Half of New Yorkers eligible for half-priced MetroCards aren't getting them

This will hopefully change thanks to some new funding.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver
Editor, Time Out New York
Photograph: Shutterstock

A new stunning report says that half of New Yorkers who are eligible for discounted MetroCards haven't gotten them.

The Community Service Society surveyed 1,763 low-income, moderate-income and higher-income New Yorkers in the summer of 2021 and found that 48% of eligible New Yorkers hadn't applied for the Fair Fares program and 14% didn’t know how to, mostly in the Bronx. That means that the program, which has been offering MetroCards at a 50% discount since 2019, has been massively underused by those who need it.

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Those who are eligible for the Fair Fares program are those who make at or below the federal poverty levels—$13,950 for one person or $27,750 for a family of four.

"Our mass transit system can be our city’s great economic equalizer," said David R. Jones, President and CEO of Community Service Society. "But if people remain unaware of their right to Fair Fares, the program’s potential impact as a powerful poverty-fighting tool will be diminished."

It turns out that enrollment in the program has not kept up with subway ridership—between March and December 2021, subway ridership increased by 125%, but Fair Fares enrollment only increased by 14% in that same time period. (For the first time since Omicron hit NYC, ridership hit three million straphangers for three days in a row, according to the MTA.)

CSS says these numbers show that there's a need to increase funding for the Fair Fares program so that there can be a more aggressive media and community outreach to make sure that those with the highest need for discounted fares are aware of the program and get enrolled. CSS also recommends institutionalizing the program in the city council budget and expanding Fair Fares eligibility to cover more New Yorkers who need it, specifically from 100 percent or 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line.

"By making transit affordable, we would be investing in the people of New York by enabling them to seek out jobs and training opportunities away from their homes and thus supercharging the city’s recovery," said Debipriya Chatterjee, a senior economist and co-author on the report.

Fortunately, on Monday, Mayor Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams announced that $75 million will be earmarked for the program in the upcoming 2023 budget and that it'll be a permanent part of the city's budget going forward. In the past, it was funded year-to-year based on negotiations with the City Council, according to Gothamist.

"Affordable access to our public transit system is essential to our recovery from the pandemic, and to achieving equity at all times," Speaker Adams said in a statement. "The Council remains committed to returning the program to its original funding level, and if uptake of the program reaches the budgeted amount before the end of the fiscal year, additional funds should be made available to meet the transportation needs of New Yorkers."

"In order for this program to be successful, a stronger commitment and focus on outreach than the one taken by the previous administration is needed, and the Council is a willing partner to help advance those efforts," she continued. "I applaud my Council colleagues who have expressed their strong support for Fair Fares and for helping to increase awareness across the city, so it benefits more New Yorkers and communities."

If you don't know how to apply for the Fair Fares program, you can sign up and check your eligibility here or call 311 to get in touch with the city’s Human Resources Administration for an in-person appointment.

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