Fourteen years, six months and 25 days ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced the world to the MetroCard. These pieces of plastic — then blue with yellow letters — had a magnetic strip that would automatically deduct the $1.25 fare. Until Jan. 6, 1994, straphangers had the distinct pleasure of carting around packets of tokens or cash to buy tokens from surly clerks.
Over the years, the MetroCard has ushered in a mass transit ridership boom in New York. With the advent of discounts and unlimited ride cards — which just celebrated their tenth anniversary — New York’s vast public transit system became infinitely more accessible. Riders could pay by credit card — a fact the L train still oddly touts as a new development — and no one had to deal with pockets stuffed with tokens.
This week, in one of the more disastrous MetroCard-related incidents for the MTA in the card’s short history, the MetroCard Vending Machines went down throughout the system, leaving straphangers stranded at rush hour on two consecutive days. According to the MTA, these failures came about when an encryption device, required by credit card companies to process secure transactions, failed, and the one remaining device could not handle the load on its own.
According to Ray Rivera, writing for The Times, these outages resulted in 122,000 failed transactions. New York City Transit, the branch of the MTA that operates the MetroCard machines, has refunded all cards that were charged but did not result in a MetroCard being distributed to the charge card holder. According to Paul Fleuranges, the VP of Corporate Communications at NYC Transit, the problem has since been cleared up and the agency has issued 20,218 refunds.
This technological snafu got me thinking about the fate of the MetroCard. I’ve been long anticipating the demise of the MetroCard and the rise of the smart card in New York. That day, however, seems a long way off. Could a smart card technology have avoided this disaster though?
The short answer, of course, is no. As with any technological problems, once a computer glitch hits and particularly so for one based on a payment system, it will impact any attempt to buy a product. In thise case, the credit card problems had everything to do with the credit card transactions and nothing to do with the MetroCard itself.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t look for better ways to purchase MetroCards. Right now, we’re stuck, for better or worse with the MetroCard Vending Machines. We’re stuck with hulking machinery that isn’t too flexible with the change it distributes and often has problems — particularly at busy stations — reading credit cards. Those of us who rely on pay-per-ride cards can take advantage of the EasyPayXpress program, but the 50 percent of us who use Unlimited Ride cards are stuck waiting on line as outdated technologies lumbers along.
Why not add an EasyPayXpress option for Unlimited Ride cards? Why not start a mail-order MetroCard service not related to the TransitChecks program? Or why not make Unlimited Ride cards renewable with the option for an automatic refill billed to one’s charge card?
Fourteen and a half years ago, the MetroCard was the next great technology, and fourteen and a half years ago, Apple users were stuck with laptops that looked like this and sported a whopping 4MB of RAM. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade the technology.