Transit Designs: A better MetroCard machine display

By · Published in 2012

The MetroCard Vending Machines offer refills in even dollar amounts but not in rides.

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?

Categories : MetroCard

32 Responses to “Transit Designs: A better MetroCard machine display”

  1. Brian says:

    I miss the $2 fare not because im cheap and dont want to pay an exta .25 cents. But the $2 card was simple every $10 gave you a $2 dollar bonus. Therefore you would always get a normal amount. If you bought a $20 card you got $24 the exact amount needed for 12 rides. It was so much more convenient. Now you get $21.40

  2. Christopher says:

    At least we can combine them easily! I remember combining BART tickets when I lived in the Bay Area. You had to go to a special service window that only existed in one station and wasn’t open all the time. Absolutely designed to make money off of the extra fares.

    • Todd says:

      You’ll hasn’t to excuse my ignorance on this one, but how do you combine them easily? My only experience has been asking less than helpful booth attendants who mumble that their machine is broken before waving me off.

      • Bgriff says:

        Normally, it is policy that station agents will combine them without any complaints…the without any complaints part is probably a your-results-may-vary.

      • Christopher says:

        I’ve never had trouble getting a station agent to combine them. But the fact that they even can feels so much more friendly. In DC, you can combine them through the ticket machines (as long as the value is low) and as long as you are using their SmarTrip card. But in the Bay Area, you pretty much had to just save them and take them all at once. And then would give you a new card. You couldn’t even send them in.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The MTA should just simplify to a $3 base fare with a restored 20% bonus, so that with a pay-per-ride the effective fare is $2.50. And, FFS, it should not hike the unlimited monthly, in order to drive down the breakeven point so that more people will get season passes. TVMs are an expensive item and, no matter what fare collection system is used, it’s cheaper to minimize the number of transactions.


    • Alex C says:

      +1 on this. $3 would suck, but just do it already. It’s hard to push it, but nobody wants to pay for it with taxes or congestion pricing. There’s little choice left, and it’s inevitable.

      • Bolwerk says:

        The suck is entirely perceived though, if you in reality are only paying $2.50. Actually, if people are perceiving this the way you are, the MTA might be using the wrong marketing gimmick. I don’t think there is really an advantage to making people perceive they’re paying $3 when in fact they’re paying $2.50 – if anything, it might make them spend less, which isn’t a good thing in this case. Metrocards aren’t gasoline and there isn’t any inherent environmental problem with people using an MC more, at least not during peak hours.

        Of course, in all fairness, maybe I’m making a weak case. Any consistently frequent user is almost always better off getting an unlimited.

    • Andrew says:

      I have no particular objection to this proposal, but remember that, in a few years, most riders won’t be using vending machines anymore.

  4. Andrew says:

    I agree that machines should offer to sell rides, but the dollar option needs to remain – remember that some people ride express buses or AirTrain or PATH, whose fares are not multiples of $2.25.

  5. Scott E says:

    I think the reason people toss out Metrocards with partial fares on it is because it’s not worth their time to find an attendant who will give them the attention and transfer the balance.

    I had a Metrocard with 40 cents on it for awhile. I visited various token booths no less than 7 times, only to find long lines, clerks chatting on the phone, customers with dumb questions and confused looks on their faces, or agents engaged in other conversations with other clerks. Sometimes, I entered the subway outside of my normal travels to try to catch an agent during off-peak times.

    Eventually, I got the 40 cents transferred from my old (now-expired) card to another one by a clerk at the A train at 175th Street. For all my efforts, it wasn’t really worth it.

    I probably should’ve left it on the ground for John Jones.

    • Andrew says:

      Why didn’t you just add to that card?

      When I do need the assistance of an agent, I try to go at off-hours for the location in question. For instance, CBD stations may have long lines in the afternoon, but they probably don’t have long lines at 8 in the morning.

  6. ant6n says:

    Keeping cash fares may make sense if New York every gets a zoned system – this may just be that the card could be allowed on some portion of the commuter rail system.

    Here in Montreal the Opus card is 7$ and there are tickets on it, rather than money. One fare is 3$, 10 fares cost 22.5$. But the Opus card can be used for the commuter rail system, which is a zoned system – but you cannot put normal zone0 subway fares together with a zone2 (e.g.) commuter rail ticket, because the zones overlap. So some people here are saying that having a cash system would be better, because it would enable people who sometimes venture out the core of the city to have only one opus card, rather than 2.

    A Simple solution would be to have a button on the vending machine that says “Round up total amount of card and purchase to a multiple of a fare”, or something like that.

    • Bolwerk says:

      A zoned system in New York is less likely than English being adopted as the only official language in Quebec. But these days, it really shouldn’t be a technical challenge to have different electronic “tickets” in a fare medium instead of a balance. Or to just have some third way of doing it, like electronic “tokens” where 2 tokens buy a zone0 ride, 5 tokens buy a zone 1 ride, or whatever.

      I think the upside to the NYC system, for the MTA, is nobody can really speculate on the fare. (Before the switch to electronic media, you could, by buying a lot of physical tokens just before the fare went up.) People perceive they’re really paying with dollars when they swipe, and they almost are, so they don’t complain when the swipe gets them less far. If they had bought electronic “tickets” or “tokens”, they might.

