Sticking with a MetroCard replacement plan


One of the key items Jay Walder had hoped to accomplish during his time atop the MTA involved the fare payment technology. The MetroCard, practically obsolete since it was first introduced in 1994, hasn’t seen an upgrade in 18 years, and I can’t imagine keeping one computer around for the better part of two decades. Walder had been pushing forward on a contact-less smart card plan using credit and debit cards that would have saved the MTA millions in fare-collection costs, but his departure and the MTA’s general financial woes cast some doubt on a plan that’s been in the works for nearly a decade.

While speaking with The Times this week, new MTA Chairman and CEO Joe Lhota issued something of an embrace of the smart card project. “Anything we can to do to make it easier for our customers to get on, to get off our system, is the right thing to do,” he said. “But we have to evaluate it. Does the investment make the most amount of sense? So we need to evaluate new technologies; we have to, always.”

After the interview, Lhota stressed that is “fully committed to moving the smart-card program forward.” One way or another, the MTA has to move forward with something. They spend too much on fare collection and MetroCard Vending Machine maintenance today, and the technology has long since passed its prime. Someday, our contact-less fare payment system will come. (For more on the MetroCard replacement project, check out my past coverage of what the MTA termed “an E-ZPass for Transit.”)

Categories : Asides, MetroCard

22 Responses to “Sticking with a MetroCard replacement plan”

  1. petey says:

    “The MetroCard, practically obsolete since it was first introduced in 1994, hasn’t seen an upgrade in 18 years”

    so, it’s worked for 18 years. i don’t see that as obsolete.

    • SEAN says:

      Most larger transit systems from Boston to San Diego are using contactless payment. infact WMATA & the CTA ARE TRYING TO MOVE TOWARDS AN OPEN SOURCE PAYMENT SYSTEM. only Trimet, SEPTA, RTC of Las Vegas & the MTA are the only large transit systems that don’t use any form of contactless payment as of now.

      • TP says:

        SEPTA still uses tokens, and half the subway stations don’t have token machines and the booth clerks don’t sell them either– you have to pay exact change or go above ground and buy a pack of tokens from a bodega. Philadelphia is in the stone ages when it comes to fare collection.

        • Josh says:

          I kind of enjoy using actual tokens when I go visit friends in Philadelphia. Not sure I’d like it if I had to use them on a regular basis though.

      • Alon Levy says:

        “Open source payment system” = handouts to credit card companies.

        The way normal agencies do it is by making their own smartcard, using proven technology. Most use FeliCa. Most of the rest use MIFARE, including Boston. (CharlieCard is one of the few things about the MBTA that don’t suck.) American agencies for the most part use vendor-locked systems instead, made by defense contractors like Cubic.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      My feelings exactly; Ben, why do you think the metrocard was obsolete when introduced?

      Other than getting used to the right ‘swiping speed’ it works fine for me.

    • Josh says:

      Obsolete doesn’t mean “doesn’t work”, it means “out of date”. I have a Nintendo Entertainment System that works fine, but it’s still obsolete.

  2. Chet says:

    In an article in today’s Staten Island Advance, Lhota says the following about the Metrocard:

    Lhota said the authority is also looking at the possibility of replacing MetroCards with “tap and go” payment technology. Prendergast said that after 15 years in service, MetroCards have come to the “end of their useful life. We have to upgrade or replace MetroCard.”


  3. Jerrold says:

    For a moment, I was wondering about the discrepancy between the figures of 15 years and 18 years. Then I remembered the ridiculously slow process of phasing in the MetroCard that went on from 1994 to 1997.
    I recall the frustration of HAVING my new “Handicapped” MetroCard, but not being able to USE it at either one of my nearest subway stations, or on a bus.

    Let’s hope that THIS time around, they don’t drag on over a few years the process of switching to a contactless card.

    • Eric says:

      I moved to the city in 1998 and remember using tokens. When did they completely phase those out? 2000?

      • AK says:

        If you can believe it…April 13, 2003. Let’s see the Oyster Card by the end of this decade (not exactly Kennedy-esque…but would still be nice).

        • Jerrold says:

          It took me a good few minutes to figure out what you meant by that.
          OK, you were alluding to President Kennedy setting the national goal of “going to the Moon in this decade[the 1960’s]”.

  4. Ryan Keefe says:

    IIRC Septa is moving toward a contactless card and open source system in the next few years (I really hope so at least, who else still uses tokens???)

    • Alon Levy says:

      SEPTA is moving toward a vendor-locked contactless card – if I remember correctly, all bidders are American companies offering proprietary products, rather than the open standards used by FeliCa and MIFARE/Calypso/PayPass.

  5. Josh says:

    So, I understand that Walder’s goal (which appears to be shared by Lhota) was to create a contactless payment system based on riders’ existing credit/debit cards (like the Citibank pilot they ran a while ago, and maybe are still running?), as opposed to a system based on a dedicated card like Oyster. My question is, what if my debit card doesn’t support contactless payment? I just had Bank of America send me a replacement card because mine was worn out, and the new one still doesn’t support contactless payment.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The plan is to have a dedicated MTA transit card, for people who don’t want to or can’t use their banking cards. In other words, two parallel and mostly redundant systems, sharing some but not all of the infrastructure.

      • Andrew says:

        The MTA transit card will just be a private label debit card. As far as the payment system is concerned, it will use the exact same system as any other debit or credit card. The only special equipment needed for the MTA card will be machines to refill them.

        • Matthias says:

          Hopefully this can be done online or over the phone, reducing the need for expensive TVMs.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Best industry practice is to offer large discounts for season passes, including annual passes that deduct the unlimited monthly fare from your bank account every month. This ensures most people do not need to use the TVMs.

            New York industry practice is to keep raising the price of season passes in order to pinch pennies. At least it creates jobs for TVM vendors and maintenance workers.

  6. Tom Grommell says:

    The MetroCard pay per ride allows you to pa for up to four passengers at a time, even when transferring.

    The Oyster I believe only permits payment for one rider.

    This is a very big deal.

    Will the new system allow for payment for multiple riders?

  7. Andrew says:

    For the record, the smartcard program was in the works long before Walder. He promoted it, and I’m sure he helped shape it, but it was going to happen before he was hired and it will still happen after he quit.


  1. […] For the better part of seven years, the MTA has engaged in various pilots and initiatives to find a replacement for the Metrocard. As various transit agencies the world over have adapted smart cards, a 2006 pilot picked up again in 2010 examined a contactless system that used similar chips found in credit or debit cards. After the most recent pilot, the MTA unveiled its plans for an E-ZPass for transit in mid-2011, and Joe Lhota affirmed his commitment to the project in early 2012. […]

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