Metrocard Unbound!

Another year, another MTA budget crunch. This year’s feels worse, though, given the pernicious recession. You can see the system being chipped away, as the V and W trains, token booths, and various bus lines have vanished. Then, last week, this: a hint that the unlimited-use MetroCard might be capped at 90 fares per month.

Now, 90 fares is plenty, given that the average user swipes his or her monthly pass 56 times. So why does this seem so completely wrong? Since it came on the scene in 1998, the unlimited card has been a lubricant to urbanity, to thinking of the whole city as an organic extension of one’s turf, or maybe even oneself. It encourages a sense of possibility and whim.

When out-of-neighborhood errands, even interborough ones, no longer carry a penalty, the transit system ceases to be about a binary commute, and instead encourages zigzagging around town. The unlimited pass promotes French-style shopping: cheese here, coffee beans there, fruit at the Greenmarket, cutlets at the butcher, all without spending twelve bucks on fares. A stop at Whole Foods on the way home to Park Slope merely requires a brief trip up the steps at Second Avenue. Movie isn’t showing near you? Hop across town. In a city where “unlimited” is far from universal—where else do you have to pay $4 for an iced-tea refill?—the monthly pass is freeing. It’s overstatement to say that it caused the Brooklyn boom, but it sure didn’t hurt to know that, even if you move to sleepy Windsor Terrace, sleepless Manhattan is just a swipe away.

When I was young and semi-broke, I parsed out my tokens. I knew that if a pair of bus lines hooked across town just so, I could make a round trip on a one-way fare, using the transfer to get home. I certainly never rode for just a couple of stops, unless I was frozen solid on a February night. The other day, I took a bus six blocks, purely for the AC.

Is it any wonder that ridership has shot up? In 1996, buses and subways carried 5.3 million passengers per weekday. Last year, they moved 7.4 million. Weekend use is up 68 percent, which suggests that leisure, not commuting, is bringing the crowds.

We are, as a society, moving toward the unmetered flow of many things for flat fees. If you ever used AOL back in the days of paid-by-the-minute Internet service, you no doubt remember what a relief it was to stop looking at the clock. Today, you never turn off your broadband. Gmail is free. You can chat on Skype all day (long distance once cost real money!) and never pay for your news. And once you get hooked on Amazon Prime’s all-you-can-eat two-day-shipping buffet, there’s no going back.

That said, 90 fares is a lot. Three trips a day, plus transfers, will easily get you through a month unless you work as a messenger. But remember the feeling of that old AOL clock. The tickling sense of running out of transit might keep you from meeting a friend for coffee now and then, or stopping for a drink on the way home. It is that tiny extra force toward inertia, just enough to turn weary New Yorkers into less sociable urban creatures. Give us one more reason to stay in, and, sadly, we just might.

Have good intel? Send tips to

Metrocard Unbound!