These days, everyone has experienced a little moment of shock when the unimaginable became American. In my case, it was a relatively small thing in my hometown that recently reminded me I was in a different universe. New York City has always had one of the great urban public transportation systems. No one ever claimed it was a thing of beauty to look at or ride, but it got you, with remarkable efficiency and without complaint, from anywhere you happened to be to just about anywhere you wanted to go.
No longer. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the city’s bus and subway lines, finds itself (like many other transportation systems across urban America) facing a sudden financial “shortfall” -- in the MTA's case, almost $400 million, which means severe cuts in service just when we couldn’t be more in need of public transportation. Whole subway and bus lines lopped off or significantly scaled back in places like the borough of Queens, which guarantees that, for many, getting to and from work, especially in the off-hours, will be a nightmare, or in some cases for late night workers essentially impossible. “The cuts,” reported the New York Times, “would eliminate two subway lines, create more crowding on subways and buses, and reduce frequency at off-peak hours. Service on dozens of bus lines would be reduced or ended, and disabled riders would find it more difficult to get around.”
But the prospective change that stunned me, that left me feeling I was indeed living in a new America, was the MTA’s decision to “phase out” what, when I was a kid, we used to call “bus passes.” Today’s version of these still ensures that any student can get to any school and back for free or for at most half-fare. According to the MTA’s latest plans, all students will be paying full fare on public transport by 2011.
This has one practical meaning. If you’re poor and young in New York and your family can’t afford approximately $4 a day in subway or bus fares, you’re stuck in your neighborhood, maybe at the crumbling, overcrowded school around the corner. No hope of better. The finest, most competitive schools in the city’s public school system will be left for those who can afford to get to them. It’s a small thing on the scale of this planet’s problems, but it tells you a good deal about the direction this country is heading in and even if the MTA reverses its decision under pressure, the thinking behind it goes with an America I’ve never known.
Friday, January 8, 2010
TomDispatch on the MTA