Fair Fares will initially be available to less than 4 percent of roughly 800,000 New Yorkers at or under the federal poverty line. Those receiving cash benefits from NYC will be eligible while others have to wait. MetroCards will be half-fare, not fully subsidized, and available only as weekly and monthly unlimiteds, not pay-per-ride, which is needed for those on fixed budgets.

Fair Fare’s limits don’t end there. The $106 million plan is a 6-month pilot program that’s not available to immigrants here illegally — people who risk deportation if they are detained for fare-beating. Years of advocacy marketed Fair Fares as a game-changer for social justice. Instead, it looks to be a drop in the bucket.

What if instead of Fair Fares for some, we made public transportation free of fares for residents? We provide public services — garbage collection, firefighters, etc. — through taxpayer funds because they’re necessities. Transportation is integral to city living and should be thought of as a necessity.

An argument against free transportation is how to replace lost revenue. While the MTA has scapegoated farebeaters for budget woes, a sizable chunk of the MTA budget goes to pay debt. Increasing taxes on high earners, tourists and companies, like Amazon, that make the city their playground, can be a starting point for financing fares. Some employers pay toward employee fares. Why not mandate it for employers of a certain size? Also, think of the taxpayer money saved from not policing fare evasion.

Luxembourg is set to become the first country to offer free transportation for its citizens. Cities have gone to a free model to help ease street congestion. NYC could begin with free city buses. To achieve transportation justice, we need to aim high or we’ll continue to get crumbs from the politicians who’ve failed us time and time again.

Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist.