Sep
26

Waiting and waiting for a Metrocard replacement

By

Imagine, if you will, the computer you owned in 1993. Perhaps it was a Macintosh Quadra 660AV. For over $2000, you could get a blazin’ fast 25-MHz with 8 MB of RAM and a 230 MB hard drive. Perhaps it was a seven-pound laptop with an 80-MB hard drive or perhaps it was something else from Apple’s cutting-edge 1993 catalog. Whatever it was, that machine has long since gone to meet its maker. If you’re like most people, in fact, you’ve probably gone through four or five computers over the past 19 years.

The MTA meanwhile is still working off of that early 1990s computer. Every time we buy our Metrocards or swipe through the turnstile, we are using that computer system purchased in 1993. In reality, it’s even older, with the underlying technology dating from the 1980s. It’s end though isn’t as near as we’d like to think.

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.

Since that statement in 2012 and really since 2011, the future of the Metrocard replacement is anything but clear, and late last week, Dana Rubinstein wondered why we’re still stuck with the antiquated, swipe-based technology. In a statement to Capital New York, the MTA remained a bit vague about the whole thing. “Yes, we are still working on it, always have been,” Adam Lisberg, said to Rubinstein. “But, no I don’t have a date for you.”

Rubinstein runs through the litany of arguments in favor of a next-gen solution: The Metrocard costs far too much to maintain; fare collection costs are through the roof; there’s no interoperability across transit systems as a new card would bring; swiping takes too long; etc., etc., etc. Meanwhile, even as the MTA’s BusTime installations allow for an open-payment system, the MTA’s progress has been slow.

Time, though, could force the agency’s hand. As Bill Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA noted, twenty years might just be too long a time for us to continue to rely on the Metrocard. “The MetroCard system is reaching the end of its useful life,” he said. “You’ve got to replace it with something.”

The problem with technology is that it all eventually becomes obsolete. Maintenance costs grow too high and compatibility declines. With the Metrocard pushing 20 in New York, its time has come, but when will something replace it? Based on the MTA’s technological adoption rates — bad for countdown clocks, good for BusTime, bad for CBTC — even if the agency had a plan in place today, we’re still a few years away from anything concrete, and no plan exists.

So much like we often do, we’ll wait. The MTA is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on an intercom system for the subway as the next-gen fare payment system inches slowly forward. One of those technologies will have a real impact on the MTA and its riders while the other will feature soothing blue lights. That seems to say it all.



Categories : MetroCard

78 Responses to “Waiting and waiting for a Metrocard replacement”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Be careful with this analogy. New IT systems are notorious for cost and schedule overruns and unexpected problems. I forget the exact numbers but if I remember correctly, the average cost overrun for an IT project is about 100%. ESA and ARC would be typical or not much worse than the average, rather than unusual boondoggles. The atypical overrun is something like Duke Nukem Forever, which spent a decade in development hell.

    See also California’s current woes computerizing its judicial system. It will make you feel better about, um, every transportation project you’ve heard of.

  2. Ray says:

    (My guess) is the lack of movement is tied to the fact that payment card technology in the US hasn’t evolved over the last 20 years either. Europeans and Asians have chip embedded stored value cards and routine access to NFC payments on cellular networks. We in the US are stumbling around with magnetic stripes. The MTA is right to be cautious about jumping head first into a technology before the industry has decided to adopt.

    The next “metrocard” solution needs to be an open standard widely used by the financial services industry. As for budget concerns, the conversion of infrastructure should be partially (if not entirely) funded by the processors that are going to take the 1-2% to collect fares for the agency.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Honestly, if the financial industry lags this far behind, it creates an opening for the MTA to do what the MTR did: introduce its own card, and license it as anonymous electronic money.

      • mike d. says:

        Except there’s greed and corruption on Octopus card management…. how did they work out, hummmm…….

      • Andrew says:

        New Yorkers in 2012 already have plenty of choices for electronic money. Why would the MTA want to compete with the existing brands, that can also be used outside the city?

