A New Yorker of our acquaintance plans to go on vacation in mid-August, and this is taxing his arithmetic skills. There are serious calculations to be made about which type of MetroCard will best get him through the next few weeks.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
Life would have been easier if the card providing 14 days of unlimited rides still existed. That would have carried him to his departure date. Alas, the 14-day unlimited card was terminated with the last fare increase, some 19 months ago. Its mourners are presumably few. Judging from Metropolitan Transportation Authority statistics, it accounted for a meager 2 percent of all cards used, as measured by numbers of swipes.
But what to do in its absence? Buy a couple of 7-day unlimited cards? Or maybe go for a 30-day unlimited card, since part of the vacation will be spent in the city? That requires jumping through mental hoops to guess how often he is likely to ride on subways and buses. For a 30-day pass to be worth his while at $104, this fellow would have to make at least 47 trips. Otherwise, he might do better, not to mention save a few brain cells, by going with a pay-per-ride card.
It turns out that he is not alone in performing these kinds of gymnastics. The rhythms of New Yorkers are, in many cases, reflected in their MetroCards.
During the summer, their fare-paying patterns change perceptibly, with a shift away from the 30-day card toward the 7-day and pay-per-ride varieties. A similar change can be detected in December, another season when many people take off from work for long stretches.
The adjustments are not huge: a couple of a percentage points, the transportation authority says. Throughout 2011, the market share for the 30-day card averaged 31 percent. But in August of that year, it dipped to 29 percent. In December, it sagged lower still, to 28.5 percent. When you sell millions of those bits of plastic, any disturbance in the force involves real money.
In case you were wondering — and we’re sure you were dying to learn all this — the most popular type of MetroCard is the pay-per-ride that comes with a bonus. This is the one that requires you to put at least $10 on it. Figures from May, the latest available, show that it accounts for 37.7 percent of all the cards that are used.
Here’s a breakdown of the other types. We’re sure you were dying to know all this as well:
The 30-day card is next in popularity, at 30.4 percent. It is followed by the 7-day card, at 17.5 percent; the pay-per-ride card without the bonus, at 10.1 percent; cash payments on buses — remember cash? — at 3.1 percent; and single-ride tickets on subways at 1.2 percent.
If you mix the various discounts in a statistical blender, as the transportation authority does, the average fare paid by all subway and bus riders is put at $1.63, or 62 cents below the base fare of $2.25. This is a point that may be kept in mind for the next time fares are raised, probably in early 2013.
After the 14-day card disappeared, its devotees seemed to drift to the pay-per-ride kinds. Their percentages have risen over the last year and a half. At the same time, the popularity of the 30-day card declined by a few percentage points.
There’s something odd about that monthly pass. Just ask Gene Russianoff, who is staff attorney for the riders’ advocacy group known as the Straphangers Campaign and a man who studies transit reports the way a Talmudic scholar pores over ancient commentaries. He came across this “interesting factoid” in one report: about 25 percent of those who buy 30-day cards “don’t use them often enough to get their discount value.” They’d do better with pay-per-ride discount cards.
What gives with these people? Mr. Russianoff suggested several possibilities. It could be that they don’t care about the discount and simply find the 30-day card convenient. Perhaps they go through spells when they don’t use mass transit. Or maybe, he said, they’re just “bad mathematicians.”
On that score, we can sympathize. Doing the math to settle on the right card is no snap during a period when work and vacation overlap. It’s almost enough to induce the fear of all sums.
E-mail Clyde Haberman: email@example.com