Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Riding the rails

Even before gasoline got so relatively expensive, very few Westchester County residents would drive to Manhattan jobs. We take one of two Metro-North Railroad lines, run by the New York Metro Transit Authority and partially funded by subsidies. You'd think that Albany would cut the subsidies now that the MTA is getting increased revenue from two fare hikes, but the MTA wants to "invest" the unexpected extra money in highly speculative Manhattan real estate development. That's New York politics for you.

My new job starts a little earlier than my old one, so starting last week, I take the train immediately preceding the one I had been taking. The difference in leaving the local station is only eight minutes, but it's an express that stops just twice between my town and Grand Central (compared to the other's six stops), so it arrives at Grand Central about 15 minutes sooner. The express is a definite "commuter train," always packed with people headed to city jobs. Its popularity doesn't stem from the marginal reduction in total travel time, but when it arrives. It's plenty of time to make it to a 9 a.m. job in midtown (I now work just north of Rockefeller Center), or to catch an express subway to a downtown job, like Wall Street.

I was actually taking the express to my old job for the first couple of weeks, before I found that the following train was early enough. Thankfully so, because it's far less crowded, but now I have no choice but to take the express. I'm not sure about the other express trains in the morning, but this one was bad enough during summer, when a higher percentage of the workforce was on vacation. it's a scramble to find an empty seat. Those of us boarding at my stop often walk literally half the length of the train to find the last available seats. Others give up and simply stand (generally others will get off at the first stop, freeing up seats), and if they had more perseverance, I could well be the one standing.

There's an economics lesson here, believe it or not. Seats on a packed train are a precious resource, and when there are not enough to go around, that's a shortage induced by prices that are artificially (in this case, arbitrarily set) lower than equilibrium. So, it's time to let free market principles take over. The MTA already charges higher prices for "peak hour" trains (defined at the MTA website), which perfectly gives preference to those who will pay more for a scarce resource. It should take the next step and add an additional surcharge for the most popular express trains. People would then take an earlier or a later train to save money, depending on how valuable their time was. The rest of us would be willing to pay higher fares so there would be enough seats.

One thing the MTA should do is charge certain "large" passengers double fares (and tell the unofficial "fat lobby" to "eat it," pun intended). I regularly see men who must weigh 300 or 400 pounds, and it's flatly impossible to sit next to them. They might complain that they paid the same fare and have a right to a seat, but seating on a train is not a public good, because you can consume it and thus deny it to someone else. Nor is it a valid excuse that the seats are too small. They're not recliners, to be sure, but even I, built pretty big (I wear a size 48 jacket), fit into the seats just fine. It's uncomfortable only when I sit next to someone who also has broad shoulders.

Only a few years ago did Southwest start enforcing its policy of charging fliers double if they're "large" and take up two seats. Continental and American do the same, but Southwest in particular has been villified for this. Yet the critics forget basic business, that an airline counts on allowing x passengers to board because only x seats are available. And if "fat advocates" threaten to boycott Southwest, bingo. Without realizing it, they've hit on a free market principle. Southwest's competitors can claim they're "fat-friendly" and get that business, though they'll have to accomodate "larger" passengers by inconveniencing the others in one of two ways: bumping them off the flight or letting them fly in misery. A few years ago, I had a terrible experience sitting next to (thankfully not between!) two women who were extremely overweight. Even with the arm rests up, a petite person would have found my effective space very uncomfortable. They were nice, though, and exceptionally apologetic, so I elected not to complain.

The stupidest claim about Southwest's policy is that Southest should "accomodate" its larger passengers by using larger seats. The critics again forget basic business: fewer seats produce less revenue, and thus everyone will have to pay higher ticket prices to cover the fixed cost of the flight. The critics are effectively arguing it's fair for someone to consume more of a resource (seating) yet pay the same as the rest.


Blogger T. F. Stern said...

An interesting article, thank you.

I just got back from flying on Continental and the seats on the flight over "felt bigger" and had more distance between each row. Now I never bothered to measure them with a device, just going by feel. On the way back I had some woman's knees in my back because the rows were so close together and the seats would not recline. I paid the same for each direction on the same kind of plane. So how come the noticable difference? Maybe I should check out the size of my butt to see if I ate too much while there and grew.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 11:06:00 AM  

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