David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

In 2015, our annual Unheard Third survey – the only low-income opinion poll of its kind in the nation – found that one in four respondents reported being unable to afford subway and bus fares. Life in this city depends on our transit system, and without access, people cannot get to work, medical appointments, or school. We knew we had to do something.

After further research on transit affordability by the Community Service Society (CSS), and collaboration with grassroots transit advocates and the Riders Alliance, the concept behind the Fair Fares program was born.

But even the best of ideas goes nowhere without political will. Fortunately, Fair Fares gained momentum and early support from then-Public Advocate Letitia James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer. We partnered with the Riders Alliance and a broad-based coalition of advocacy, labor, legal, and community groups to secure the endorsement of nearly every city elected official, as well as editorials in major newspapers. This support was crucial, but funding the program was equally as essential. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson led the budget fight for funding.

Fair Fares finally became a reality in August 2019, signaling a new day for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who, because of their economic struggles, were often forced to choose between transit and other necessities such as food, medications or paying rent. The program offers half-priced transit fares to New York City residents, ages 18 to 65, with incomes at or below the federal poverty level. Today, more than 245,000 New Yorkers are enrolled in Fair Fares – a benefit more critical now than ever before with so many New Yorkers struggling to get on their feet economically in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Despite being inextricably aligned with his pledge to make New York City a more equitable place to live and work for New Yorkers at the bottom of the economic ladder, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not initially support the initiative. In fact, even after funding was appropriated for Fair Fares in the FY2019 budget, his administration chose to implement the program in limited phases, at first by invitation only to employed recipients of cash assistance and SNAP benefits (food stamps). But by late January 2020, the city opened the program up to every eligible city resident.

With Fair Fares open to full enrollment, the de Blasio administration launched a marketing campaign to promote it on the buses and subway. Enrollment was just ramping up when COVID-19 hit, effectively shutting down the city’s economy and dramatically reducing transit ridership. The advertising campaign was shelved, enrollments centers closed, and the application process was moved online.

More than a year and half later, mass transit ridership is starting to slowly, but steadily, climb. Last week, ridership on the city’s subway (and Staten Island Railway) exceeded three million for three consecutive days. While this is still nearly 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels, it’s a positive sign nonetheless that people are gradually starting to come back to the system. And after criticism from advocates – including CSS – that his administration was not publicizing the program, the mayor announced in July that the city would mount an “aggressive outreach effort” to raise public awareness.

Digital subways ads and radio spots promoting Fair Fares began running in September along with neighborhood advertising in nail salons, barber shops and bodegas, according to the City’s Human Resources Administration, which is managing the program. And beginning next month, ads will start appearing on buses, subways and at bus shelters.

Though it took him far too long to support the program, Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for putting resources behind publicizing Fair Fares. With less than a third of eligible New Yorkers enrolled, we must do all we can to get the word out. Our mass transit system is the city’s economic engine. Expanding access to work, job-training and educational opportunities – particularly for those most impacted by the pandemic – helps everyone and contributes to the city’s recovery.

More can be done to ensure eligible New Yorkers can benefit from Fair Fares. The city could start by screening public assistance and food stamps applicants for the program at the intake point. Similarly, the city should enlist NYCHA and CUNY’s participation in publicizing Fair Fares to its respective communities.

Earlier this month, MTA Acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber said he’d like to double enrollment in the Fair Fares program over the next year. That’s certainly achievable, but it will take a sustained commitment by the MTA long after the city’s advertising campaign ends and a new mayor assumes office. There’s good reason to be optimistic, however: Eric Adams, New York’s presumptive next mayor, supports Fair Fares.

As progressive policies go, Fair Fares is right up there with Paid Sick Leave and Universal Pre-K in terms of improving the lives of our lowest income friends, neighbors, and family members. Let’s do all we can to get them enrolled. New Yorkers can apply online or call 311 for information.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years, and an MTA Board Member. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.