Before a Fare Increase, Squeezing Every Cent Out of Your MetroCard

Beginning on Sunday, base fares for subways and buses will rise by a quarter, to $2.50. The cost of a 30-day unlimited MetroCard will increase by $8, to $112.

In this dark hour, there is perhaps only one force that can provide a refuge for riders: math!

The central calculation for many MetroCard users — whether to purchase a pay-per-ride card or a 30-day unlimited card — is fairly simple. Under the new fare structure, the “break-even point,” when buying an unlimited card becomes the better deal, is 48 rides, given the pay-per-ride bonuses afforded to riders. The old number was 50. (For a full accounting, see this post.)

The more cumbersome task is deciphering how riders can squeeze out maximum value during the final days of the old fares.

For time-based cards, like the 30-day pass, the clock does not begin ticking until a card is first used — regardless of when it is purchased. But to quell the threat of bulk-buying before the change, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has decreed that for cards purchased before the increase kicks in, the 30-day clock starts ticking March 11 or on first use, whichever is earlier.

So how can a 30-day cardholder beat the system in the days to come? It depends on how expertly the last card purchase was timed. Here’s the breakdown:

1) If your card will expire before March 11, the choice is easy. Buy a new 30-day card before Sunday, at the old rate of $104, and then begin using it once the old card is up.

2) If your card expires just after the March 11 deadline, the equation becomes trickier. Divide the cost of any existing card ($104) by the number of days it can be used (30), and you’ll find that a rider pays nearly $3.47 per day for an unlimited card.

If a rider stops using the old card with, say, two days left, then, he is not collecting on double that value, or $6.93. But at $112, the new 30-day card costs $8 more than one purchased before this Sunday.

As a result, even riders holding a 30-day card that expires on March 12 or March 13 can, in effect, save money by buying a new card before the price goes up. (For that giddy day or two after March 11, you will have two valid unlimited-ride cards. Perhaps you could lend one to a friend or use one to get around the 18-minute subway-swipe limit and swipe in a stranger as you enter.)

3) The implication, unfortunately, is that anyone whose 30-day card expires later in March is out of luck. Perhaps a gentle soul with a preferable expiration date will buy fellow riders lunch.

(Note that all calculations assume that riders reuse existing cards to avoid a $1 surcharge for purchasing a new card, and use the system with the same frequency each day. If a rider knew, for instance, that he was going to be out of the city until late March, the analysis would be moot.)

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