A recent visitor to this website asked this question on a previous post:
hello, i am a New Yorker who relocated moved to DC last year. in my decades of riding the NYC subway, at $70/month unlimited rides, I have probably experienced a handful of delays and/or major issues with the tracks. in my one year of having lived in DC, there has been an average of one major delay per week due to track or other issues —- and I pay over $4.00 per one-way trip.
can you offer some thought or explanation as to why this is, in the context of the two train systems?
Although I know far more about the history and operations of Metrorail than the New York City Subway, here’s my general reaction on the reasons this rider has experienced more delays on Metro:
1. System redundancy: When I have traveled to New York, I often noticed construction work or service disruptions on the subway. However, unlike the Metro, the system has multiple tracks on most routes and many tunnels to route trains during disruptions. Metro, on the other hand, has much more limited flexibility – when a train breaks down, there’s no alternate track or tunnel for those behind it to travel on. Here’s some thoughts about why that is.
2. Funding differences: WMATA is generally under-funded and has no dedicated funding source – they go begging each year for tax dollars from Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. In the words of a fellow planner: “Over the years, WMATA has had to make a choice: make needed track repairs for mid-life preventative repairs or pay for additional rollingstock to meet massive demand. WMATA chose for years to purchase additional rollingstock.” I don’t know the history of New York Subway funding, but today the system is run by a huge state agency.
3. System age: The New York City subway is very old. This means that they have lots of maintenance to do, but it also means they have been at it for a while. The Metro is just hitting middle age, meaning lots of things are breaking for the first time now, at the same time they are facing the strain of record ridership.
What About the Price?
The issue of cost raises several issues, First, I should remind the commenter that the New York City subway, like New York City itself, is unique by American standards. The city has a unique history, namely it grew explosively before the auto age, setting a template for high density, transit-oriented development. As a result, the city’s density is off the charts, low auto ownership off the chart, transit use off the chart, and the activity level on its streets generally higher than anywhere else in America. I’m always surprised by former New Yorkers who somehow think their city is a reasonable standard to compare any other city in America. (You can’t get a good slice of pizza, everything closes early, your subway is worse, etc.) In fact, you should expect other American cities to be very different than New York.
That said, there are several reasons Metro’s fare is higher. First, they charge high fares because they need the money and they can. Second, their ridership peaks heavily, meaning most riders travel during peak times. The New York Subway’s riders are spread out more throughout the day, and the system is open 24 hours. Operating a system with high peaks is much more expensive than a system with more even ridership in terms of trains, personnel, and infrastructure. Third, given the Metro’s size and relationship to the region, for many riders it functions more like a commuter rail system. In fact, despite the graduated fares my analysis showed the longest distance riders are getting the best deal — under $0.50 a mile, lower than the IRS mileage rate.
These are just some quick thoughts regarding the differences, and I’d be interested in other perspectives.
In casual conversations, the convenience of the New York Subway is the gold standard for American public transit, and for good reason. Although it has flaws, it is enormous and a relative bargain for travelers. We also haven’t built anything like it for over 100 years. That’s why I’ve been spending my time writing about what we need to change to increase investment in alternatives to the road and freeway network.