This story was produced through the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative For Youth (CLARIFY), City Limits’ paid training program for aspiring public-interest journalists.
Humayara Hassan, a soon-to-be high school senior at Brooklyn Technical High School, is one of many New York City students struggling to pay for transportation this summer.
Hassan has two internships: one working on a state senate candidate’s campaign and the other for a startup app company. Both jobs require traveling between boroughs, and there are times when she decides to work from home to avoid the expensive subway fare and asking her parents for money.
“Only one of my parents works and I don’t see him often,” Hassan told City Limits in an email.
“I don’t want every time I see my dad to be about me asking for money for a MetroCard.”
During the school year, the city’s Department of Education (DOE) doles out MetroCards to eligible students in grades 7-12, which cover the cost of three subway or bus rides per weekday. But unless a student is in enrolled in a DOE-sponsored program, they aren’t eligible for the cards during summers or weekends.
As a result, most teenagers cannot attend summer classes, jobs or internships unless they’re supplied with a MetroCard or are able to pay for one themselves. In many cases, the parents of students are not always able to afford MetroCards for both themselves and their children. This problem can greatly impact teens and their ability to take advantage of opportunities during the summer and on weekends, several students told City Limits.
Kelly Sawh, a rising senior at Hillcrest High School in Queens, says she sometimes opts to walk to work in the summer to save money, but that it doubles her commute time compared to taking public transit. Other times, she opts for a ride in so-called “dollar vans” because it’s slightly cheaper than the bus or subway.
“Without the use of a school supplied MetroCard, I’ve had to resort to $2 cabs to [and] from work everyday,” she told City Limits via email.
The city first began issuing student MetroCards in 1997, replacing the transit passes that students had used previously, according to news reports at the time. In 2010, the MTA considered doing away with student MetroCards amid funding cuts, but ultimately kept them in place after backlash from outraged students and parents who could not afford to pay full-fares throughout the academic year.
Eligibility standards for the MetroCards vary per student based on their age and the distance they travel to get to school. Students who live close to their school are eligible for half-fare MetroCards that can be used only on buses. Students who live farther from their schools are eligible for full-fare Metrocards that can be used on both subways and buses, according to the DOE’s website. All student MetroCards allow for students to take up to three trips a day (including transfers) between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. on weekdays only. The MetroCards are renewed every semester.
Outside of the school year, the DOE funds MetroCards for students enrolled in summer school and certain city-run programs, including the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), according to a DOE spokeswoman.
“We have distributed over 100,000 MetroCards this summer to ensure students have safe, reliable transportation to attend summer programs and will continue to provide MetroCards to students who meet the requirements outlined in our policy,” Spokeswoman Miranda Barbot told City Limits.
But teens who get summer jobs or internships on their own, outside of city-sponsored programs, told City Limits they feel deserted.
“I had issues getting to and from work and summer activities because of the cost of a MetroCard,” Hillcrest High School senior Samiha Mazumder said in an email. “There are times where the commute is so long the amount of transfers are too great and I am left stranded.”
Those who can’t afford MetroCards say they’ve jumped turnstiles, asked strangers for swipes, and walked through emergency doors out of desperation to get where they needed to go.
“I personally, have multiple times jumped a turnstile due to not having enough money to refill my MetroCard or because my half-fare MetroCard was of no help in the subway,” one incoming Hillcrest High School senior explained in an email to City Limits, which is withholding her name from publication to avoid potential repercussions.
The nonprofit Community Service Society is among advocates (CSS is a funder of City Limits) pushing for more inclusive transit policies. The organization conducts an annual survey called “The Unheard Third,” which focuses on the hardships faced by low-income New Yorkers. Harold Stolper, an economist for the organization, says respondents have reported missing out on job opportunities and forgoing trips to the doctor because they’re unable to afford a MetroCard.
“If a family is living paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet, something’s got to give, and that means cutting back on the trips they take or other things like food, falling behind on the rent,” he says.
To combat this, CSS and other groups pushed hard to secure city funding to provide half-priced MetroCards to families living at or below the federal poverty level. In June, Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson agreed on a budget proposal which included funding for the so-called “Fair Fares” program, which Stolper says could benefit nearly 800,000 New Yorkers between ages 18 and 64. It’s expected to launch in January 2019, according to advocates.
“I think we should all be thinking about how the cost of transit limits the opportunities that certain New Yorkers face. Fair Fares is a great first step that will cover a lot of individuals and struggling families, but it’s not going to solve the problems,” Stolper adds. “It will be important after we get this program up and running, to think about how do we build on this, and how do we improve affordability for more struggling New Yorkers?”
Advocates have similarly called for the city to fund free MetroCards for CUNY community college students, citing the cost of transit as one of several factors that can cause students to drop out.
Camille Hall works at Columbia College’s Double Discovery Center, a Manhattan program that works with low-income and first-generation youth, and says expanding the limits of student MetroCards would allow teens to take advantage of more opportunities.
“There should be consideration to increase the number of rides each day for students and extend the time frame to use the student MetroCard,” she told City Limits. “There are some after-school programs that end late at night and students would appreciate the financial assistance.”
Hassan, the Bronx senior who’s struggling to afford the commute to her two internships this summer, says she doesn’t expect a handout — but thinks the cost of transportation shouldn’t continue to be a burden on city students like her.
“I wouldn’t expect an unlimited MetroCard that I could exploit at my leisure, but it would feel more encouraging towards my academic and professional endeavors if we could have that little bit of financial help,” she says.