        • Alon Levy says:

          Ah, yeah, the “there are no credit cards in Hong Kong and Tokyo” canard.

        • Alon Levy says:

          To be more explanatory and less snarky, credit cards charge a 3% vigorish, while Octopus charges 1%, so merchants prefer Octopus. I can dig up an investigative article I read a few years ago complaining that EBT turned food stamps into a credit card subsidy because of this vigorish.

          (And yes, I think the feds need to step in and put forth a unified system combining Eagle Cash, EBT, EZ-Pass, smartcards, etc. Deal with the back-end agony once nationwide instead of once per city.)

          • Andrew says:

            But that ship has sailed. It’s not the 90′s anymore, and everybody who wants plastic in the New York already has a credit or debit card. How many merchants are going to stop accepting MasterCard and Visa, which most of their customers carry, in favor of a slightly cheaper card with much smaller market penetration?

            What you suggest was actually planned for MetroCard in the 90′s, when it might have made sense. But those plans went nowhere, and now it doesn’t make sense anymore.

            http://www.panix.com/~danielc/.....d.htm#cash

            As much as possible, the MTA wants to get out of the banking business, not into it.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Why would they have to stop?

              Anyway, if it could be used online too, one place where it would make sense is with utilities. They don’t have a particularly convenient online payment system that doesn’t involve a bank account.

              Also, we in New York do make a lot of small purchases. A coffee here, a bottled water there. A smaller transaction fee would definitely be practical there.

            • Nathanael says:

              Every single merchant would start accepting the card with the smaller vigorish. Remember, it’s a *percentage* vigorish, so if you get 10% of your customers to switch from the 3% vigorish card to the 1% vigorish card, you’ve saved 2% * 10% of your revenue…

    • Lady Feliz says:

      Los Angeles has a TAP card for all its subways, buses, heck even the DASH jitney buses have them. And the fare is a whopping $1.50 (50 cents for the DASH). Subway is pretty damn clean too. Maybe the MTA should start looking westward for tips.

      • Boerumhillscott says:

        The TAP roll out was an almost decade long disaster,and has left occasional users worse off than before.

        Also, the Los Angeles fare does not include free or discounted transfers, and it is not uncommon for longer trips to require two or more tranfers.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    So, how do they collect fares down in Washington DC?

    • tp says:

      Hm? They have an RFID card, like Atlanta, Boston, the PATH, etc.

      • Christopher says:

        They also have a magnetic strip card that is sold every station and is far easier to acquire than the SmarTrip card (which are seemingly only sold at suburban stations) Their system dates from the 1970s. There vending machines are a nightmare. There are two kinds of machines and it’s not clear which you need to use or what the difference between a pass and a farecard is. (Some machines sell both, some don’t.)

        MetroCard might be a problem (I don’t think it is) but our vending machines are far easier to use, our cards last longer and the entire process makes more sense. BART and Muni have taken a lot of cues from our system to replace the vending machines that were more similar to WMATA and added in the Clipper Card RFID system. They are the ones to watch. They have bridged the gap in a far more successful way.

        WMATA’s system is not a system at all. It’s 30 years worth of trying to add on new things without thinking about what they have and how it works. It’s a system users nightmare and requires them to have strategically placed employees around at high volume stations to be able help tourists use it. It’s not a good model.

        • Ron says:

          It may be far easier to acquire, but now paper farecards in DC come with a $1 surcharge PER TRIP. They are in the process of installing smartrip dispensers in all stations, but (of course) have been delayed because the machines don’t comply with ADA.

        • Bolwerk says:

          From what I hear, you can use cards going back decades too. The media are supposedly quite durable.

        • Nathanael says:

          The only problems with Metrocard are:
          (1) They don’t offer a 1-day pass. Seriously??
          (2) The fares aren’t posted. Seriously?!?!? The machines don’t tell you what the fares are and only offer you the option of loading amounts of MONEY on a card.
          (3) As a result, there is NO WAY for a tourist to buy a ticket without doing advance research. Or paying $29 for a weekly pass.

          Nice, NYC. Nice. This is the most consumer unfriendly system I have ever encountered.

