It’s hard to believe, on one side of the coin or the other, that the MetroCard as we know it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. While the pilot launched in 1993, the first stations equipped with fare card readers opened in early 1994. Three years later, every subway station and bus were equipped with MetroCard readers, and four years later, Straphangers could take advantage of the promise of an unlimited fare card, thus ushering in a new era in booming transit ridership.
These days, we’re waiting impatiently for the end of the MetroCard era. It was not exactly a new technology when it was introduced, and the MTA has since been lapped by nearly all of its competitors when it comes to some form of contact-less fare payment. Since 2006, the agency has spun its wheels with a variety of pilot programs but has now committed to finding a replacement by 2019. We still don’t quite know what form that next-gen fare payment technology will take, and hopefully, we’ll know more after my Problem Solvers session on that topic next Wednesday. (RSPV now. Seats are going fast.)
I’ll spend some time looking forward next week. Tonight, I wanted to look back. For fifty years, the token reigned supreme, but these days it is only a memory. Many New Yorkers — those who moved to the city over the past 10 years — now the token only in the abstract. It was a thing some may remember as tourists as the keys to the subway while others hear of it only in city lore.
For me, tokens were a part of my youth. I could flash my transit pass to the token booth clerk to gain entrance to the subway, but my parents weren’t so lucky. They kept piles of ten-packs of tokens in a shoe box in our linen closet, stockpiling them right before fare hikes. Tokens required planning and attention to the number of rides one might make during a day, and their brothers in arms — the flimsy paper transit for the bus system — always come with a pesky time limit.
For all their symbolism, by the time of its death, the token was around for only half of the subway system’s life. For fifty years, so long as the fare remained the same as a Treasury Department coin, the city’s transit agencies could collect nickels and then dimes, but as soon as the fare went up to 15 cents, collecting coins become impractical. The first hints of a New York City subway token came in the early 1940s when the IRT purchased a bunch of tokens in the late 1920s in anticipation of a fare hike that never came. The company eventually ditched those plans, and the token would not emerge as a potential discussion piece until 1947.
By then, the city knew it had a financial problem on its hands. The subways were bleeding money, and the various agencies discussed a token in conjunction with a fare hike. The transit deficit at the time was $84 million — or over $8 billion in today’s money — and the proposals on the table ranged from 7-10 cents. Anything requiring multiple coins would have led the debut of a token.
The Board of Transportation was not easily swayed. In an extensive July 1947 article discussing the looming transit referendum, The Times mentioned that BOT objected to tokens on that grounds that they can be “easy to counterfeit and bulky to handle.” In fact, the BOT was so concerned with slugs that many related to transit services planned to lobby the feds for an eight-cent coin in advance of the potential fare hike.
When the fare hike became a reality in 1953, the New York City Transit Authority had to turn to tokens because some turnstiles were not equipped to handle multiple coins. Nearly immediately, the TA had to deal with the issue of slugs, fake tokens that would be a thorn in the agency’s side for fifty years. Furthermore, token clerks had to deal with surly, incommunicative customers and were instructed to avoid becoming “impatient, discourteous or abusive to the passenger.” By late 1953, one Times even urged the TA to sell tokens in bulk as little packages could make great birthday presents or stocking stuffers at Christmas.
Ultimately, the token settled in for 50 years of use, abuse and redesigns. Its departure earned an obit, and New Yorkers’ pockets were lighter for it. Now we carry around a flimsy piece of plastic that one day too will become part of New York City subway history. The MetroCard may live a lifespan half that of the token, but it won’t make it to the venerable old age of 50. Few symbols in New York City do.