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Requiem for a MetroCard

by Benjamin Kabak

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding the fare hike, the MTA is starting to make preparations that will lead to the phasing out of the MetroCard, a 13-year-old subway icon. Gone will be the familiar gold-and-blue flimsy plastic cards. In its stead, we’ll have touch-and-go SmartCard RFID technology that should speed up lines and make paying for public transportation rides even easier.

Jeremy Olshan in today’s New York Post elaborates on future technological developments I’ve tackled in the past: The MTA is gearing up to extend its touch-pay system to buses and will start a one-year study to assess SmartCard technology. Here’s what Olshan had to say in what could be a harbinger to many an elegy for the Metrocards:

The MTA’s smart-card pilot program on the Lexington Line, developed with Citibank and MasterCard, will soon be expanded to 275 buses and opened up to all contactless credit and debit cards issued by banks.

“At some point, we will have a reader that says Visa, Amex, MasterCard,” said Paul Korczak, the NYC Transit official who oversees the MetroCard told Re: ID, a smart-card industry trade publication. “Card companies are very excited about this extra opportunity.”

…Later this year the MTA expects to award a contract for a one-year study to determine the future fare payment system, NYC Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said. There is some urgency as the MetroCard readers and vending machines are nearing the end of their useful life, officials said.

There’s a lot to like about all of this information. First, extending the pilot program to buses should improve bus load times. Other than slow speeds due to traffic, bus load times are the number one most infuriating part about riding a bus. Waiting for people to dip their MetroCards can seem endless, and anything to pick up the pace here is a-okay with me. That the pilot program will include options for 7- and 30-day unlimited MetroCards is an added bonus.

Korczak noted that the MTA will look to choose some crosstown bus lines and some north-south bus lines. This way, passengers can experiment with transfer options as well. Starting the program on only east-west lines would severely limit the number of people willing to take part in the experiment. I would imagine that the crosstown buses the MTA chooses will be the M79 and M86 lines as those also intersect with Mastercard-enabled stations on the East Side IRT lines at Lexington Ave.

Second, the article lays out what we’ve heard for a while: The MetroCard technology current in place is an aging and nearly obsolete technology. It costs the MTA money in credit card processing fees to load up all of the MetroCards, and the vending machines have also shouldered some of the blame for the fare hike. If the MTA can save money by undergoing a technological upgrade, it’s time to bring SmartCard technology to the subways. The Metro in DC and the Tubes in London, for example, both employ the technology. New York should too.

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wayne's world October 9, 2007 - 2:47 pm

I didn’t see any sign of the smart-card technology when I was in London this spring. Also, the smart-card technology will still cost the MTA money in credit card processing fees. Those fees will be chargd as long as credit cards are used for payment.

eric the beehivehairdresser October 9, 2007 - 4:01 pm

I’m all for a contactless type of technology, but at the present time, I don’t want my credit/debit cards being used as my way of entering the subway, I don’t wish my numbers to just be out in the open for who knows who from the MTA (or anyone who could hack into a turnstyle) to look at.

Plus, when the bank that I work for rolled these SmartCards out they were originally tested out in the cafeteria, and they made the lines really long for weeks due to the cards crashing the system. The initial problem was eventually fixed, but every now and then the cafeteria stops using the SmartCard altogether because the technology breaks down and it takes up to five minutes for each SmartCard transaction to clear the swiping/waving system. I would never want to be in such a position at the turnstyle, crowd of people behind me or not.

Also, does the MTA have any mention as to how people without cards with the SmartCard chip and or no way of obtaining a credit card will end up entering the system?

Sorry for writing such a long one there Ben, but I do know that the MTA does read your blog, and they should know how faulty the technology is at its present status.

www.topcreditcardsadvice.info » Requiem for a MetroCard October 9, 2007 - 4:03 pm

[…] Benjamin Kabak wrote a fantastic post today on “Requiem for a MetroCard”Here’s ONLY a quick extractIt costs the MTA money in credit card processing fees to load up all of the MetroCards, and the vending machines have also shouldered some of the blame for the fare hike. If the MTA can save money by undergoing a technological upgrade, … […]

Benjamin Kabak October 9, 2007 - 4:13 pm

London’s Smartcard technology is called the Oyster Card. You can read about it here.