          Just visited last week.

          This is not, of course, a problem with the Metrocard, but plain incompetence on the part of NYC Transit.

  4. John-2 says:

    It pretty much comes down to the MTA would love to get out of the cash collection business and rely exclusively on payment transfers via smart cards, while allowing banks and other financial institutions to deal with the messier problems of keeping the bills and the change. They really don’t want the current hybrid systems like WMATA, where the RFID cards are preferred, but the original system of magnetic stripe cards and (ever-failing) cash-for-card vending machines are in place.

    That may be where the MTA ends up going at least at first, as part of a slow transition away from Metrocards. But they still need to figure out what to do with people who are either reluctant to join the cashless society or who — for whatever reasons — can’t maintain their place there. People like that would suddenly find entering the system to be a huge obstacle.

    Being subject to the political realities as it is, the MTA would have to deal with not just irritation from those customers, but the reaction from their elected officials if they went to a system where smart cards were the only acceptable payment method inside stations, and computer access via home computer/personal device or and out-of-system third party computer station was required to re-load your card. So as of now you can get a more modern system than the current Metrocard software, but it’s a potential PR minefield for the MTA to go to the latest technology and tell riders cash is no longer accepted to board the train.

    • Christopher says:

      How do you deal with people who don’t have credit cards? How do you deal with people that have credit cards without RFID? My ex who is undocumented would be screwed. Myself who seems to have to replace my debit card every 6 months because it’s been used at a machine that has had a security breech am becoming pretty over using them myself.

      • John-2 says:

        That’s the problem. In a system where any politician or MTA exec who would actually propose a fare system like WMATA based on distance traveled and rush-hour surcharges would be stoned to death, the idea that the MTA can go to a smart card-only system of cashless fare payments is naive at best. Put the onus on the rider to provide digital entry to the system before they reach the station, or have a station attendant tell people at the station just to use their smart phones and some MTA payment app to get onto the trains because their cash is no good here, and face a public uprising. No politician is sticking his or her neck out on that one.

        • SEAN says:

          I don’t know if things will play out that way, however I can name four other transit systems that are amazingly behind the MTA in payment techknology or on par with them.

          1. SEPTA – Although a smartcard is in planning like the MTA, SEPTA still to this day relies on cash & flip passes despite distence based fares.
          2. NJT – Same as SEPTA, but are slowly transissioning to a farecard system on a few Hudson County routes as a continued pilot
          3. RTC Las Vegas – Cards resemble Metrocards.
          4. Tri-Met – Same as SEPTA, but may join Seattles ORCA card along with the rest of Washington state.

          • John says:

            SEPTA still has a token option, too, at least they did as of a couple years ago. They definitely are the farthest behind of any system I’ve used. They have distance based fares down to 10 cents, and the driver even has to give change and stuff. It’s pretty wild.

            • tp says:

              Yep, SEPTA will still be using tokens in 2013 and probably beyond that. You don’t have to travel too far to see a major city with a transit system that’s light years behind New York.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Stop ‘n frisk ‘em, of course.

      • Nathanael says:

        It is absolutely critical that every station allow people to purchase fare media in cash. That’s simply a requirement.

        If you tried to make a system where that wasn’t possible, people would just jump the turnstiles. Heck, people would assist each other in holding the emergency doors open and breaking the HEETs.

        Public uprising is right.

    • Andrew says:

      But they still need to figure out what to do with people who are either reluctant to join the cashless society or who — for whatever reasons — can’t maintain their place there.

      Provide an MTA-branded RFID debit card that only works on transit facilities.

      • John-2 says:

        Where do they get it? That remains the problem since the ultimate goal of the MTA is to handle no cash whatsoever in their stations and buses. They want to do everything by electronic funds transfer, where it’s the banks and other financial institutions which deal with the actual money-to-smart-card/RFID/personal device.

        For the MTA, going to an all-electronic payment system is where the real budget savings are. But if the MTA gets into selling RFID cards, they’re handling cash again. If they do it via off-site third party vendors, where people who walk into a subway station with cash and no Digital Fare Payment Device are barred from the system, they’re going to get sued for being a public taxpayer-supported entity that refuses entry by taxpayers to its system.

