NYC to require 5¢ charge for single-use shopping bags

Over two years ago I wrote about my experience on a quick run to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. Seven items, to be exact—which were then placed in six plastic bags, flimsy because they were intended to be used only once and then tossed out. (It was a spur-of-the-moment trip on the way home that evening, so I didn’t have the usual reusable bags I would have given the grocery store to put my items in.)

Those six bags were among the approximately 10 billion single-use bags that the NYC Department of Sanitation estimates New Yorkers toss out every year—a whopping 19,000 every minute. Disposing these bags costs city taxpayers in excess of $10 million a year.

So it is welcome news today to learn that the New York City Council has passed legislation that will require stores, with “limited exceptions”, to charge five cents for every single-use bag they give shoppers. According to The New York Times, the legislation passed by one of the closest margins in recent years, 28–20. The mayor, Bill de Blasio, has expressed his support for the law.

But it’s not in the clear yet: former mayor Michael Bloomberg “offered a proposal in 2008 for a 6-cent bag fee — 5 cents for stores; a penny for the city — before dropping it several months later amid strong opposition. At the time, one of the opponents on the Council was Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who is now a state senator. Last month, Senator Felder introduced a bill [S7336] that would prohibit the levying of local fees on bags; it passed a committee this week,” writes the Times.

And the fee itself is not perfect. Unlike the bag fee imposed in my former hometown, the District of Columbia, where the nickel collected on every bag helps clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River, the stores will keep every cent they collect of New York’s proposed charge.

But, in the end, if the results in New York are anything like those in the nation’s capital and other cities that have imposed a charge on single-use bags, you can expect to see far fewer of them littering our streets and polluting our city very soon. A small fee can lead to big behavioral change.

Image: New York City Hall by Momos via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

It shouldn’t have to snow for NYC transit agencies to cross-honor fares

It’s snowing in the New York City region, which means we’re seeing tweets like this:

Even on days without “significant weather events”, it’s common to see tweets like this:

Those of you outside the New York City area may be wondering, what is “cross-honoring”? Cross-honoring means that because of a significant service disruption on one transit system another transit system providing approximately parallel service will honor passengers’ tickets for the interrupted service. So, earlier today, when the New York City Subway’s 7 train was interrupted, passengers going from, say, Flushing, Queens—where the Flushing-Main St subway station is about a block away from the Long Island Rail Road’s Flushing-Main St station—to Manhattan could use their MetroCards to ride the LIRR instead.

That’s considerate of the agencies, right? I suppose that’s one way to look at it.

All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)
All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)

But here’s the thing: the New York City Subway and the LIRR are part of the same agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Over in New Jersey, mentioned in the tweet above, the rail, light-rail, and bus systems that are cross-honoring each other’s fares are all part of the same, statewide transit agency, New Jersey Transit.

So, my question is, why don’t they cross-honor each other fares to begin with? As in, all the time, regardless of the weather or service disruptions?

I know, I know: the various systems—the regional railroads, the subway, the light-rail lines, and buses—tend to serve different groups of users in different geographic locations, often with different socio-economic backgrounds and levels of income. It is arguable that a commuter from a wealthier community on Long Island should have to pay more for a trip through Queens than a lower-income New York City resident.

I know, too, that the systems were, at one time, completely separate companies, and that the political and financial deals that brought them together preserved various and separate streams of revenue for them.

What I’m saying is that maybe now is the time to have a conversation on whether that should end.

After all, the New York City Subway was once three separate companies, one owned by the City of New York, the other two in private hands. It gets even more complex when you consider that various sections of what is now the subway, particularly in Brooklyn, were once owned by separate, private railroads and only later absorbed into the IRT, BMT, or IND and then merged into the subway. And even after consolidation of the city’s rapid-transit systems, at one time riders to and from the Rockaways had to pay an additional, premium fare. But that was all eventually swept away and a single, unified fare structure adopted for the New York City Subway and local buses (which are still technically operated by three separate MTA entities: New York City Transit, the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority or MaBSTOA, and the MTA Bus Company).

More importantly, it’s increasingly how New York’s peer cities—and economic competitors—do things. Case in point: Paris. On my recent trip there I paid a visit to Versailles. To get to Versailles from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower, I took the RER’s line C (French) to one of its termini at Versailles Rive Gauche. My walk through the estate and back into town took me past Versailles Rive Droite, a terminus for the Transilien‘s line L (French). At La Défense, I transferred to RER line A. Eventually, I took the métro using the same ticket. It didn’t matter that RER C or Transilien L are operated by the national railway company, the SNCF, and that RER A and the métro are operated by the Paris region’s transit authority, the RATP. It also didn’t matter that the métro is a different mode from the RER or the Transilien; I could have taken a bus or a trolley using the same ticket.

This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region's transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien's website.)
This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region’s transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien’s website.)

See, the Paris region, called the Île-de-France, is divided into zones. Daily, weekly, and monthly passes are issued for a certain combination of zones; with some exceptions, such as airport and river services, a rider can use any public transit within the zones indicated on the pass. The operator or the mode doesn’t matter. As the website for Hourtoule, an operator of local buses in the city of Versailles, explains, “Comme tous les réseaux de transport publics d’Ile de France, Cars HOURTOULE appliquent la gamme tarifaire définie par le STIF.” In other words, “As all public transit networks in the Paris region, Hourtoule buses use the fare structure defined by the STIF.” (STIF stands for Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France. It coordinates transportation throughout the Paris region as well as a unified fare structure. A brochure, available in PDF in French, explains how the fare structure works. A webpage in English explains the many ticket types available.)

