The MTA and the MetroCard

We have reached the 20th anniversary of the Metrocard, which started out as the newest and best way to get around the New York City Transit system.

We use the Metrocard to get on the subway, on City buses, on the Roosevelt Island Tramway, the Staten Island Railway, NICE buses (formerly MTA Long Island Bus, and Bee-Line buses in Westchester County.  It’s hard to believe that this flimsy plastic yellow magnetic strip card has lasted so long, and it’s harder to believe that with the good and the bad, this card has pretty much been the staple of New York City public transit over the last two decades.  And now it’s possible that we are coming to the end of the line.

Let us see where it has taken us:

I remember back in the early 1990s, the Metrocard was blue and it was only used by the public for payment of the fare at certain subway stations.  After  while, they were expanded to all subway stations and many buses, again only to pay the fare.  For a time, while the new machines were being broken in, once you paid the fare, you still had to get an old-fashioned paper transfer to go from bus to bus.  It wasn’t until the Metrocard was “rehabbed” starting in 1998, with the introduction of Metrocard Gold, when the card became useful, with transfers between subways and buses  made possible in what was once a two-fare city in most respects.  Back in 1999, we came out with Unlimited-Ride Metrocards, which were a godsend compared to having to shell out money for single fares with transfers, and ridership started to soar to a level not seen since the 1960s, before the bad ol’ days of the subway system).  Now, just last year, they finally made upgrades to the Metrocard systems to allow not only refilling of Unlimited rides on cards, but to allow for Pay-Per-Ride and Unlimited Ride products on the same card.  That came with a $1 new Metrocard surcharge, but at least if you had an existing card, there was no need to keep getting new cards and having to throw out the old ones.

Cubic Transportation Systems is the manufacturer of the electronic fare collection media and machines for the subway, and their products have been time-tested worldwide (heck, Vancouver’s Translink uses the exact same fareboxes, farecards, and vending machines as NYC Transit).  Never mind the system we have in place, which took many years and many refinements to work across the board, was pretty antiquated when it was purchased.  It took several years for the MTA to move forward with the Metrocard; it was introduced to the public in 1993-1994, but the system was purchased around 1990-1991.

Now that we are coming closer to the end of the Metrocard as we know it, what is next?  A new version of the Metrocard?  A smart card?  Using cell phones as payment?  Who knows, at this point.

Many other cities like San Francisco, Atlanta, and Boston have gone for smart card technology, which allows you to tap a hard plastic card onto a target on a turnstile to pay for fares or use unlimited ride products.  You can refill these cards at vending machines, like we do with Metrocards, or on buses in areas where subways aren’t available.  Most systems charge a $5 fee for the card to recover equipment costs, but you can keep the card for as long as you can, to get the most use out of one card versus continually buying cards.

Some cities, such as Salt Lake City, Portland, and London are either using or planning to use bank card and cell phone contactless fare payment, often supplementing Smart Card technology, since it is very similar.  The user would use their bank credit or debit card to charge their fares by tapping the card on the farebox or turnstile without having a transit system’s fare media.  The banks would supply either a compatible card or key fob for convenience so that riders can debit or credit their accounts directly and not have to a) pay the transit system and then use their card, or b) worry about carrying exact change or having cash on them, period.

So what’s the MTA’s plan?

It appears that the MTA is going in the direction of contactless fare payment, such as using credit cards with RFID (radio frequency identification) or some media with NFC (near-field communication) technology such as certain cell phones.  Which means they would have to upgrade every single bus farebox, turnstile, and possibly vending machine with a tap mechanism to make the system work.  Not a problem, Cubic can provide upgrades to the antiquated Metrocard system.

So, why isn’t anything getting done?

Part of the problem is that the MTA, having spent millions of dollars on Metrocard infrastructure from the turnstiles to the vending machines to the back-end systems that process all card transactions to the actual cards themselves, doesn’t want to spend even more money to purchase and replace this outdated equipment for a new system which might be obsolete once they deploy it.  They would rather have the banks or a private firm purchase, setup, and deploy their equipment and the MTA would clean up on the revenue from the system.  Chase Bank, for example, would have RFID or NFC-enabled bank cards sent out to people who take the subway so they would be on the forefront and would have their internal departments process all of the transactions and harness the equipment the MTA doesn’t want to pay for.  That includes a new “Metrocard,” so to speak.

I’m not too sure the MTA wants to go the route of the smart card like Los Angeles’s TAP card or Seattle’s ORCA card, being that the MTA would have to not only implement new turnstiles, machines, and back-end infrastructure, but also to implement a new card to replace the Metrocard, whether in name or otherwise.  The original proposal would have a new smart card, called simply “The MTA Card,” which would be used on subways and buses and possibly on Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road.  Well, that plan would go nowhere right now, even though it probably would be the better option so that everyone can use a card to access transit.