      But a “round up” or “top up” button is a good idea.

      • ant6n says:

        Well, you can already use MTA cards on PATH, and they had a different fare if I remember correctly.
        Imagine, for example, if using PATH cost 2$, and using the subway cost 2$, but if you use both within two hours it would cost 3$. This could be more easily implemented with a cash based cards. (I believe the Oyster card in London sort of works like that).

        • Bolwerk says:

          I’m sure it’s not that hard for the accountants at the two agencies to adjust the differences involved in processing costs and discounts.

      • Andrew says:

        They are paying with dollars. When they ride PATH, they’re paying with fewer dollars. When they ride express buses and AirTrain, they’re paying with more dollars.

        Electronic tickets or tokens only work when all of the services that accept the fare medium charge the same fare.

        • Bolwerk says:

          They’re only paying with literal dollars when they buy or refill their cards, not when they swipe on. When they swipe on they’re using a token balance that is measured in units called “dollars” but does not correlate 1:1 with a real-world dollar. My point was that if the same transaction amount bought you a token unit called, say, a “ride” and the fare went up, people would complain…well, they complain anyway, but they would complain more than they already do.

          An example: If 8 “rides” cost $2.25 each, that is $18 worth of 8 token units called rides. If the fare goes up to $2.50 and the TA tries to compensate by converting already purchased rides to the new proportional dollar sale amount per ride, people would feel cheated because they already paid for 8 “rides” and now they’re only getting 7 and some change. Another way to avoid it, of course, would be to let people have the “rides” they already bought, but with electronic fare media that could encourage speculation ahead of a fare increase. The MTA is, wisely I think, avoiding both those problems.

          • Andrew says:

            So how many token units are taken when somebody rides PATH ($2.00) or AirTrain ($5.00) or an express bus ($5.50)?

            • Bolwerk says:

              If you’re using a Metrocard, you’re clearly reducing a token balance by the amount stated fare amount. If you’re using an MC with a bonus, you’re paying a token balance that technically is higher than the amount you spent on average for the ride. If you didn’t receive a bonus, you’re spending a token balance equal to the ride. The only circumstance where you are not reducing a token balance is when you pay directly with cash/change (i.e., to board a bus). What is so strange or difficult about this?

              • ajedrez says:

                But $2, $5, and $5.50 aren’t multiples of $2.25. That’s what he’s trying to say: You could end up with 1.45 tokens on your MetroCard or something.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  How is that different from today? As is, under the current system, the digitally stored number may or may not perfectly correlate to the amount you paid, and it doesn’t easily zero-balance. When it doesn’t zero balance, there isn’t even a clear way to convert the token value of the card into a real-world value proportionate to what you paid.* The alternative I mentioned for comparison’s sake (?suggested) works more or less the same way, except the unit conversion is different and token amount on the card is a unit other than so-called dollars. But whether you call the amount measured on the card dollars, tokens, credits, or quatloos, it is still a token (see the dictionary definition) amount. The difference in what you call the units is mostly psychological.

                  * And it gets more confusing if you never zero-balanced your card, and it survived through multiple fare formula changes.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Electronic tickets work fine when services charge different fares. For example, take CharlieTicket. What’s necessary is to give people the option to buy a ticket from any point to any point – e.g. a combined subway-PATH ticket.

          Not that there’s any excuse for charging for subway-PATH transfers, but even if NYCT and the PA want to do that, there’s still an out.

  7. Matthias says:

    $3 is such a useless amount! The choices should be multiples of the fare.

  8. Josh says:

    Why is that illegal, out of curiosity? I understand the logic behind selling swipes of an unlimited card being illegal (you’re paying for the right for one person to have unlimited swipes for the duration of the card), but if I have a regular Metrocard with, say, $10 on it, why shouldn’t I be able to sell that to someone else for $10? I can re-sell a ticket to a baseball game for face value, why can’t I re-sell a ticket to ride the subway for face value?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Maybe because it incentivizes vandalism. There was a spate of it back in 2003, where people would knock out TVMs and jam turnstiles, and then demand to $2 to swipe you in using some bug involving the MC system.

      • Alon Levy says:

        That’s true for unlimited cards, but not for pay-per-rides. The vandals would be doing all this work for zero net profit.

        • Bolwerk says:

          That’s something else, and I think there are plenty of reasons to think that’s only a marginal problem. I can’t remember the details, but that thing in 2003 or so was an odd bug. You could literally take any expired card and rub it in the turnstile slot the right way and get a free ride, and repeat. Somehow they’d manage to screw up the turnstiles so only they could swipe, easily anyway. This really was a way to make fast money.

          I’m not sure if that’s when they banned selling rides or what. I remember in the olden days, even merchants would accept tokens in lieu of cash often enough.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Yeah, I’ve heard of tokens being used as a form of cash.

            Anyway, if the cards are buggy in a way that lets people ride for free, then they should fix the bugs.

            • Bolwerk says:

              This was fixed years ago, so far as I know. Other bugs apparently remain, but don’t have the same potential for abuse as that one.

  9. AMM says:

    My reason for not adding money to my MetroCard is that the turnstiles don’t read them all that well even when they’re new, and it gets noticeably worse after I’ve used a half-dozen trips or so. By the time I’m down to the 15th trip, it often takes 5 or more swipes to get through the turnstile.

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