An Argument for Free Mass Transit

In my hometown of New York City, there has been increased attention lately on the issue of fare evasion—when someone seeks to avoid paying the fare required to get on a bus or subway train.

I made a tweet on social media pointing out that an easy way to get rid of fare evasion is to get rid of fares. Tweets aside though, I really think mass transit should be free, and there are some compelling arguments in favor of it.

Chief among them is the environment. If we really want to do all we can to take care of the environment, there needs to be more mass transit, better mass transit, and more incentive to take mass transit. Why? Because driving a car results in significantly more CO2 emissions per trip per mile than mass transit—either bus or rail.[1] This is another way of saying that driving a car is significantly worse for the environment than using public transportation. By making public transit free, especially in a time when driving is getting more expensive due to soaring gas prices, we are adding an incentive for people to ditch vehicles that are bad for an environment that desperately needs to be taken better care of by us as human beings.

Speaking of expensiveness, free public transport would create a means of getting around that even the poorest people in the working class can afford. This is not currently the case, which is a part of why some people are so poor that they can’t afford to get jobs.[2] After all, it costs money to drive to and from a job interview (let alone work), and currently with most public transportation, it costs money (for some, too much money) to take a bus or a train to and from a job interview or work. And then there are many others for whom the money used on a daily basis for public transit means money not spent on other basic necessities, such as food or paying off certain bills. Free public transit eliminates the potential barrier to a job for some, and the difficult choice of having to choose between paying for public transit and paying certain key bills for others.

There is a third argument in favor of public transit that should get highlighted, though: it means that government resources don’t have to be used on addressing fare evasion. There are some cities, such as mine, that are using government resources, such as more police officers in subway stations, in order to try and address fare evasion. However, if there are no fares to evade, then critical police (and government) resources can be directed in other, hopefully more productive, ways than trying to catch someone who didn’t pay $2.75 at a subway turnstile. I wasn’t joking when I said on social media that one easy way to eliminate fare evasion entirely is to eliminate fares entirely.

By this point in my post, you may be thinking the following: “Brendan, this sounds nice, but who’s going to pay for this?” Each person will have a different take, but personally, I think we should start with people who could take mass transit yet drive instead. Currently, mass transit is at least partially paid for on the backs of fares that need to be paid regardless of how wealthy or poor you are. What this means is that someone who is homeless can at least in theory find themselves needing to pay a fare to get on mass transit—something that shouldn’t sit right with anyone. After all, doesn’t that sound like knocking someone when they are down? Which, perhaps, is what having to pay a fare for mass transit in the first place does to so many of us.


[2] I wrote a blog post on this issue:

An Alternative to the “Bootstraps” Narrative of Economic Mobility

Many sunsets ago, I wrote a blog post talking about why I thought that the “bootstraps” narrative of economic mobility is problematic. I saw the narrative as problematic for a number of reasons, but one of them was due to this notion that we can succeed by ourselves without any help from others (because, in reality, all of us who succeed need the help of other people in one form or another).

This fact, the fact that we all need the help of others in order to succeed, brings me to an alternative to the bootstraps narrative. What I propose is something that I will call here the “community narrative,” named after the fact that all of us need a community of people helping us along the way in order to succeed, whatever success looks like to us.

To highlight this fact, let’s think about one of the classic cliché stories we often hear from the bootstraps narrative: the person who comes from no money at all within their family but becomes wealthy through “hard work.” In this situation, it is possible, even probable, that there was hard work, but various people along the way from poverty to success needed to recognize the hard work in a way that helped advance the formerly poor person’s education/career. This could be anything from a school able to give a full scholarship to the person when they were a student, to a group of influential people recognizing the person’s talents, to a helpful mentor (or set of mentors), to some complete strangers who were willing to take a chance on the product produced by the formerly poor person. In the story I told highlighting the bootstraps narrative, there could theoretically be anywhere between one or two and several thousand people who help the formerly poor person become wealthy along the way—hardly befitting of the notion of one pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. But it is befitting of the idea that we all need a community of people in order to succeed.

Getting ourselves away from the classic cliché stories we often hear with regard to the bootstraps narrative, one must consider and confront the fact that all of us need some help from others in order to succeed. Everyone with a strong education needed a strong institution (or institutions) to accept them into the place(s) with the strong education; every person in a high-level position (unless they run their own company) was hired by someone and likely came with letters of recommendation from a variety of other people; every entrepreneur needed a group of people who believed in the product(s) or service(s) provided; and every politician needed votes from their constituents in order to take elected office. In all these cases, a person who has succeeded needed a community of people in order to succeed—bootstraps simply wouldn’t have been enough. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single industry where you’re able to succeed without a community of people helping you in ways small and large along the way.