        In today’s world, if you don’t want to go digital, you can’t use Amazon.com. But the MTA is not a privately-owned entity that can set its own business rules. If for whatever reason a person doesn’t want to go digital, or even if they have some defect in their digital media that prevents them (say, hypothetically, at 2 in the morning and miles away from home) from entering the system, the MTA’s going to be on shaky legal ground saying it’s electronic funds transfer or nothing if you want to ride our trains and buses.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Bear in mind that those private entities that can set their own rules still let you use cash. They just incentivize using season passes or RFID cards. Actually, of the cases I know of where cash fares are substantially higher than smartcard fares, two, Singapore and London, have publicly-regulated fares. In Japan I believe they don’t do that, but instead rely on the fact that sane people do not like scrambling for change in their pocket; they also have very generous season passes, between pairs of stations (as opposed to within a zone).

          One thing that multiple agencies do is sell those smartcards but not at stations, or only at major stations, and instead get people to buy them at convenience stores. It’s very much not best industry practice, but they do it in Paris and Shanghai. Best industry practice is to suck it up, handle cash at stations, realize that the main benefit of smartcards is that they’re, and sell the cards on site. If all you want is to get rid of cash, do what Vancouver does (also not best industry practice) and sell paper tickets at convenience stores.

          • Nathanael says:

            “Best industry practice is to suck it up, handle cash at stations, realize that the main benefit of smartcards is that they’re, and sell the cards on site.”

            Yep.

            If you don’t sell your fare media on site at every station, you’re incompetent. This includes Paris and Shanghai; apparently RATP is completely incompetent.

        • Andrew says:

          http://www.nfpsindustryoutreac.....cument.pdf

          “The Contactless MetroCard: … Can be purchased and activated at subway stations, retail outlets or received as part of a reduced fare or other special access program.”

  5. petey says:

    it’s odd, the metrocard still feels new-ish to me [/geezer]

  6. SubwayNut says:

    Well I have a feeling that the MTA will adopt something similar to the CTA Open Fare System that Chicago just announced. You will basically pay fares using your RFID enabled credit card or buy a special CTA RFID card with two types available: one only for CTA fares and one that is a full CTA branded pre-paid debit card. Chicago has an identical fare system to New York with their Transit Cards the same size as MetroCards and to the extent that if you swipe a Chicago fare card in New York it will trigger the MetroCard reader giving you an error Message. Chicago also has the ChicagoCard which is RFID fare card (looks like Washington’s SmartTrip Card, Seattle’s ORCA card ect.) I know a few years ago fares were cheeper with a ChicagoCard than just a Transit Card but this is no longer the case and it seems like most people are paying with Transit Cards.

    I also have experience with one transit system that fully accepts RFID credit cards and that was UTA in the Salt Lake City Area. The experience was great! We took the Light Rail out to the SkiBus from downtown. I simply tapped my VISA card and had I think it was $2.25 deducted first for the light rail trip (had to tap in and then tap out at my destination) and then another $1.75 deducted for the step-up fee to take the SkiBus. My travel companion didn’t have an RFID credit card and had could charge the $2.25 at a light rail vending machine but had to have the $1.75 step up fee in exact change. It would be great if other cities adopted RFID credit cards particularly for visitors, just tap and go, no worrying about having exact change for the bus or learning new vending machines.

    I hope that the MTA also implements it’s new Smart Card on the LIRR and Metro-North by installing RFID readers at each station and going from onboard fare collection to POP like CalTrain has done in the Bay Area.

    • John says:

      A problem with that is what if RFID credit cards aren’t really the future? I’m hopeful that our credit cards start aligning more with what is established in Europe (“chip and PIN”). Instead of a magnetic stripe, they have an embedded chip that is read by a reader, and then you enter a PIN.

      Credit card companies are just starting to offer these cards here, but they have been standard for Europe in awhile. RFID will probably be compatible with these, but I would hate to put all eggs in the RFID basket and then things change.

