The Future of the MetroCard Part 2By
Today, I continue the four-part series on the Future of the MetroCard. Yesterday, in Part 1, I outlined the benefits of smart cards. Today in Part 2, we focus on the deficiencies of the current MetroCard. Part 3, available here, summarizes the current plans for a smart card in NYC; and Part 4 proposes a new smart card for NYC.
Thank you all for yesterday’s excellent comments — please, keep them coming!
Part 2 – MetroCard FAIL
As reported yesterday, the MetroCard is at the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a very long, drawn out death. If the MTA follows its usual schedule, we’ll see a MetroCard replacement probably sometime around 2050. But the MetroCard is young; subway tokens had been around for 50 years before the MetroCard killed them for good in 2003.
Despite its youth, the MetroCard is now obsolete. If our goal is to expand our transit systems and increase ridership, then the MetroCard must be replaced. Here’s why:
1. The MetroCard is Slow.
A flimsy plastic card with a magnetic strip that gets damaged in one’s own packet is not efficient, reliable technology. Even the best of us get slipped up: “Please swipe again.” “Swipe card again at this turnstile.” “Too fast. Swipe again.” “Insufficient Fare.” Or, the dreaded, “See agent.” Then throw in a few thousand tourists (who are either used to smart-cards [thanks, Europe & Asia] or have never seen a subway before [thanks, middle-America]) and suddenly the turnstile is a nightmare.
Unlike the MetroCard, smart cards stay right in your wallet or handbag. In London, a whole business has been formed around OysterCard covers called OysterShells. And in Boston it’s not unusual to see a man lift his right hip up just far enough at the gate so the reader can scan the card in his pocket. Once you experience this magic, it’s hard to go back to the cumbersome swipe.
2. No MetroCards Allowed.
Although the New York Metropolitan region has the greatest transit use in the country, we suffer from an incredibly inefficient, decentralized transportation network. Instead of one public agency, we have at least three (MTA, NJT, Port Authority), in addition to numerous private bus, ferry, and jitney companies. The residents of NJ and CT experience this most acutely, crossing state lines every day from one transit eco-system to another.
Right now, the MetroCard has the potential to bridge these separate systems, but instead continues to divide them. Besides MTA’s city sevices (and LI Bus), the MetroCard is only valid for the PATH and the Bee-Line Bus System in Westchester. Yet the PATH proves that riders would prefer one fare system; the majority of PATH riders use the MetroCard.
Despite what commuters would prefer, the MetroCard’s footprint remains small:
A system-wide smart card would dramatically transform New Yorkers’ perceptions of inter-modal transportation. Right now, MetroNorth stations in the Bronx and LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens are woefully under-utilized by MTA and its riders. Even Michael Bloomberg hopes to expand commuter rail service at these stations (thanks to reader, Kai, for the link). If the MetroCard were introduced for these services, they would be immediately considered on par with the subway and the bus, encouraging residents to use these stations within the urban core.
Of course, this is but one example — the implications for regional transportation are vast. Stamford to Newark; Jersey City to Brooklyn; Staten Island to Manhattan — multiple modes, multiple agencies, one fare card.
3. MetroCard… more like StupidCard!
Sure, magnetic strips can store information, but the beauty of a SmartCard is its flexible, ever-expanding functionality. In Hong Kong, the Octopus smart card is used everywhere from the subway to parking meters, from 7-11 to Starbucks. The technology of an RFID-chip embedded into the smart card allows for lots of information in one card.
Right now, Unlimited MetroCards don’t work on the PATH system. Instead, you need a separate Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard. This is redundant and wasteful — one smart card could do both. Similarly, the MTA creates separate MetroCards for each type of rider: student, senior citizen, disabled, etc.. Instead, one kind of smart card can be issued to everyone and customized, via programming, to reflect their status and meet their commuting needs.
In short, the MetroCard fails to provide the benefits of modern smart card technology. Not only is it (relatively) ancient and slow, the MetroCard fails to encourage inter-modal, inter-agency transportation use. My analysis above is quick-and-dirty and largely anecdotal. Please share your own thoughts on the MetroCard — where it fails, where it succeeds, and whether or not you think it should be replaced.