While it is possible that someone at some point may come up with a better explanation than my community narrative to explain how some people succeed, I hope that what I propose at the very least helps move a few people from the previous bootstraps narrative—an ill-advised narrative, for a multitude of reasons.

The Classism of Doctor’s Notes in the United States

A lot of times, social media can be a dumpster fire. But sometimes, there are people on social media who make interesting points, and such was the case with one quote I came across:

“Requiring doctor’s notes to excuse absences due to illness is inherently classist in a country w/o universal healthcare and I really wish we talked about it more.”[1]

Upon thinking about this tweet, the person who tweeted it was right: requiring a doctor’s note to excuse absences due to illness is classist in the United States, a country that unfortunately lacks universal healthcare. So, let’s talk about it more.

Many schools and workplaces require someone who’s been out sick, and particularly someone who has been out sick for more than a certain period of time, to give a doctor’s note explaining the person’s absence upon their return to school or work. For many of us, in the cases of a multitude of illnesses (though not all illnesses), it’s simple enough: you go to a doctor, you get something checked out, you find that you are ill with something that keeps you out of school or work for several days or a couple of weeks (like strep throat, an ear infection, etc.), the doctor gives you a note to present to a teacher or employer showing that you were indeed sick with something, you give the note to your teacher or employer, and then you move on.[2]

In the United States, where there is not universal healthcare, not everyone has health insurance because not everyone has a job with insurance or afford to buy insurance if they lack it through their job. Due to how a lack of health insurance can make it prohibitively expensive to visit a doctor (which seems to cost in the $300-$600 range for those who don’t have insurance to cover the visit, per what I looked up online) or even an urgent care clinic (which is less expensive than seeing a doctor without insurance, but still can be in the $100-$200 range apparently), some Americans have a difficult time affording the requisite visit to get that doctor’s note upon their return to work or their kid’s return to school. What are those people to do?

This problem should be especially noteworthy for employers that do all they can in order to avoid paying for health insurance for employees, or employers (oftentimes small businesses) who struggle to afford to pay for adequate health insurance for their employees. As a result, some employees are unable to afford doctor’s visits in general—an injustice in and of itself that prevents people from getting requisite doctor’s notes and has personal and public health ramifications that go well beyond doctor’s notes.

So what is the solution to this doctor’s note classism in the United States?

The long-term solution is universal, affordable health care of some sort so that every single American can be able to go to the doctor when they are unwell. This addresses the issue of being unable to afford a doctor’s visit—which enables someone to get a doctor’s note when they need it. But it has personal and public health benefits that go well beyond the ability to get a doctor’s note. However, to be completely realistic, Congress barely got Obamacare passed and signed into law in the United States (inadequate as it may be in terms of providing truly universal care), and the political situation in the United States is somehow even more toxic now than it was then. In other words, my pessimistic realism is telling me that it may be some time before we get truly universal healthcare. I hope I am wrong.

In the interim, I think that many bosses with uninsured or underinsured employees need to be sensitive to the fact that for some employees, all they can do to get better is to simply rest. As such, sick leave policies should reflect that fact. Admittedly, such an approach requires a certain level of trust in employees that some employers lack (and there are unfortunately some people in this world who give reason for having low trust in employees, but there are also many deserving of that trust). However, the alternative is worse: forcing a poor, uninsured person to come into work sick because they cannot afford to get the doctor’s note necessary to show that they are sick.


[2] However, it is worth noting that there are some illnesses where things like rest and fluids are needed far more than a visit to the doctor. Asking for a doctor’s note is problematic in those sorts of situations as well, albeit such situations are not the focus of my post here.

The Economic (In)Accessibility of COVID Tests

You would hope that, nearly two years into this global pandemic, the wealthiest nation in the history of humankind would figure out a way to make COVID tests economically accessible.

What I’ve heard and experienced secondhand in recent weeks has shown to me that such hope is not the reality. I have seen this for myself in a number of ways, the latest being the tests a family member has needed after being exposed to multiple people who tested positive for the virus.

In the case of the family member, one of the tests was a PCR test at a testing site. Even when you get past the fact that some places expect you to pay them a lot of money to get a test[1] (though the relative got his PCR test for free), there was the issue of the long line to get tested. It was a two-hour wait for the relative just to get tested! Worse yet, I know this story, in terms of how long it took just to get a PCR test, is far from an isolated one. This is a problem from an economic access standpoint because lines are so long that some people may need to take time off from work in order to get tested and still perform the other tasks of surviving as a human being (e.g. doing laundry and cooking food), yet lack the work schedule to take several hours off (once you factor in the transit between the testing site and some places not giving their employees the time off in order to get tested) needed to get a PCR test.

