Monday, November 24, 2008

MuttroCard--an idea whose time has come!

As you've probably already heard, our mass transit system is now embroiled in a major crisis. To which I suppose the stock response would be "And what else is new?" But this is sounding really bad, folks. Normally, they tell us that they either have to raise fares or cut service. Now they're saying they'll have to do both. So at the very time we most need to save money and hustle to make more, we'll be buying hundred dollar Metrocards to stand on a trash-laden subway platform for half an hour. If we're lucky.

That's what bugs us as New Yorkers--what bugs us as New Yorkers with dogs, in good times and bad, is that we can't bring our best buddies along for the ride, even though we pay our fares and our taxes to keep the MTA afloat, like everybody else.

The MTA rules say no animal can be on a platform, in a train, or on a bus unless it is in a 'container'. So, if we have very small dogs, we can stuff them into a little carrying case--or we can try, anyhow. Works better for some pint-sized pooches than others, though I gather cat owners have an even harder time.

If you have anything much larger than a beagle, your typical Sherpa-type bag isn't a viable option, though an innovative firm in Brooklyn named Celltei has been working on that problem. I could probably fit Max into the bag they make for Doberman Pinschers in the 55lb range--gee, only $429.00--now all I have to do is persuade Max to get inside it, carry him down the stairs and through the turnstile, carry him back out again, and then tote a big empty bag around with me once we're outside--then repeat to get back home. Piece o' cake.

The only local exception (which most NYC dog people don't seem to know about) is the Metro North, which allows you to bring dogs on the trains without any container during offpeak hours, as long as they're leashed, don't occupy a seat, don't make a mess, don't bother anybody, yaddayaddayadda. Some sources also say the dog can't weigh more than 65lbs (Max barely qualifies), but I've yet to see a conductor toting a scale, and actually some of them are quite dog-friendly themselves (and others you just have to learn to cope with). I've seen people with Labs and Goldens and Setters on the Hudson Line. I've never seen anybody have a problem bringing a dog onboard, though you do occasionally get a conductor with an attitude problem.

If you've got a Great Dane or an English Mastiff, you might be out of luck, but behavior is generally more important than size. And if the train isn't crowded, you can sometimes get away with draping a jacket or sweater over the seat, and letting your dog lie on that, and maybe rest his head on your lap. After a day's hike in some lovely Westchester park, that's about the most pleasant ride home you could ever hope for.

But then you get off the train in the city (we generally use the Marble Hill station), and unless you live nearby, your options are a long walk home, or else try to find a livery cab driver who'll take dogs--always a challenge, and you better tip well. And cab rides really add up after a while, don't they?

And you start to ask yourself how this cockamamie situation got started in the first place. America, a country that dotes on dogs to such an extent that Malia Ann and Sasha's as yet unchosen puppy gets as much ink as their dad's cabinet picks, has what may be the least dog-friendly network of trains and buses in the world, though a few towns have have bucked that trend. Dogs are allowed on mass transit across much of the planet--in cities with much better systems than ours--in such cosmopolitan burgs as Paris, London, Milan, Toronto, Melbourne, and those two cities that seem most foreign and exotic of all to a New Yorker--Seattle and Boston.

Yes, the Boston 'T', that quaint little tinkertoy of a subway system, allows dogs. Like it's not enough that they started winning World Series Championships again. They actually have something we've never had. This should make any true Gothamite's blood boil. But in practice, it's just the Gothamites with dogs who, when visiting Beantown, seethe with resentment at this flagrant violation of the natural order of the universe.

Seattle's subway system isn't finished yet, but this notoriously cano-centric town allows large leashed dogs on both streetcars and buses. Only one large dog on a bus at one time, drivers have some discretion as to which dogs get on, and you have to pay an extra fare, but that all seems eminently reasonable.

Anyway, here's a list of dog-related policies for mass transit around the U.S. and Canada--please note that no city in North America is less amenable to canine straphangers than New York. So you might be surprised to learn that earlier this year, a magazine called Animal Fair named New York the Nation's Pet-Friendliest Destination. The people, maybe. The dog runs and offleash parks, certainly. The city? Eh, not so much.

