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.


    On August 02, 2010 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.


    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.