Personal Finance

4 Takeaways About The Affordability of Public Transit

Transit systems across the country are feeling financially squeezed, and many are passing the pain along to riders through fare hikes. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the nation’s largest system, has just hiked the cost of its passes, the second such hike in two years. The Metro in D.C. will raise rates on July 1, and a host of other systems across the country are at least considering fare hikes for 2017.

In the wake of the increases on New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, where a monthly unlimited pass now costs $121, ValuePenguin analyzed the affordability of 200 transit systems across the U.S. Encompassing cities large, small and in-between, our analysis considered not only the cost of fares (actually, we based the calculation on the least expensive monthly pass) but how deeply that expense cut into the average income of the city’s transit commuters.

Both the cost of passes and incomes ranged widely from city to city, leading to big differences in how much of the average commuter’s paycheck goes towards that bus or train to work.

1. New York Is About Average For Affordability

Even after this month’s hike, New York isn’t the least affordable city for commuters, or even the least affordable big city, as the charts below reveal. It’s edged out for that dubious distinction by Los Angeles and Miami, where the least expensive monthly passes ($122 and $112.50, respectively) are well above the $67 average for all cities, and represent more than 8% of the average commuters’ income.

A pass in New York is similarly pricey, but the city’s straphangers have higher incomes than transit commuters in most cities. Consequently, that $121 MTA pass represents only 3.62% of their average monthly income--less than half the bite of buying a pass in Los Angeles and Miami and only a little above the national average of 3.2%.

2. Some Cities’ Commuters Get An Easy Ride Indeed.

In the most affordable cities for commuters overall, riders ponied up between 1% and 2% or so of their incomes. Only one big city made the list--Washington D.C., which is another major center whose consumers are fairly affluent. The top three cities of all for affordability--Bremerton WA, Bridgeport CT, and Trenton NJ--were also fairly wealthy, but had relatively moderate costs for passes within the city.

Most of the others in the top 10 for affordability, including Albuquerque NM and Durham NC, were low to middling in affluence, but benefit from passes that cost less than half the national average--generally only $20 to $30 or so.

3. There are Many Roads to Unaffordable Transit

There’s no single factor driving why cities made our least-affordable list. Our analysis reveals that some cities are relatively unaffordable because commuters who make far less than New Yorkers are forced to pay New York-like prices. Examples include Cleveland, Portland, Atlanta, and Denver, where passes cost $100 or close to it. Other cities have below-average costs, but their commuters have incomes that are far below the norm; examples include El Paso, Springfield MA, and Dayton OH.

4. In Many Cities, Transit Riders Are Notably Poor

As noted, the relative affordability of transit in New York City is helped by riders who are above-average in income. The same applies in several other cities, including Boston and San Francisco, where transit isn’t exactly cheap, but isn’t a punishing expense to its middle-class (even upper-middle-class) riders. For these city’s commuters, commutes within the city are relatively fast and parking is both scarce and expensive--even given their relative affluence.

The pattern differs in a number of cities that are not located on the crowded northeast and west coasts. In such sprawling cities, many middle class (and even some relatively poor) workers drive to work, because commuting distances are long and parking is relatively plentiful. Consequently, transit commuters are often notably poorer than the population as a whole. In Kansas City, for example, the average worker makes around $27,000 a year, where the average commuter (not including students who are 16 and under) makes around $17,000--or nearly one-third less than the average.

Paul Reynolds

Paul is a former Editor at ValuePenguin.