Skip to main content

The Psychology of Unlimited Transit Passes

Christopher Bonanos has a great short article in New York Magazine about what the end of the unlimited ride MTA pass could mean for urban dwellers in New York.

(from Flickr user same_same)

Pay particularly close attention to this paragraph:
When out-of-neighborhood errands, even interborough ones, no longer carry a penalty, the transit system ceases to be about a binary commute, and instead encourages zigzagging around town. The unlimited pass promotes French-style shopping: cheese here, coffee beans there, fruit at the Greenmarket, cutlets at the butcher, all without spending twelve bucks on fares. A stop at Whole Foods on the way home to Park Slope merely requires a brief trip up the steps at Second Avenue. Movie isn’t showing near you? Hop across town. In a city where “unlimited” is far from universal—where else do you have to pay $4 for an iced-tea refill?—the monthly pass is freeing. It’s overstatement to say that it caused the Brooklyn boom, but it sure didn’t hurt to know that, even if you move to sleepy Windsor Terrace, sleepless Manhattan is just a swipe away.
What's amazing is that this is the exact same line of logic that people use to say that owning a car is the ticket to freedom. In a sense, both are marked by the same irrational idea: that once the initial price has been paid, every trip is effectively "free".

In a sense though, rides using an unlimited transit pass are free. An economist would point out that the 'marginal cost' is zero, even if the 'average cost' is something. This is very different from a transit system like the one in DC, where the 'marginal' cost is the fare a person pays based on where they're going and at what time they're doing it. Psychologically, people who have to pay for each and every trip often have a lingering question of whether it's justified.

I know, I've experienced the feeling of possessing an unlimited ride metrocard in New York. Even though mine was only good for a single day, I felt like I could go anywhere in the city and see anything I wanted to see. I never had to answer the mental question: is it worth the $2.25?

I support the unlimited ride transit card. If driving is psychologically appealing because of the perception of 'free', then it's not doing transit agencies much good to make people choose between a (perceived) free trip in the car or shelling out a few bucks for transit fare.

There is real value in getting people to ride buses and trains, particularly during the off-peak hours. There is real value to having people use transit in exactly the way Bonanos describes. The bigger the constituency a city's transit system can build, the more power that city has to fight bureaucrats at the state and national level who can't or won't provide funding to maintain a quality of service.


Kent said…
I will be very unhappy if the MTA takes away the "unlimited" option. I don't understand how it helps fill any budget holes. Raising fares makes sense, as does cutting lines. But the marginal cost of my taking another ride is effectively zero. Gotta love the trend: ridership goes up, fares go up, service gets worse.
Michael said…
MTA is doing this for one reason only. Scammers are selling swipes of their unlimited passes for $1 outside the faregates. A source close to MTA tells me that the scammers use a monthly pass over 400 times, and can make over $800 a day by churning multiple passes.

MTA does not have the police force to stop this practice. They have to limit the use. By the time you get to the limit, your average cost is $1 per ride.

Popular posts from this blog

In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from someone complaining that their Southwest Airlines boarding pass had been assigned A20 (meaning they would be at least one of the first twenty passengers to board the plane). Apparently this person though they should have been assigned a higher number, less their flight experience be considerably spoiled.

Despite the complaints, Southwest has resisted demands to assign seats on its flights, a decision which I personally applaud. I'll admit that I was skeptical when they rolled out the newest boarding procedure, assigning both boarding groups and a line number; but in hindsight it seems like one of the best operational decisions they've ever made. If nothing else, it effectively eliminated the infamous "cattle call" whereby fliers were getting to airports hours in advance and sitting in line on the floor as if they were waiting for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie.

When I was an intern at Southwest Airlines last winter, I…

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

Commuting Meets Technology

I'm finally out of the dark ages. I got an Android smartphone over the weekend and have since been in the process of exploring the Android apps market.  One thing I've immediately noticed is the really wide range of usefulness in the apps. For example, the WeatherBug app is fantastic. It automatically determines your location and gives you exact conditions for that location. On the other end of the spectrum, Google's Goggles app is supposed to be a type of 'visual search' where you snap of photo of something and Google searches for it. In each of my attempts to use it, the app hasn't returned any search results. I even took a photo of a bottle of Pepsi (figuring it as a common houseful item) and got nothing.

Somewhere in the middle is this app called Waze. Have a look at their 'guided tour':

Some people might look at it and comment on the amazing evolution of technology or on the incredible value of social networks. To me, Waze says something important ab…