Jeanne October 9, 2007 - 7:15 pm

I suspect the new system will be similar to Washington DC’s SmarTrip card. A great idea in my opinion.


riding around in chi-town October 9, 2007 - 10:12 pm

Chicago has had a similar system for years. A touch card costs $5 and works on all subways and buses. There’s actually two kinds of cards: one that you can refill anonymously from a vending machine, and one that refills automatically from your credit card.

DCer October 10, 2007 - 8:10 am

The DC SmarTrip card is fantastic, though it would be better if you could refill it via website or check your balance online. It does dramatically speed up bus loading.

Former Londoner October 10, 2007 - 10:28 am

I spent a year in London and used the Oystercard system. The one downside was having to swipe on the way out of the tube, although this is probably a function of the “zone” fare schedule. Let us hope the MTA never converts to this type of fare schedule.

And, as WW noted, you still have to get money on your card somehow. One option you have in London is paying through a website (again with a CC or debit card) and “picking up” your money at a specified station.

jill October 10, 2007 - 11:14 am

I still cannot believe 1994 is 13 years ago. I recall being among the first wave of students to get Metrocards instead of the old paper bus passes. We rallied against being “tracked” by the MTA and they were impossible to counterfeit! Such is progress…

nygrump October 10, 2007 - 12:00 pm

How many millions were spent on setting up metrocard? I’m really sick of subsidizing the credit card companies.

Dru October 10, 2007 - 1:33 pm

The London Underground is the most efficient transportation systems I’ve been on. I lived there for 5 months and used their monthly “Oyster” card which allowed me to pay a flat fee for unlimited rides each month. It’s a tap & go technology whereby you leave the “Oyster” card in your wallet and merely tap it to have the doors (no turnstyles) swing open. It’s fast, convenient and pretty advance. The Oyster card is also useable on the busses, and if you don’t use the unlimited option– once you’ve racked up at least 5 pounds on public transportation for the day– the rest of your rides are unlimited for that day until midnight. I’m surprised NY is so far behind on this technology.

eric the beehivehairdresser October 10, 2007 - 2:25 pm

Ben, Thanks for the link to the Oyster Card. I like the idea of there being a separate card for getting into the transit system.

On another note altogether…

I wish that we could just go back to using tokens.

bisounours October 10, 2007 - 3:08 pm

In Taipei there’s a smart card for buses and the subway system that works like a breeze. The disadvantage to it is having to refill at a vending machine, though. Same goes for Hong Kong (I believe they call it an Octopus card), tho you can even use it for payment at convenient stores. Yay asian efficiency!

startingtoday October 10, 2007 - 3:15 pm

You quoted- “The MTA is gearing up to extend its touch-pay system to buses and will start a one-year study to assess SmartCard technology.”

Here in DC, the busses are all equipped to handle SmarTrip cards (our touch pay system.)

Why do a study? Can’t they just call up DC and see how it’s working here?

I’d say it works well. The cards are less flimsy, and it cuts way down on time. And people who still use paper cards really hold up the line.

Chris O. October 10, 2007 - 6:24 pm

I’m assuming the MTA will have a simple! way of buying an anonymous card for cash. Otherwise we have issues.

The smartcard readers that are currently out there (at the movie theatres, Rite Aid, etc.) *never* seem to work. I make a point of using them but I always wind up having to give the card to the cashier anyway.

Helpful hint: if you’re worried about your card’s RFID chip being scanned by hackers, The Man, etc. when you’re walking around, a case like this provides a handy (and stylish) shield.
http: //www.momastore.org/museum/moma/ProductDisplay_Aluminum%20Business%20Card%20Case_10451_10001_12349_-1_11627_11458_null_shop_6H100

Also – Metrocards “flimsy”? Have you ever tried to tear one in half? I always imagined that in a “Escape from New York”/”Road Warrior” situation, several hundred old Metrocards layered and sewn together would make pretty good body armor. 🙂

Chris O. October 10, 2007 - 6:27 pm

Link collapse – sorry! Trying again …

Muji Aluminum Case (MOMA)

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