Here in New York, I can’t even get from Brooklyn to Jersey City with a single fare (though I can use a pay-per-ride MetroCard the entire way) or from my corner of Long Island to the rest of Long Island using a single ticket.

The Paris region has figured out how to make riding transit across the Île-de-France virtually seamless. No matter the mode, no matter the operator, a single ticket will get you from Rambouillet in the southwest to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the northeast, or from Cergy in the northwest to Montereau in the southeast, and for a relatively low fare.

It’s time to make that happen in the New York City region as well.

An animated history of the New York City Subway (in GIF form)

NYC Subway animated history

This very cool animated map of the history of the New York City Subway by Appealing Industries has been making the rounds on the internet the past few days (WNYC, Transportationist, Untapped Cities, Gothamist, and elsewhere), so of course I had to jump on the bandwagon.

But in doing so, I want to point out that there is at least one thing missing from the map: the eastern end of the IRT New Lots Line—specifically, the Van Siclen Av and New Lots Av stations, served at most times by the 3 train. These stations opened on 16 October 1922, which would put them right after the opening of the New Lots Line from Pennsylvania Av west and just before the opening of the BMT Canarsie Line, today known as the L train.

Do you notice anything else missing from the map?

London > New York? Let’s really be objective

Objective? Sure. Like Kanye West critiquing his own music. Boris Johnson, London's mayor.
Objective? Sure. Like Kanye West critiquing his own music.
Boris Johnson, London’s mayor.

CityMetric, some website I just heard of, is gleefully reporting 10 “objective” reasons why “New York may be losing its crown as the unofficial capital of the world to London.” These reasons were offered by Ed Glaeser, an economist type at Harvard (hey, he has his own Wikipedia article!), and Boris Johnson, who is of course completely objective in his position as London’s mayor.

A friend of mine offered his own interpretation of what Messrs. Glaeser and Johnson’s “objective” facts really mean.

  1. Population: Not as bad as during the Blitz!
  2. Financial sector: Terrorists need money laundered!
  3. Education: Less illiteracy and crime than The Bronx or England’s worst schools!
  4. Geography: Ease of time-zone calculation!
  5. Government: Dependency, cronyism, and Guy Fawkes!
  6. “Fun”: Why does this have quotation marks?
  7. Job growth: Barely faster than population growth, just like NYC!
  8. Bookshops: More of them!
  9. Murder: Not as much!
  10. Museums: Not as boring as bookshops!

There’s objectivity for you.

If the MTA’s debt were a GDP …

One of the eye-popping financial figures being much talked about in the New York City media over the past few days is the Straphangers Campaign‘s report (PDF) that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s debt, currently $34.1 billion, is greater than the national debt of 30 countries.

A sobering figure indeed.

But that got me to thinking: how many countries have GDPs smaller than the MTA’s debt? And I have an answer:


That’s right: 102 sovereign nations have an economic output smaller than the MTA’s current debt.

If we follow the Straphangers Campaign’s lead and exclude nations with a GDP smaller than U.S. $10 billion, that still leaves us with a lengthy list of 45 countries:

Country 2013 GDP
Billions of U.S. $
Jordan 33.7
Bahrain 32.8
Tanzania 32.7
Latvia 31.0
North Korea 30.7
Bolivia 30.2
Paraguay 29.0
Cameroon 28.0
Trinidad & Tobago 27.8
Côte d’Ivoire 27.2
Estonia 24.5
El Salvador 24.3
Uganda 23.5
Zambia 23.4
Cyprus 21.9
Democratic Republic of the Congo 21.3
Afghanistan 20.7
Bosnia and Herzegovina 19.4
Honduras 18.6
Nepal 18.2
Brunei Darussalam 17.0
Georgia 16.1
Equatorial Guinea 16.1
Senegal 15.6
Cambodia 15.5
Mozambique 15.3
Botswana 15.3
Papua New Guinea 14.8
Iceland 14.6
Jamaica 14.3
Albania 12.6
Namibia 12.4
Mauritius 12.0
Burkina Faso 11.9
Mongolia 11.5
Nicaragua 11.3
Chad 11.2
Gabon 11.1
Armenia 11.0
Palestinian Authority 11.0
Zimbabwe 10.9
Laos 10.9
Mali 10.8
Madagascar 10.6
Macedonia 10.2

Looking at the full list of 102, the MTA’s debt is greater than the combined GDP of the bottom 28 nations ($34.1 billion versus $32.1 billion).

The full spreadsheet with all the nations and GDP data can be found here.

These figures were reported in the June 2014 Metro Economies Report (PDF) issued by The United States Conference of Mayors. The report was prepared by IHS Global Insight. The original report included a few “nations” I have excluded here, including American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which I consider to be a part of the United States, and the French overseas departments of French Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion, which are a part of France.

Photo: Fulton Center, the stunning new subway station that opened in November 2014 in Lower Manhattan, cost $1.4 billion to construct—more than the GDP of 18 countries.