Cash Fares and the Urban Poor

Cash fares are the bane of transit agencies everywhere. People who have to fumble for the exact right combination of coins or bills simply take far, far longer to board a transit vehicle than their peers who pay with some kind of electronic fare media. I’m having trouble finding quantitative evidence for the delay, but I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that most bus riders who pay with cash take 2-3 times longer than people who simply swipe. A single rider paying with cash can hold up a bus long enough to miss a light cycle; rinse, lather and repeat every couple of blocks and you get significant delays over the course of a route. Thus, reducing or even eliminating cash-fare payment (and/or out-of-date swipe cards like the MetroCard) has become a kind of Holy Grail for transit agencies. Transport for London, which manages that city’s public transit services and is at the forefront of innovation in many ways, is actually on track to eliminate the cash fare by this summer. Other agencies are investing in a wide range of new fare technologies, from RFID-based “open payment” systems that allow payment with any of the increasing number of credit cards equipped with RFID chips to smartphone apps that allow payment without a card involved. Many of these technologies seem very promising, especially the idea of open payment with any credit card–why mandate a proprietary transit card like the MetroCard when you could allow people to pay with any old credit card? Open payment and other such innovations, however, still face one major social and political challenge in this country: the fact that most people who pay cash fares are among those who can’t afford to pay for a monthly or weekly pass, much less own things like credit cards and smartphones; many are unbanked.

I try to use my daily bus rides to and from school to observe the other riders and things going on on the bus. I pay particular attention to two things: the number of people who use the front door to exit for no good reason (#$#$&^%#$ selfish idiots!) and the people who pay with cash fare.  I’d estimate that at least 80% of those who pay cash fares on the CDTA buses I regularly ride here in Albany appear (to my admittedly imperfect mind) to fall into one of two categories: poor and of color, or elderly. There’s one group of people who I’ve seen get on several times together that appears to be a family group, four or five African-American people of different ages riding together; all pay cash (and yes, it takes them forever to board). A survey of Chicago transit riders taken before that city’s (disastrous) transition to the Ventra open-payment fare system (to be clear, Ventra also includes a “closed-loop” card option that can be purchased with cash, and you can still pay cash fares on buses) found that 21% have no debit or credit cards, and that they (shockingly) tend to be poor and of color. So while a move to a fully open system fare system may be inevitable–and necessary if we wish to reduce bus delays–taking the needs of lower-income and unbanked populations into account is paramount. How can transit agencies eliminate the noxious cash fare without impacting the ability of poorer people to ride transit?

It’s worth noting that in many cities, you can’t ride some portions of the system on cash alone. In most major urban areas, only local buses accept cash fares, with subway or light rail using faregates or proof-of-payment systems (Boston’s Green and Silver Lines are an exception). Of course, it’s easy to install, protect, and maintain ticket-vending machines in subway or light-rail stations; placing one at every bus stop would be prohibitively expensive, even if it would allow for the elimination of not just cash fares, but pay-at-the-front boarding entirely. In places like Albany, though, with no fixed-guideway systems, every transit vehicle accepts cash payment, with its accompanying delays, so the challenge is to get swipe cards or other forms of payment into the hands of those who are currently using cash. A variety of options exist for this purpose, but it seems to me we could be doing more. London, of course, is simply mandating that everyone use an electronic fare medium; this is the easiest approach to implement, but the least sympathetic to the needs of lower-income people.

A far more promising approach is the idea of integrating fare media with other, more basic forms of ID or other cards that people generally carry. Keith Barry notes in The Atlantic Cities that “Across Europe and Asia, transit fare cards often double as an access card for an office or apartment building, or a payment card for restaurants and shops, or even personal identification.” In other words, fare cards can be not just fare cards; they can be integrated with other forms of identification or payment that people have to carry anyhow. As a SUNY Albany student, my university ID allows me to swipe onto CDTA buses like anyone else (though my rides are free to me). The City of New Haven recently introduced the concept of a city-specific gift and parking card, with the goal of eventually integrating it with New Haven’s first-in-the-nation city-issued ID card. It ought to be (though probably isn’t, because New Haven’s transit is run by CTTransit, a state agency) a simple step to further integrate said card with the transit system. Anyone–in New Haven’s case, even those without legal immigration status–could apply for a city card, which would provide discounts on in-city retailers as well as pay for parking and transit. The card could be refilled in specific places (at government offices, major transfer stations, certain retailers, etc), but the city could also guarantee a ride home by allowing the card to be used without a balance on it, but refusing renewal of the card if the total balance wasn’t paid off at the end of the year. Alternatively, with welfare benefits increasingly coming in the form of debit cards, we could provide additional benefits to the urban poor by integrating transit fares with SNAP or EBT cards. That, though, would require federal legislation, and as much as I think it makes sense is probably therefore an extreme long shot.

The most effective way to eliminate cash fares, though, might be the simplest: spreading the sale of of transit cards to more locations. With the implementation of Ventra, Chicago’s CTA promised to extend sale of the cards to more local retailers in the city’s neighborhoods; such an approach should be quite beneficial. CDTA here in Albany sells their transit cards online (which requires a credit card) and “at local Hannaford Supermarkets, Bank of America, Key Bank, Saratoga Springs Train Station, Proctor’s Theater Box Office and Price Chopper Supermarkets.” Hmm…supermarkets and banks…which local institutions are less likely to be located in the same poor areas where cash-fare riders cluster?  In essence, with transit cards sold primarily through supermarkets, the availability of transit cards mimics the food desert effect: they’re not available where they’re needed the most. Here in Albany, there are essentially no supermarkets in the South End, Arbor Hill, or West Hill, the city’s poorest areas, which of course means that neither produce nor transit cards are available in those areas (the Price Chopper in our neighborhood, which is solidly middle class, is known colloquially as “Ghetto Chopper” because it’s where people from those neighborhoods shop). No wonder people from the area’s poorest neighborhoods are also the most likely to pay cash on the bus. I’ve been told CDTA wants to improve its 60-65% on-time performance (yes, that’s depressingly low), and they’re on the verge of bringing in a next-gen payment system. Here’s one easy step to ending cash fares: along with the new payment system, bring fare cards into local retailers–pharmacies, bodegas, whatever–in the region’s most depressed areas. The more the local stores sell fare cards where it’s most needed, the fewer people will delay buses by paying with cash.