  7. BoerumBum says:

    When RFID technology was newer in credit cards, I remember that there was some concern about “brush-by accidental payment”. Have these issues been resolved?

    Additionally, just what is the cost of maintaining the MetroCard system? I’ve worked for companies that have phased out 30 year old systems in favor of newer ones that have cost a fortune to implement, didn’t work as well as the older system, and had ongoing costs that were out of control. I don’t want to sound like I’m completely risk-averse, but I’m wondering exactly what the argument is in favor of a system change, here.

    • Henry says:

      The one big advantage that smartcards have is that it’s easier to use (can be tapped using a bag), and that because it’s tap-only, it’s 1. faster, and 2. not prone to jamming.

      Bus boarding should become an order of magnitude faster once smartcards are implemented. The people selling Metrocard swipes now will probably find a way to get around 2, but for now, those are the main advantages.

    • Nathanael says:

      “I remember that there was some concern about “brush-by accidental payment”. Have these issues been resolved?”

      No.

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    I think some people may have forgotten all the outrage and grandstanding political opposition the MTA faced when it replaced the token with the Metrocard.

    I’ll bet some of those state legislators are still around, and will pull the same stunt this time. After all, there was no accountability.

  9. BBnet3000 says:

    I was surprised when I got my easypay metrocard that its still the same flimsy piece of shit that the rest of them are. I was hoping to be able to swipe like a king with a more rigid card.

    Meanwhile I use an RFID card for turnstiles at school, touch and go.

  10. Phantom says:

    There is some interoperability, with the PATH, which is very handy

    ….

    I am in London today where the fancy Oyster Card does not allow you to pay for more than one ride at a time. In that respect, the pay prr ride MetroCard, which allow payment ror up to four riders, incl transfers, is superior.

    • Bolwerk says:

      That problem is the side-effect of a feature. After a few rides, the Oyster card converts into a daypass, IIRC.

    • Rational Plan says:

      Well that because London has a distance based fare system for it’s tubes and trains.

    • Henry says:

      That’s only because you have to tap on your way out, too, and the system has no way of knowing if your friend is getting off at a different station.

      • Phantom says:

        So there should be a way to program it to accomodate multiple users going on the same journey

        I so not think zene systems are a net positive either

        The Underground is very exoensive long or short distance

        The expense of the zone architecture, the check out turnstiles, may be more cost than net profit

        • Bolwerk says:

          Most likely it’s for the reason I said, even though Henry’s reason is a good one. They don’t want you to give three friends a ride and then have a pass for yourself.

        • Nathanael says:

          Zone systems tend to help by making it cost more to travel further, thus encouraging people not to put yet more pressure on the transportation system by living further out.

  11. Larry Littlefield says:

    Whatever is going to happen, the priority has to be the commuter railroads and the buses, not the subway. Metrocard works fine for the subway.

    • mike d. says:

      MetroCards sometimes do not work well in subways when you got “READ ERRORS” or Vending Machines breakdowns. MetroCards machines have really strict maintenance practice.

    • Henry says:

      They work well unless someone has jammed or broken the turnstiles or the bus fareboxes, which can be a fairly common occurrence. I don’t believe it’s possible to stop a smartcard reader without physically damaging it, which would be detrimental to the swipe sellers anyways.

      In any case, it would be pretty annoying to carry multiple fare media.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Concur with Mike D. They’re not a very good media for any kind of “just-in-time” fare collection.

      I agree they’re passable on the subway, but they still are expensive to produce and maintain.

  12. corey best says:

    Ive never had an issue with the PATH or Boston cards , but those Metrocards are a pain…always malfunctioning…and the Disabled access system is horrid compared to the PATH…why do I have to wait in line so I can buzzed in? In Philly I don’t have to wait in line nor Boston when pushing my Disabled Neighbor around… A City that prides itself on being World Class except if your disabled , sorry if i went off topic… The System needs to be made better for everybody…Metrocards don’t work , the faregates don’t work…its a mess….