I’m also not too sure they want to go the route of the Ventra Card, being used by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to replace their ChicagoCard smart card, even though in theory this is what the MTA wants.  With all of the features of Ventra, CTA no longer has to worry about fare collection, because the Ventra system allows riders to use a special debit card to basically use for everyday products but also can be used as a transit pass.

For some more commentary, check out this article below:

The only problem with the system, aside from the CTA practically giving money to Cubic (which ironically is the same company that built our Metrocard infrastructure) to collect the fares for them, is that people have to purchase a debit card for transit and everyday purposes to theoretically reduce their card inventory from several cards to just one, but in reality, it’s just another card to carry.  I say this for this reason:  just because you can use Ventra for everyday purchases and transit, how are you going to transfer transit account balances from the Transit Card or ChicagoCard to Ventra plus transfer credit card balances and/or debit card checking and savings accounts to Ventra and then get rid of all your cards?  More importantly, what happens when you lose your Ventra card?  If you had credit card and debit card purchases, how do you report it or dispute fraudulent charges?  If you had a transit pass, how do you recoup the remaining rides on the card?  And who would close all of your former bank accounts when you make the switch?

If the MTA wants to go the route of new technology for the 21st century, they better do their research, or at least hope that this hesitation after looking at issues like in Chicago is the reason why nothing is moving forward.

Personally, I think the MTA should do the following:

First, I would implement the NFC and RFID technology that was tested on several Lexington Avenue Line subway stations several years ago with Mastercard.  It would be open-source, maybe in house with cooperation with Mastercard or VISA, with transponders on every bus similar to what is done in Seattle, i.e., near the doors apart from the farebox, so that people can tap credit cards, key fobs, and cell phones to pay their fares.

Next, I would encourage banks like Chase and Bank of America to supply their customers with a RFID-enabled credit or debit card to allow riders to tap their bank cards to pay their fares.  Bank cards would be used for pay-per-ride products that can be deducted from their accounts, or could include unlimited ride products provided the MTA has a database of cards to keep which would remember whose cards have passes and how long they can tap for.  I would also encourage apps to be created linking their smartphones with their bank accounts or cell phone accounts to pay for any type of product from pay-per-ride to unlimited ride passes.  This would mean a server or database from the app administrator as well as a database within the MTA to keep track of what fare products are being used by which phones.

Finally, by the time the Metrocard technology would no longer be of use in 2019, I would create a smart card, much like the MTA Card that was devised several years back, but for those who do not have a smartphone or a bank account and need to access the subway or buses.  I fear that the MTA’s plan would basically disenfranchise lower-income people or people who don’t have accounts or can’t get accounts but still need to use the subway or buses.  They would also be able to use the PATH system since it uses SmartLink, a similar but older technology, provided they have money left over from pay-per-ride usage.

The only reason why the Metrocard is being phased out is because of the amount of cards distributed about to expire and are deemed unusable.  Not to mention the old infrastructure which dates back to the early 1990s and even the late 1980s.  I guess that’s why Vancouver gave up on using that technology for anything other than Day Passes and transfers.  The cards all have unique serial numbers which cannot be used again once they expire.  So, the theoretical number of cards that can be distributed and used is approaching its limit.  The cards are a thin plastic, magnetic strip card which has a limited life, mainly because swiping and dipping in mechanical devices, as well as rubbing next to everyday items such as keys and phones, can easily wear the strip beyond usage.  The expiration dates on Metrocards are theoretical as they are usually 24-36 months after distribution to still guarantee the card being good in that time frame before it deteriorates unbeknownst to the user.  If they didn’t expire, then a rider after 2 years of swiping might find that the card doesn’t swipe at all, even when you take it to a station agent to have it wiped off.

If the MTA were to install NFC or RFID technology and infrastructure, they might as well have a smart card compatible with it, even though there will be some transaction processing infrastructure involved.  Besides, why would you go through the entire process of replacing the turnstiles and fareboxes with new ones for acceptance of bank cards and cell phone payment while not upgrading your transit cards for those who don’t have bank accounts or capable smartphones?  I mean, you can buy compatible prepaid debit cards from a convenience store and use them, but that would be the only way it would work for everyone equally.  It’s like the BusTime stuff installed, the MTA was saying that you can track your bus with a smartphone, but if you didn’t have a smart phone or a cell phone with texting (which almost everyone does, and I stress almost), I guess you were stuck in the Stone Age depending on bus schedules if they were posted at your bus stop.

I suppose the MTA’s way is:  if you aren’t in the 21st Century, why should we spend the money to be?  The MTA doesn’t want accusations of being stuck in the 19th Century, but they don’t want to be in a position to spend all this money they don’t have, even though they do anyway, what with their bone-headed decisions (Second Avenue Subway, half-million-dollar buses with no bike racks or automated announcements, South Ferry Station, etc.).  Not all decisions by the MTA are dumb, but sometimes you have to question the decisions they make, all while charging you $2.50 to ride around the city.  That’s another thing that needs adjusting, but that will be for another post.

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One Response to The MTA and the MetroCard

  1. Touche. Great arguments. Keep up the good effort.

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