And just to add to the general irony, back in 2004, a pooch without portfolio wandered onto the #2 train, and not only did she become a briefly celebrated media darling, but one of the officers who apprehended her apparently ended up adopting her. And you wonder why our dogs give us strange looks sometimes?

So cutting right to the chase--what am I proposing? It's long been a dream of New York dog people that their chums would at least be allowed entry to the subway (if not the buses), without having to be stuffed in a bag. I've lived the dream--both of the dogs I've lived with in New York have ridden the subway multiple times, first Peggy, then Max. Yeah, I sneaked them onboard. So? You want to make something out of it? I got asked to leave a few times, by transit cops and motormen (I usually just got back on again), but mainly I got away with it, and nobody ever complained, and both Peggy and Max behaved admirably, and got plenty of admiring looks from fellow passengers.

And you know what? It's very stressful. You always expect to get caught, and when you are, you end up feeling angry and embarrassed and more fed up with the situation than ever. And it seems like the transit police are starting to do more than tell people to get their dogs off the trains--they're handing out 150 dollar fines, even for tiny dogs.

I'm tired of sneaking around. I'm tired of hiding my dog behind a bench or a bin on the platform as the train rolls in, so we can dash for the door as it opens. I'm even more tired of spending 40 dollars on livery cabs just to take Max to Van Cortlandt Park for a nice morning ramble. I'm tired of wishing we could take Max to visit a friend downtown, or maybe go for a stroll in Greenwich Village and eat at a dog-friendly sidewalk cafe, without spending a fortune just getting there and back. I'm tired of hearing about people wanting to take their dogs to get a reduced-fee vaccination in another part of town, but they don't have a car, and the cabfare would wipe out the savings. And even though I'm within easy walking distance of the best vet I've ever known, I'm tired of hearing about people feeling pressured to choose their doggie's doctor on the basis of geography, instead of competence and compatibility--and many New Yorkers don't live near any animal hospital. Vet bills are expensive enough, without having to add cabfare to the final tally.

Most of all, I'm tired of being told why we can't have dogs on the subway unless we treat them as luggage. They're not luggage, dammit. They're citizens, if not in law, then in our hearts, and no human citizens contribute more. They comfort us, protect us, connect us to the world around us. This is their city as much as it is ours. It would be pretty near unlivable without them. Something's got to give here. And we've given enough.

So why doesn't it happen? Our city politicians are mainly dog lovers--Christine Quinn is a noted example. But what you hear is that the city council is afraid of hearing from the city's outspoken minority of canophobes, and maybe the dogs would piddle on the trains, etc. In reality, no well-adjusted housebroken dog on the subway ever makes this mistake, even on elevated platforms--you'd have a hard time persuading them to pee on a train or in a station if you wanted them to. Would that all humans riding the subway were similarly restrained.

What it comes down to is that nobody in city government wants to pay the political price for putting a bill through. The status quo abides precisely by virtue of being the status quo. We've never allowed dogs on the subway--why start now? So fairness and equality and sane persuasive arguments are all well and good, but we need something more. We need leverage.

And I think we've got it now--the best leverage of all--money. The MTA needs it, and we've got it. Seattle points the way. Yes, in the best of all possible worlds, dogs could ride free--as they do in Boston. And little dogs in designer bags and custom crates should go on riding free, since they're not taking up any significant space. But for those of us who can't make use of that option--MuttroCard!

Do we have to go with the 'big dogs pay the same as people' rule they have in Seattle? Not necessarily, but the fares would have to be high enough to be a strong inducement to get this passed. Think about all the money we blow on cabs--not to mention the time we waste in traffic jams, or trying to find a parking space. This would be something well worth shelling out for, even for many dog owners with cars.

How could it work? In a variety of ways, just as with people--there could be a separate card to swipe for your dog, or you could buy a card that works for both of you--there has to be some way to verify that you've paid for your dog, which is why there needs to be a specific type of card, which can be checked by law enforcement. Or perhaps even a Proof-of-payment system, such as the one being used now for the Bx12 Unlimited bus in the Bronx--you get a receipt before boarding, and have to provide it on demand, or face a fine.