Then there are the at-home COVID tests…if you’re able to get your hands on one. That is a big “if” because I’ve been hearing reports from across the United States of people struggling to get their hands on one of those at-home testing kits. When I got an at-home testing kit the other day for the relative who got multiple exposures to the virus, it cost $24! To put the cost of the kit into perspective, $24 is nearly half a day’s wages for someone who earns the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and over 1 ½ hours worth of wages for someone who earns $15 an hour. The bottom line is that many at-home tests aren’t cheap, and they are expensive enough that some may have to choose financially between dinner on the table and an at-home COVID test—even in cases when the person considering the at-home test has been exposed to others who have tested positive for the virus.

I know that the Biden administration is looking to make more at-home tests accessible, so hopefully the increase in supply will be enough to lower the cost of the at-home tests. I also know that some parts of the United States are looking to ramp up their COVID testing infrastructure so that it won’t take so much time to get a test at a testing site. But for now, at least, many parts of the country have not mastered how to make a COVID test economically accessible for those who earn the least money and those who have the least flexible jobs.

[1] There was one time last summer that I considered getting a PCR test in the same building where I work in Manhattan. When I called the place, I was told that it would cost $290! My mom was also quoted ridiculous amounts to get a COVID test a few months ago—in one case up to $250 for a PCR test, with cash only and no insurance accepted. (For the record, I didn’t pay $290 for my test and my mom didn’t pay $250—I didn’t see the use of paying that much money when I could get a test for free elsewhere.)

Hurricane Ida Deaths in New York City: A Microcosm of Who Climate Change Affects the Most

Flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on the Major Deegan Expressway in New York City (The Bronx, to be exact)

A few weeks ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ida ravaged New York City with historic flooding. As I’ve told my friends about Ida, 2-4 inches of snow an hour paralyzes New York City, let alone 2-4 inches of rain an hour, which was what we received. The result was numerous deaths in New York City—deaths in communities that represent a microcosm of who climate change affects the most.

While it is impossible to chalk up the impacts of any one storm entirely to climate change, there is no doubt that warmer air and water temperatures create a recipe ideal for bigger and stronger storms what we got with Ida.[1] And Ida was a storm stronger (in terms of rainfall) than what one is typically expected to get with the sort of climate that exists in New York City.

Due to Ida’s floods, there were numerous deaths. Not only that, but most of the people who died from Hurricane Ida in my hometown of New York City died in illegal basement apartments.[2] It may be easy to wag one’s finger at the existence of basement apartments or those who live in them because they are illegal, but the unfortunate reality is that these basement apartments exist because many people in a city as expensive as New York cannot afford to live anywhere else.[3] In other words, most of the people who died from Ida were likely too much in poverty to afford living anywhere else.

And the fact that this storm, which was likely made stronger by climate change, killed so many who were so poor they could only afford an illegal basement apartment, should serve as a cautionary example of who climate change affects the most.

The situations with people in basement apartments during Ida is one example of this. But there are so many other examples of the poor being particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events fueled by climate change. There was Hurricane Katrina, where those who were in the lowest-lying areas most prone to flooding from the storm were predominantly poor (and Black).[4] It wasn’t just Katrina, though—with storms in general, those in lower-income neighborhoods are most likely to be the most severely affected by these storms,[5] even though they are the least able to handle such storms.[6] With wildfires, as well, the poor are often the most vulnerable—the University of California at Irvine found in a study earlier this year that those impacted the most by wildfires in that state (which have become more frequent as a result of climate change) have disproportionately been poor.[7]

This is not to say that those who are wealthier cannot be impacted by these storms. After all, the Hamptons in New York suffered severe damage from Hurricane Sandy, while wildfires threatened Hollywood a couple of years ago. However, those who are wealthier have more financial resources than those who are poorer to recover from the extreme weather events made worse by climate change, if those who are wealthier even live in areas vulnerable to extreme weather to begin with (and in many cases, it’s the poor who live in the areas most vulnerable to extreme weather).[8] Furthermore, those who are wealthier are more likely to have a place to go in the event of a disaster threatening their residences. For those who think or hope that weather disasters made worse by climate change can be equalizers between the wealthy and everyone else, think again.

What this all means is that reducing poverty is more than an economic justice issue. It is a climate justice issue, too. And failing to address poverty and all its adjacent issues, such as housing affordability, other cost-of-living expenses, and job wages, contributes to more people being more vulnerable to extreme weather events made worse by climate change. As long as we fail to address this, I fear that we should prepare ourselves for higher death tolls caused by a combination of more extreme weather and a high number of people in poverty. That being said, this is a case where I hope I am wrong, and I would be extremely glad if I found that I were wrong.



[3] Ibid.



[6] Ibid.