MTA Student Passes: Time To Cut the Cord?

It was only about a decade ago that former Governor George Pataki and MTA head Virgil Conway, who were loading the agency with billions in debt so their generation could have things they didn’t have to pay for (with some getting more than others), generously decided that the half fare for senior citizens on subways, buses and trains would be available 24/7. As I recall, the federal government had required that such discounts be available in off peak hours. And now, as all those debts come due (and not just at the MTA), the agency is proposing to eliminate school passes for NYC school children, no matter how poor they are. The senior discounts, which are available no matter how affluent someone over 65 is, of course, would remain untouched. A two-part decision just like all the rest.

No doubt there will be lots of tut-tutting about this, by the rationalizers and hypocrites. On TV I just saw former state legislator Stringer, who generously voted for all those debts, all those pension enhancements, all those diversions of funds to more powerful interests, all those grasps at funds by his generation, saying how terrible it was. Perhaps this will be seen as a gambit to cut actual education at the schools further, and shift the money to the MTA. Except that as a result of the 25/55 pension deal of two years ago, education is eventually going to be slashed as much as transit service in any event. So perhaps Mayor Bloomberg might decide to stop going along with the propaganda and use this as “teachable moment.” And instead of going through the motions of a deal that makes the children even worse off but pretends to help them, instead back an all out effort to substitute bicycles for transit for the city’s school children.

First a little background. At the selective public high school my children attend, there are many children of well off parents, but also may children of recent immigrants of modest means. The school’s method of teaching assumes the availability of a personal computer and access to the internet, which could be quite a burden for those families, something that concerns me. Now, to that burden would be added a cost of $900 per child for transportation. Some children aren’t going to be able to travel to schools like that anymore, for financial reasons, another step in the end of America’s equal opportunity era.

Fans of privatization might compare the 11 percent raises recently affirmed for the TWU with the proposed elimination of school passes, and conclude that the city would be better off contracting with private bus companies. This perspective would conveniently ignore the fact that city and state payments to the MTA for school transportation were slashed two budget crises ago, and never restored in two booms, remaining at 1995 levels as the MTA borrowed the difference. It also ignores the fact that the city’s private bus companies are an oligopoly maintained with extensive lobbying and campaign contributions to the City Council and State Legislature, with non-bid contracts automatically renewed. Those companies file lawsuits against any attempt to reduce costs, and when they lose, leave children stranded in the snow until the costs go up again.

In FY 2007, as I showed when the data came out, New York City spent $941 per student on school transportation, compared with a national average of $416. Even an adjustment for the higher cost of living here only brought the city total down to $688 per student, well above the national average. Despite the fact that New York City students are far more likely to walked to school, at a student transportation cost of zero. Despite the large number of students who used MTA facilities, for a lower cost than the city paid in 1995. For those students actually using the private bus services, the price paid is astronomical.

So what to do?

Prior to former Governor Spitzer signing the 25/55 deal for New York City teachers in early 2008, I would balance my public policy critiques with suggestions for what ought to be done. The signing of that deal, which meant that the end result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit would be higher taxes, higher school spending in the suburbs and upstate (where it was already high), and a richer pension for New York City teachers (which was already rich) sobered me up to the reality – public services and public benefits are doomed, and are heading for collapse, because the generation in charge is going to suck them dry without mercy. And there is no point in writing about solutions because the generations in charge aren’t interested. They just want to keep on taking and shift blame, keep the game going to the point of institutional collapse, and then leave or pass on.

But in this case, there is a solution that doesn’t rely much on public services, or at least not on public employees who either get to retire at 55 or (once wages and benefits for new hires are cut enough) are encouraged by their unions to retaliate against the rest of the community for cheating them by doing as little as possible. The bicycle could allow students to get around themselves. Being told that they will no longer receive student passes for mass transit, and will have to pedal themselves to school, will give the children a glimpse of their future, a future in which the government will no longer meet any of their needs but they will nonetheless have to pay rising taxes for the debts and retiree obligations of the past. Obligations that will not be there when they themselves retire. A shift to bicycles, therefore, could help them prepare for that future.

Specifically, rather than ponying up more money for the MTA, or just blaming the MTA and doing nothing, New York City could limit MTA passes to those traveling more than 10 miles, and means test that benefit as well, to take virtually all children off the trains and buses. And it could use federal stimulus money to purchase one million simple one-speed bicycles, set of for transportation with mid-width tires, solid 36-spoke wheels, fenders for rain, bells, and detachable front and rear lights. It could, as well, purchase one million helmets, one million reflective vests, and one million locks. The purchases could be made direct from the producers (all in China for the bicycles) with no retail mark-up, and rented out to those who need them at a nominal cost.

Additional federal stimulus money could be used to install bike racks at the schools. Perhaps in the portion of the schoolyards members of the UFT don’t already use for parking. After all, once the budget cuts really get going, it is likely that gym and sports, following art and music, after school help and summer school, will be eliminated anyway. Volunteers could be recruited to teach some of the children how to ride on the street. Those children could teach other children. Volunteers, as well, could teach some of the children how to maintain and do basic repairs on bicycles. Those children could teach others. This, as well, would provide an educational message for the children: they will need to form new institutions to help each other, because older generations are destroying older organizations while helping themselves.

Up to ten miles the children, tens of thousands, could be told that if they want to attend a school they cannot walk to, they will have to ride to it, in all weather, regardless. Get tough or die. In addition to being cheaper, and feasible even in an era of institutional collapse, having the children walk or bicycle to school would ensure they would get some exercise even as gym and school sports are eliminated. It could thus be used to offset some of the health damage from cuts in health care for children and young adults.

But the big payoff would come later. The question New York City has to answer is “how can we have a viable, high density city with a mass transit system that, for the next 20 to 30 years, will be degrading as maintenance is cut, services are cut, long promised improvements aren’t made, and money is diverted to past debts, pensions and retiree health care?”

The answer is the bicycle. It would allow millions of New Yorkers too poor to un-influential for private automobiles (ie. they don’t have public space to park their cars reserved for them by placard) to get around without using mass transit either. And millions of others to ride to whichever subway line happened to be operating at a particular time, and continue their trip from there. By substituting bicycles for mass transit in the schools, the city would be training the next generation to get by without mass transit, and the city could continue to function, because its low-wage workforce could get to work and elsewhere.

Of course there is one downside to tens of thousands of children bicycling to school. Given the “right to drive” as one pleases that so many feel, and the inherent danger large, heavy, fast motor vehicles present, we are bound to lose a few. This, however, would unlikely to present a significant political problem in New York, where the Administration for Children’s services is always cut first and deepest in each fiscal crisis, and we always lose a few. Perhaps pedestrian and cycling advocates could acknowledge each child death by sending a bottle of Champaign to the State Assembly, the State Senate, the TWU, the UFT, and of course former Governor Pataki and former MTA head Conway, to symbolize our acceptance that (in the words of a former TWU labor leader commenting on a successful negotiation) they “took all there was to take.”

Despite this risk, I seriously believe it is time to force younger generations to face the future as it will be for them, and not just in transportation. Older generations will no doubt want to continue to rationalize, and the elimination of school passes might make it a challenge, but I’m sure they’ll manage. Perhaps they’ll even get hyped up in outrage that the little bastards are getting bicycles, and demand that the formality of proving “medical need” for electric wheel chairs under Medicare be dropped, and the government pay for the electricity as well, to make things fair.

No matter. Those who actually care should take this opportunity to help the next generations to move on, and find a viable way to move in a still viable city. And bicycles are one way they will be able to do so. Because they are cheap, and those who ride them do not retire at 55.