Which City’s Subway Gives Best Bang for Rate Hikes?

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As New York's MTA plans yet another rate increase, we can't help but wonder which U.S. city gives the best bang for a rate hike on its subway system.
As New York’s MTA plans yet another rate increase, we can’t help but wonder which U.S. city gives the best bang for a rate hike on its subway system.

Unfortunately for its riders, the New York City subway fare is going up again on Sunday, March 22.

After the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) recently announced its $0.25-fare hike, which makes the cost of a single ride rise from $2.50 to $2.75 per trip, the legitimate question of what exactly riders are getting for the fee needs to be asked.

In NYC, we love to kill the MTA — and for good reason. But instead of becoming a gripe fest — which, let’s be honest, goes nowhere and only serves to increase our frustration — I tried to think more constructively and ask: How do different U.S. cities’ public transit systems rank by value? Which riders are getting the shaft? What system gets its riders the best bang for their public-transportation buck?

In the U.S., the top three legitimate systems — no, not you, Los Angeles — in terms of ridership are New York City’s subway system, the Washington Metro and the Chicago Elevated. But instead of comparing three that are not only very similar but topped by NYC, let’s take a look at three disparate systems: New York, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to see if one is clearly superior to the rest.

Chicago’s “L”

The Chicago Transit Authority‘s (CTA) general fare is $2.25, which is what New York’s subway fare was before the last increase. Chicago’s “L” predates New York’s subway system by 12 years. It serves an average weekday ridership of 1.7 million and operates on 224.1 miles of track. CTA trains make about 2,250 trips each day and serve 146 stations. Maybe its best feature, the “L” serves Chicago’s two major airports much better than the NYC subway or BART, which are a total headache on public transit. Compared to NYC, Chicago’s system is more convenient to get to the airports because, incredibly, there are no direct subway options to either LaGuardia Airport or John F. Kennedy International Airport without at least one transfer to a bus or the JFK AirTrain.

Bay Area Rapid Transit

Bay Area residents use BART to travel between the major cites, Oakland and San Francisco, and to farther-flung towns and outlying suburbs. This makes it more of a commuter rail system that brings people into the city, not to travel within it as in NYC and Chicago. The BART uses a per-station fare system that charges based on how far you travel. So for example, the fare for a trip I used to make quite often from West Oakland to the San Francisco Civic Center, would cost $6.20, more than double what it costs per ride in NYC or Chicago. And it also doesn’t run all night, like the other two.


The NYC system dwarfs the others by length and ridership. More than five million people ride the subway every day, and the system covers more than two million miles. But it also has its problems, and many of them include the agency that keeps it running by jacking up the fare every couple of years. But maybe we shouldn’t complain (right, like that’s going to happen): It runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — no other U.S. transit system does that or services more stations.

For all three cities, what really needs to be put into effect is a reasonable congestion pricing plan like the updated New York City version promoted by MoveNY. The plan would raise tolls on the currently free East River bridges, while lowering them on the crazy expensive ones like the Verrazano Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, and costs an astronomical $15.

Public transit on these three systems is better than in most U.S. cities, and for that we are appreciative. Now, if only they could be improved, invested in and made even better to serve more riders and connect more stations because the future is in the cities.

Public transportation is a public good. It allows investment in communities far from the city center, for people to get to work, get jobs and helps their economies run more efficiently. Which one is the best value, though?

Call me biased, but while riding the NYC subway can often be a major pain, the system is the best value for public transportation amongst U.S. cities because of its length, breadth of service and relative affordability.

Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.

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