Theses Doctoral

How the Poor Afford Public Transportation: the Case of New York City

Perrotta, Alexis Francesca

This research asks how universality of ridership is maintained in New York City’s transit system given that it is gated by the fare. Transportation planning scholarship presumes transit is affordable because the fare has a relatively low price and ridership among the poor is high. The transit agency addresses universality by maintaining a fare structure that keeps the single ride fare relatively low. Its method is based on empirical evidence that low-income riders “prefer” cheaper fare products over those with lower average fares but that require higher initial cash outlays. Transportation scholarship observes that low-income riders are inelastic and presumes, based on economic theory, that riders will forego more elastic goods to ride transit.
Critical planning scholars have contested the tenets of the modernist planning project which utilize predict-and-provide empiricism and neoclassical economic models such as these. While urban planning has turned toward direct collaboration or at least participation with affected communities, transportation planning has not fully made this turn. There is thus little transit-related research that is informed directly by riders, especially low-income riders, suggesting the conventional approaches to understanding how riders afford the fare are incomplete.
To fill this void, this research engages with low-income transit riders to elaborate and challenge the explanations for universality of ridership. It finds that although the fare price is low, it is not necessarily affordable. The “preference” for single ride fares is in most cases the result of constraints. Single fare rides are often combined with fare evasion and exploitation of free transfers, while unlimited fare cards are highly sought and widely shared. Low-income riders are more likely to undertake compensating behaviors than to forego goods. On the occasions when they do forego goods, they compromise necessities such as food, telephone service, rent and laundry. Finally, agents of the welfare state distribute fares to low-income individuals to promote rehabilitation and labor force attachment.
Together these findings suggest that universality of ridership is tenuous. It depends on fragmented systems of generosity, compromise and welfare of which transit advocates and planners are largely unaware. Fare evasion enforcement, pricing structures and fare payment methods can pose challenges to riders who rely on these fragmented systems. By explicitly acknowledging transit affordability, and incorporating knowledge on the role that welfare plays in enabling low-income ridership, planners can expand access to transit for low-income riders.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Perrotta_columbia_0054D_12836.pdf Perrotta_columbia_0054D_12836.pdf application/pdf 2.24 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Sclar, Elliott
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 21, 2015