Kick off the people on the train who say they...

Kick off the people on the train who say they can’t afford it, a reader says about LIRR fare dodgers. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

This guest essay reflects the views of Sabina Sethi Unni, a writer, urban planner and second-generation Long Islander who commutes into Manhattan from Long Island on the LIRR every day.

Perhaps you’re a construction worker who needs to be at a job site at 5:45 a.m. Perhaps you’re a nanny or domestic worker who cleans houses and starts at noon. Or a home care aide or nurse who starts a night shift at 9 p.m., or an adjunct teaching night school.

If you are, and you're commuting to or from Long Island, chances are you're riding the Long Island Rail Road during off-peak hours. Peak trains arrive weekdays in New York City terminals between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., depart those terminals between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and have the highest demand and ridership. Everything else is off-peak. Peak tickets cost more than off-peak. But if you buy a monthly ticket to get a discount on daily fares, you pay the same price whether you're riding peak or off-peak. That's unfair and discriminatory.

It makes sense for peak fares to be higher than off-peak fares, and transit agencies stagger prices for a variety of reasons: increasing revenue based on higher demand (similar, but not quite, to Lyft and other ride-sharing apps), subsidizing extra costs like greater electricity use for extra cars needed for peak trains, and reducing the financial burden for students, senior citizens, riders with disabilities, and low-income customers who ride off-peak. Equal fares mean off-peak riders are subsidizing peak riders who put more stress on the system.

Daily commuters like me benefit from buying monthly tickets, which give peak riders a discount from 55% to 66.5% per trip compared to the cost of buying single peak tickets, depending on the length of the commute. But you won’t benefit from this if you’re a Long Islander who works outside “regular” hours because all monthly tickets are peak pricing.

Why is this discriminatory? Off-peak riders — often working-class New Yorkers in blue-collar and service industries dominated by people of color — are subsidizing fare discounts for peak riders, who have incomes at least 20% more than off-peak riders and take trips nearly double the length, according to City Observatory and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. If you ride the train during off-peak hours every day and get a monthly ticket, you’re losing anywhere between $69.24 to $173.57 a month. Weekly off-peak 10-ticket passes are even more expensive than a monthly peak pass, ranging from $70 to $410 more per month.

The MTA knows off-peak riders are disproportionately burdened by less frequent and reliable transit service (i.e., fewer trains and more cancellations). Why should these riders also have to pay thousands of additional dollars per year? And cost reductions often increase revenue. When the LIRR’s Atlantic Ticket program reduced ticket costs for rides between the LIRR's New York City stations to $5, ridership jumped 45% and revenue increased 22%.

Everyone deserves access to government-subsidized fees for public transportation, not just those who happen to commute on a 9-to-5 schedule.

Long Island has been forever plagued by the legacies of discriminatory housing practices, segregated schools, income inequality, and racism. The LIRR is not the salve for these issues, but small changes are a start to restitution. Instead of worrying about whether congestion pricing might harm low-income Long Islanders, we should focus on LIRR pricing which already does, and create an off-peak discounted monthly LIRR ticket.

If we can't make public transit truly equitable by making it free for all users, at least we can give off-peak riders the fare they deserve.

This guest essay reflects the views of Sabina Sethi Unni, a writer, urban planner and second-generation Long Islander who commutes into Manhattan from Long Island on the LIRR every day.


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