Subway Fares Around the World


Flickr user tom h

On Monday, New Yorkers riding the subway to work were met with a costlier spin of the turnstile: a 12 percent increase in their fares, from $2 to $2.25, as the Metropolitan Transit Authority copes with a severe $2 billion deficit.

But how does the new, much-bemoaned cost of admission to the country's biggest subway (and bus) network stack up against fares in other world-class cities? And how well in general does the New York City subway, well, fare?In relative, U.S. terms, New York's subway looks like a hands-down winner. It's not the prettiest subway, but it's fairly reliable, carries more riders than all other American subway systems combined, and (until Beijing finishes its subway) is the most extensive network in the world (see these to-scale subway maps from around the world), with 660 miles of track. (Plus, its decaying look isn't so bad -- it practically defines New York's rusty charm.)

New York's is also the only subway to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And in comparison to the fares of other subway systems in the "developed" world, New York's falls near the middle (that's not as good as free, as labor arbitrator Ted Kheel has demanded for decades, but hey). London, predictably enough, is the most expensive subway system by far.

Price of Subway Fares Around the World

These are only a handful of the world's subway systems, and I plan to update the list in the near future.

The calculation of cost could be complicated by off-peak prices, reduced fares for seniors and students and the price-per-ride using monthly passes. I am not estimating those fares here, only the cost of a standard one-time use ticket. In cases where subway fares are variable, I did my best to use an average or standard fare, or for London, the fare for zone one the average cost of travel using the Oyster card at peak times in zone 1. (Corrections and updates welcome.)

Average fare estimates when taking subway passes into account drives fares down. The New York MTA puts the average price of a typical subway fare at $1.96, factoring in the free fare riders get for every $8 they put on their Metrocard.

Meanwhile, San Francisco's BART and DC's Metro -- two of the newest U.S. metro systems (1972 and 1976, respectively; LA's subway is the newest) -- are the only American networks listed here to rely on zone or distance-based pricing. The further you travel, the more expensive the fare.

Such a system potentially makes the per mile cost of those subways cheaper. In cities with fixed fares, meanwhile, riders who travel short distances are effectively helping to pay for the cost of those who travel longer distances.

Still, I tend to think the costs of zone-pricing outweigh the benefits. Not only can it make subway travel considerably more expensive than it might otherwise be, but it presumably adds more management costs for the subway and more complication (and okay, aggravation) for riders who don't want to get their ticket out every time they leave the subway. I'm not sure fast-paced New Yorkers could stand for the kind of turnstile gridlock that could ensue, in the way that Bay Area or DC riders might be able to.

Why is New York City Raising the Subway Fare?
None of this is to suggest that the New York City subway is perfect. As the city's Straphangers Campaign notes, it's still got many miles (of track) to go. And fare hikes do not always equal better service. In the case of New York City amidst a recession, that equation remains elusive: the MTA will still need to cut back on service in order to balance its budget.

The fare hike, which also brings the price of a monthly MetroCard to $89 from $81, could well bring with it another set of problems. In times of recession, the demand elasticity of subway fare hikes -- how willing will New Yorkers be to ride the subway as the fare rises -- goes down.

And while the New York subway saw record numbers of riders in 2008 -- 2.37 billion rides, a 3.1 percent increase from 2007 -- the subway has been suffering from a drop in ridership every month since the start of 2009. New York could well be in for a vicious cycle of low ridership + fare hikes and service cuts, which leads to even lower ridership, which might justify more hikes and cuts, and so on.

Whether a fare hike will ultimately drive more New Yorkers to cars remains to be seen. One analysis done during a 2008 fare hike estimated that half of lost subway rides become car trips. But while the cost of gas is down, so are incomes. Perhaps more citizens will be drawn to bicycles.

Either way, as mass transit systems around the U.S. (and the world) face budgetary woes, the pattern of fare hikes/service cuts/ridership drops could well become familiar. Higher fares are also due to hit San Francisco on July 1 -- an increase of 20 cents to $3.18.

What Makes a Subway Fare Fair?
A more thorough analysis might take into account the relative cost of a subway ride (incomes in China are much lower than in the U.S.), delays, quality of service, speed, ridership, how much fares make up each systems' funding (New York, incidentally, draws the most from its fareboxes for revenue), and of course ongoing improvements and maintenance. Perhaps rat sightings should also be incorporated into our comparison.

And when determining the value of a subway fare, the fiscal woes of each city might also be taken into account. (The News Hour is chronicling fiscal problems with a handy map in the U.S.)

Thus, cost isn't the biggest question. How do we estimate the value we're getting out of each fare?

That is, how fair is the fare?

We may agree that New York's is the most reliable and largest subway system on balance, and in the grand scheme, still a pretty darn good value.

And even if the other subways aren't as good values, or even if they're better, with smart planning and smart investment (including, sometimes, fare hikes), they are providing a healthy alternative to the automobile.

Thanks to world.nycsubway.org and goodspeedupdate.

More on Subways at TreeHugger
Subway Systems of the World
Hold Onto Your Carbon Footprints: The U.S. Mass Transit System is Preparing to Gouge Riders Big Time!
Yes, a Tragic Accident Rocked DC's Metro System. No, You Shouldn't Get Off the Train.
Promoting Public Transit: I Heart This Subway Map!
Beijing's Olympic Subways Outpace US Subways
Beijing's Subway Line 10: "The iPhone of Subways"

Tags: New York City | Trains | Transportation

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