As to charges, there could be a pay per ride option, a daypass option, or a deluxe 30day unlimited ride option for people who really want (or need) to take their dogs everywhere--the machines are already in place. It's just a matter of tweaking the software. All that remains is the little matter of setting rules and boundaries. Ah, there's the rub.

First of all, it's clearly not practical for people with larger dogs to ride in midtown during rush hour--though I might mention, people are allowed to bring full-sized bicycles onto the trains during those hours. It would have to be offpeak hours only, though 'offpeak' shouldn't be defined too narrowly. Rush hour lasts more than an hour, but it doesn't last four hours. There should be at least 18 dog-friendly hours on workdays, and all weekends and major holidays should be considered offpeak all day.

I've heard proposals that dogs with an AKC Canine Good Citizenship Certificate be allowed entry gratis, but this has never struck me as practical--and in fact, I'm not aware of a single dog-friendly transit system in the world that imposes such a requirement, and those systems all seem to work fine.

In some parts of Europe, pit bulls and certain other breeds are required to wear muzzles on trains and buses--not an idea I love, but it's going to come up. Boston and Seattle are doing just fine without that rule, probably because people who go around the city with their dogs encourage friendly social behavior from them, not its opposite. The issue should not be breeding, but behavior. There should obviously be strict penalties for anyone whose dog behaves aggressively on a train, and anyway, muzzles are a lot easier to tote around than Doberman-sized carrying bags. Cheaper too.

In general, the people who would care enough to bring their dogs with them would mainly be responsible dog owners with canine companions they trust not to get them into trouble, and it's not as if there's any way to guarantee perfect behavior by humans either. In fact, if this recession gets as bad as some fear it will, human behavior on the subways could become as big a problem as it once was, though we certainly hope won't happen. But it very well might. And that's a whole other argument for MuttroCard.

Put it this way--coming home late at night, would you feel safer on the subway car with the friendly Rottweiler, or the one without the friendly Rottweiler? Having been mugged on the #4 train some years back, I know my answer--I only wish there'd been a Rottweiler or two on that car. Bernie Goetz I could live without. But if the duo in the picture below had been riding in that ill-fated subway car back on 12/22/84, would anybody have gotten hurt? I sincerely doubt it.

There are probably over a million dogs in New York City and its immediate environs as I type this--only a quarter of them are licensed, but that's another issue. I doubt all their owners want to take them around on the subway, and probably a lot of them shouldn't. Let's say 250,000 dogs ride regularly--let's say their owners spend, on average, 100 dollars a year on MuttroCard fares (and no, it doesn't have to be called MuttroCard, but that's what everybody would call it, so why bother to pretend?).

That's $25,000,000 a year that the MTA didn't have before--not nearly enough to end the current budget gap, obviously. But why look a gift horse in the mouth, even if he is a Great Dane or a Wolfhound? More income is more income, and steady consistent income at that. There's no way this wouldn't be a moneymaker, if it was done even halfway right. And there's no telling how popular this franchise could become--or how profitable. People love their dogs--catering to that love is one of the most recession-proof businesses in existence.

So I'm just saying--MuttroCard. I know I'm only saying it to a handful of people. But spread the word around. Let it jump from one mind to the other, like a hungry flea. As New Yorkers facing a looming transit crisis, we're all in this together. The dogs kept us sane after 9/11--they can help us through this too. And get some fun rides in return. 'Nuff said (for now).


cinneri said...

Hi....have you gotten anywhere with this? Is this something we can actually petition for? Ridership/fares would absolutely increase...probably not enough to close the budget gaps but it would be something.

perhaps we can provide the MTA with a consultant for free/ animal loving businessman/lawyer or someone who can sort that stuff out...

Chris said...

Hi Cinneri--no, I've gotten absolutely nowhere with it, though I've continued to research the issue, and to talk about it elsewhere online. I broke my ankle a bit over a year after writing this, and there have been other distractions, but I've considered taking it to the next level, going to public meetings, etc. Just haven't actually done it. I will say this--it would be a fight--there are a lot of people who would absolutely refuse to see reason on the subject, and will not allow themselves to process the fact that dogs on mass transit is not a big deal in many other parts of the civilized world.

If you want to discuss the possibility of an actual campaign, shoot me an email.