New York Subway Vs. D.C. Metro

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.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. My understanding is that the New York State subway system is funded in large part by New York State drivers–“Transportation” is roughly one large department, and so it works out that tolls and such in the rest of New York end up underwriting public transit. Because DC doesn’t have this additional funding source, we end up cobbling together funding in a much more haphazard way that makes it more practical to do upkeep whenever the money comes in as opposed to on a long-term, well-planned schedule.

    Aside: in the middle of writing this comment, I decided to actually look for a more detailed description of MTA funding sources and, well, maybe I’m just a lazy Googler, but it is *really* difficult to find. Lots of info about exactly how the money is being spent, but very little about where it comes from. Rob, care to help?

  2. Emily, you’re only partly correct.

    The New York City Subway is operated by the Metropolitain Transportation Authority, a quasi-public corporation. From their website:

    A public-benefit corporation chartered by the New York State Legislature in 1965, the MTA is governed by a 17-member Board. Members are nominated by the Governor, with four recommended by New York City’s mayor and one each by the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties. (Members representing the latter four cast one collective vote.) The board also has six rotating non-voting seats, three held by representatives of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC), which serves as a voice for users of MTA transit and commuter facilities, and three held by representatives of organized labor. All Board members are confirmed by the New York State Senate.

    The MTA operates New York City Transit (subway), New York City buses, the Long Island Rail Road, Long Island Bus, Metro-North Railroad, and various bridges and tunnels around New York. A recent financial statement includes this table on revenues:

    MTA revenue

    Over half their budget comes from operating revenue, which includes fares, tolls, and advertising and real estate fees, among others. I’d love to see a detailed analysis of the revenue structure to see how the various units relate to one another. Certainly, the large size of the corporation must help them maintain a good bond rating and leverage their assets to upgrade the subway.

    Page 23 of their 2005 annual report (the most recent I am able to locate online) describes some of the dedicated funding sources for the corporation:

    State Resources Increased
    In 2004 and early 2005, the MTA worked closely with its funding partners in Albany to develop stable funding sources that will enable it to address significant out-year deficits and help fund the MTA’s five-year Capital Program. Responding to those needs, the 2005-2006 State Budget included three new or enhanced revenue sources for the MTA:
    • an additional 0.125 percent (1/8 of 1 percent) regional
    sales tax throughout the New York State counties served
    by the MTA (the Transportation District) effective June 1,
    2005, expected to generate approximately $110 million
    in 2005, $202 million in 2006, and $230 million annually
    beginning in 2007.
    • an increase in the MRT-1 tax (mortgage recording tax)
    effective June 1, 2005, from 25 cents per $100 of
    recorded mortgage to 30 cents, expected to generate
    approximately $29 million in 2005 and approximately
    $50 million annually thereafter.
    • increases to certain motor vehicle fees effective
    October 1, 2005. The MTA will receive 34 percent of
    the increase, expected to generate approximately $61
    million annually.
    • a $2.9 billion Transportation Bond Act—with $1.45 billion
    allocated to the MTA—that was approved by New
    York State voters in November 2005.

    Suffice it to say Metro enjoys nothing like this sort of stable, dedicated revenue stream.

  3. I’d also recommend that the commenter reads the great society subway book, as it contains many answers.

    I’d also point out that DC is unique in not being a state as well as its many other problems. The federal government also doesn’t pay property tax on its buildings, but lots of people work in them, so it ends up being a lot of ‘users’ of the system that aren’t recouped via tax monies.

  4. You must also take into account the ‘cost’ from how much of your income tax and sales tax dollars go towards funding the transit system. While fares in DC are higher, less of our taxes go towards funding. Overfunded government agences aren’t necessarily better, agencies will ALWAYS find ways to spend budget so they don’t lose the appropriation.

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