Atlantic Cities

Is Helping Strangers to a Free Subway Ride a Good Way to Protest Rising Transit Fares?

Is Helping Strangers to a Free Subway Ride a Good Way to Protest Rising Transit Fares?
Reuters

The price of a ride on public transportation in New York City went up again over the weekend, from $2.25 to $2.50 – a full dollar higher than it was just 10 years ago. A weekly unlimited MetroCard now costs $30, up a dollar from the most recent rate, while a monthly unlimited pass will set you back $112 – an $8 increase. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) projects to increase revenue by $391 million this year with the move.

A small group of activists in the city is planning to fight back against what they see as an unfair fare hike by using their unlimited cards to swipe in fellow New Yorkers for no charge. (You can reuse an unlimited card once 18 minutes has passed since your most recent swipe.) They’re calling their effort “Swipe Back!” It’s perfectly legal to do this, as the group points out on its website, as long as you don’t collect any money from the person you’re swiping in. From the group’s website:

We would boycott the subway, if we could. But since it’s an essential public service, we need it, to get to our jobs and live our lives.

So instead of boycotting, we find ways to express our protest, like this: If you use your unlimited card to swipe someone else in, then you’re effectively helping them boycott the fare hike, sort of like boycotting it forward.

The idea, according to organizer Ingrid Burrington, isn’t necessarily to stiff the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). “I’m more excited about helping people who can’t afford to ride the train,” says Burrington, who describes herself as “just a person.” Any lost fares from the Swipe Back initiative, she says, will have little effect on a system that is already suffering huge financial problems – woes, she emphasizes, that are caused in large part by debt service and a lack of funding from the state government. “The MTA’s coffers are being undermined from all directions,” says Burrington. “Riders are the least equipped to fill them.” Farebox revenues currently account for 41 percent of the MTA’s yearly take.

The MTA, unsurprisingly, is not pleased with the Swipe Back idea. A spokesman for the authority told Gothamist this: 

The MTA is raising fares and tolls because our costs for employee healthcare, pension contributions, mandatory paratransit service, energy and other costs out of our control are rising far faster than the rate of inflation. We have cut our costs by more than $700 million, we have built a budget with net-zero wage increases for unionized employees, and we are implementing moderately higher fares and tolls.

If anyone thinks the best way to balance the MTA's budget is to reduce the amount of money we collect from customers, then their math is as bad as their logic.

Burrington says she and her fellow organizers don't want to "hurt the MTA," but they do want to change what they see as an unresponsive system at the mercy of state legislators in Albany. The Swipe Back action, she says, is designed to educate the system’s users about the complicated financial and political issues behind rising fares, especially the arcane financial deals known as interest rate swaps, which have worked out to the agency’s distinct disadvantage over the past few years. The group is handing out buttons to people who want to get involved, and encouraging them to talk about what they’re doing when they give another straphanger a free ride.

Most people, Burrington says, don’t understand why the fares keep going up, just accepting it as one of the expenses of city life. “We’re trying to generate conversations about how transit is funded,” she says. “One of the reasons I think it’s hard to get people interested in transportation is that it’s not just one thing. It’s complicated. People are not necessarily seeing the big picture of what’s happening.”  

This isn’t the first time the free swipes have been used to raise awareness among the harried riders of the city’s transit system, which carries seven million passengers every day. A group called the People’s Transportation Program offered free rides during a previous round of fare hikes in 2009, with very few people taking notice (except, of course, the lucky ones who benefited directly).

But Burrington says she and her fellow organizers aren’t daunted. “This is a very small part of a long-term endeavor,” she says. Most of all, she wants to see some of the city’s elected officials take a stand on the issue, especially during what is likely to be a blistering mayoral race. “I would like to see New York City politicians fight for this issue,” she says. “They need to fight for transit, fight for riders.”

Top image: People use Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) cards to enter the New York Subway system at the Times Square stop. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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