The Pay It Forward Subway Card

Given the MTA's budget woes, I'm not suggesting this thought experiment should be implemented. But I've had this thought in my head for a few years. Not sure why it's there and not sure why it won't go away, but maybe writing about it will purge it from my head. It has to do with the New York City subway system, a way to save people lots of money, if only they are willing to trust each other and absorb some costs when the system calls for it.

The Stats

In the grand scheme of all things New York City, the costs of mass transit aren't too bad. People complain about it all the time, but it's still relatively cheap if you consider the alternatives. At the time of this posting, here's what it costs to buy a MTA subway card (updated fare prices can be found on the MTA website):

  • Unlimited 30-day: $104
  • Unlimited 7-day: $29
  • Single ride: $2.50 (i.e., a disposable ticket that lets you go on only one ride)
  • Regular fare: $2.25 (i.e., the cost of a ride using a card that you can refill)

This means that it would only make sense for you to buy a 30-day unlimited card if you plan on using it at least 46 times in that period, or about twice a day. I assume that's why most people buy the 30-day unlimited cards. Otherwise, you'd be better off buying a regular card and refill it as you need to. (There's a 7 percent bonus you get on buying a regular card, but that's irrelevant for now; it will get you one free ride per $33 you spend on buying a regular fare card.)

Other additional characteristics:

  • You get a free transfer between bus and subway.
  • When you swipe your MetroCard at a subway station, there's a time delay of about 15 minutes before you can reuse it at a subway station, thus preventing people from buying one unlimited card and passing it around to the person behind them. Same goes for reusing it on a bus.
  • The price of a ride is the same regardless of distance; in other words, it costs the same regardless of whether your destination is one stop away or fifty stops away.
  • Your unlimited card is activated the moment you swipe it for the first time.
  • According to the MTA, about 5 million people use the subway on an average weekday. (Some additional statistics from the MTA on ridership.)

The Thought Experiment

For now, I'm guessing that most 30-day unlimited cards get used about two to four times a day: to and from work and any other additional errands you might need to run. But what if you can increase the amount of uses to over 20 a day?

Here's how it'll work:

  1. You buy a 30-day unlimited subway card.
  2. You use it and, once you get off your station, hand it off to anyone who needs to enter. Assuming that it takes about two-minutes between stops and an average wait time of five-minutes at the station, this will work for nearly all transit uses. (Remember, you can't reuse the card for 15 minutes.)
  3. That person will do the same as you did, keeping the 30-day unlimited cards in constant circulation. Since the NYC subways run for 24 hours, that could potentially add 20 more rides to the unlimited card (assuming an average commute of one hour); more, if a card makes its rounds to people who are just  taking 30 minute rides and are able to hand it off to others continuously.
  4. To make it fair, each person participating in this has to be willing to buy a 30-day unlimited card and hand it off to someone once a year. That way, instead of buying an unlimited card once a month, you'll only have to buy it once a year, saving you over $900.

The Questions

My interest here is not so much can or should we implement this but how we can implement it. Some questions that would have to be considered are:

  • How many unlimited MetroCards would it take for this experiment to work? The statistics say that about 5 million people use the subway, but it's not the same people using the subway everyday. Some people use it everyday, others use it once a week. So, how many unlimited cards would need to be in circulation for nearly everyone to benefit from it?
  • What happens when there are unbalanced numbers of people entering and leaving the subway? It's fine if the number of people leaving exceeds the number of people entering the subway, but for any given station, and especially during peak hours, there's going to be more people entering the subway than there are people who are able to hand them an unlimited card. For those who don't get a card, they either need to wait for the next group of people or they'll have to get their own single ride subway card.
  • How long would it take for people to trust the program? As a society, we "give away" expensive stuff all the time. Everytime you hand your car keys to a valet, you assume he won't drive off with it. The question is, how many people would it take for this program to reach a critical mass and turn into a movement? It should be set up so that only those willing to pay for an initial 30-day unlimited card would get to benefit from it, making that an initial test of loyalty and commitment to the program.
  • What happens at the start of the day when the commute picks up? Even if people try their best to keep the unlimited cards in circulation, there's bound to be some who can't find someone to get it to at the end of the day. There needs to be enough people using the unlimited cards in the subway system for the system to work, so there'll always be an initial group of people who won't be able to get MetroCards handed off to them, unless the last people to use the cards are also the first people to use it as the commute picks up. But the chances of this are remote.
  • How would the MTA react? None of this is illegal but I'm guessing the MTA will want to make it so if it actually happens. Maybe they'll "limit" the unlimited cards to six uses a day, or try to physically stop people from making the hand offs, or try to extend the length of time you have to wait before you can reuse a subway card.
  • How much would this effect the MTA? I have nothing against the MTA. I am curious, though, how big a dent this will make in their budgets, if people who buy 30-day unlimited cards on a regular basis only has to do so once a year.

How This Can Work In Real Life

Despite these problems, I still think individuals have a net gain in this program, provided that we are rational beings. But we're not. The only way it can work is if it started small. A website announces this program and the idea is circulated. Those who participate get some kind of badge that indicates they are part of the program. This way, you only hand off MetroCards to people who can prove they are part of the program. Anyone can join but everyone who does has to be willing to buy the unlimited card at least once a year. Perhaps social media would be of use as a way of alerting potential commuters of where and when they will be needing MetroCards. This will be especially true once the subway gets wireless Internet access.

I suppose you can build a rough simulation that would account for some of these factors, and make some estimate as to how many people buy the unlimited cards today, then, see what happens once a lot of people stop buying them. If you do happen to build this simulation, let me know how it turns out.