    • Someone says:

      i agree. They break if bent, and the turnstiles make the same sound when there’s an error swiping the card and when the fare is successfully paid. I would like soon to get rid of that piece of trash that is the MetroCard.

    • Nathanael says:

      The disabled access problem is because the MTA has a bad attitude. They could use the same cards and provide actual ADA-compliant disabled access if they WANTED to, or if enough lawsuits from United Spinal FORCE them to — but they don’t WANT to.

  13. Duke says:

    Ultimately they’re going to need their own dedicated form of payment somehow. Anything else they can try – smartphones, RFID credit cards, whatever – is going to run into the problem of riders who do not have one and cannot or do not want to get one. Or who, like me, do not wish to integrate their fare payment with such things. When I am on the subway, my credit card is staying firmly in my wallet and my phone is staying firmly in my pocket. I even make sure I situate my MetroCard such that I may take it out without removing my wallet from my pocket. Because brandishing valuables on the subway = asking to have them stolen.

    • SEAN says:

      Exactly!

      Paying by smart phone runs counter to the PSA regarding not brandishing electronics & other devices. Infact not long ago I saw someone fiddling with there phone & politely said to her put it away before it is stolen. She did listen & put it in her bag.

  14. Someone says:

    After the MetroCard…comes fingerprint scanning, Google Wallet, and credit cards…

  15. JJJ says:

    Wasnt the point of the PATH card that the entire region could implement it?

  16. Commuter says:

    I remember the MTA hiring a ‘Smartcard czar’ 3 years back to oversee the elimination of the Metrocard… What gives…

    See here: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/l.....FYvMkmmLML

    “The MTA has hired a $175,000-a-year manager to oversee the switch from MetroCards to swipeless smart cards for use on subways, buses and commuter lines, The Post has learned.

    Amy Linden is a former executive at Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm that has been awarded MTA contracts to extend the 7 line to Manhattan’s far West Side.

    Linden has also worked as an executive for Amtrak and the MTA.

    Although her salary raised eyebrows among some MTA watchdogs at a time when the agency is proposing service cuts, advocates said it was good to have one person heading up the overhaul.

    MTA execs, meanwhile, have been scrambling to make wholesale changes to its plan for massive service cuts, which they hope will save $129 million of a $400 million budget gap this year.

    Officials are revamping a previous plan to eliminate the Z line, and are looking to kill the M line instead and replace it with an extended V line.

    The J/Z skip-stop service would remain in place. The V would run from Forest Hills in Queens to lower Manhattan, switching to the M line at Delancey Street. It would end at the M terminal in Middle Village, Queens. The move would give riders coming from neighborhoods that include Middle Village, Ridgewood, Bushwick and Williamsburg direct access to Midtown.

    “Every effort is going to be made to impact people as little as possible,” a source said. “The lines that are among the most severe cuts will be getting attention” for revamps.

    The Bx14 bus will also be taken off the chopping block in the latest plan.

    In December, The Post reported that eliminating that line would strand about 2,000 riders in a pocket of the Country Club section of The Bronx, sparking outrage from residents and elected officials who said the only alternative was a 12- to 15-block walk.

    Other proposals include rerouting Brooklyn’s B77 bus to make stops along the B75 route, which is slated for elimination, and changing the B67 route to help riders stranded by the cut B69 weekend service, sources said.

    MTA officials are also trying to find ways to reinstate some service along the M10 line, a popular Harlem route that is also up for elimination, and will likely save the Bx34 and B25 from being terminated, sources said.”

  17. BrooklynBus says:

    Everything the MTA does is behind schedule. MetroCard was also 10 years late.

  18. Anon says:

    Very timely. There was a reorg today that will expedite this.

  19. Andrew says:

    I’m frankly not sure what changes you were expecting to see by now. As of a few years ago, it was scheduled for a 2015 rollout, and it’s still 2012.

    The details of the system are all here: http://www.nfpsindustryoutreac.....ting1.html

    A fare payment system isn’t a personal computer that can be quickly and easily replaced every few years.

  20. Someone says:

    What’s a CP device?

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