Earlier this year, an enterprising if law-breaking New Yorker made headlines when he claimed to make $20,000 off of discarded MetroCards. The first part of John Jones’ scheme is perfectly legal; the second part is not. Either way, the story, in a roundabout way, highlights a problem I’ve had with the MTA’s MetroCard Vending Machines.
In a nutshell, Jones took to the extreme what many of us do on a whim. He collects every discarded MetroCard he can find, and generally, many of them have odd amounts of cash left. Since the new $2.25 base fare went into effect with bonuses set to seven percent on purchases of $10 and above, straphangers in a rush don’t wait to work out the proper discount. They’ll fill up their cards with $20, receive an extra $1.40 and call it a day. When the card runs low, those who are unaware that they can refill it or simply do not care will discard the leftover change.
Jones collects those cards and combines them — a perfectly legal maneuver — and then he tries to sell them to those in need of a quick fare card. That’s the shady part, and it’s against the law. He’s been arrested a few times, but that hasn’t deterred him. “I’m surprised that people just toss money away,” he said to The Post.
I don’t condone Jones’ third step, but I know plenty of people who are aggressive in their pursuits of discarded fare cards. One SubChatter collected over $520 last year in unused MetroCards, and the MTA itself claims around $50-$60 million annually in unused cards. It’s not a problem so much as it is a fact of life. We lose things; we forget how much we had on our MetroCards; we leave the city, never to return, with an unused MetroCard tucked into a drawer somewhere.
The bigger issue though is one of design. As the screenshot atop this post — from days bygone — shows, the MetroCard Vending Machines aren’t programmed to be too user-friendly. When we refill our fare cards, we’re not buying rides. Rather, we’re just sticking cash on a card with a magnetic strip. There never has been an attempt to associate rides with the amount we’re paying. Instead of pre-selecting a card with a certain number of swipes on it, you have to know ahead of time that adding $39.95 to an empty card will get you, with the bonus, $42.75 or 19 rides even.
The MTA has no incentive to offer such a user-friendly interface because then cards will zero out more often. Maybe when or if the authority finally gets around to implementing that $1 surcharge on new cards in 2013, straphangers will become more aware of their leftover dimes and nickels. For now, though, the math-minded among us will know what to do while the rest of us can use bonus calculators or just keep slapping on $20 until the fare evens out. We discard pennies with little notice. What’s a few more cents on an nearly empty MetroCard anyway?