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MTA considering tokens as MetroCard replacement

by Benjamin Kabak
Could tokens be making a comeback? One plan calls for their reintroduction by 2019.

Could tokens be making a comeback? One plan calls for their reintroduction by 2019.

As the MTA tries to get plans to replace the MetroCard back on track, the agency is considering reintroducing tokens as a last-ditch effort, according to multiple MTA sources. If the MetroCard reaches the end of its life, as is expected to happen by 2019, with no successor technology in place, the MTA may resort to tokens to save on fare payment system maintenance costs.

Previously, tokens had been in use since the mid-1950s when the fare jumped from a dime to 15 cents. Along with the increase came a move to offer up straphangers just one coin, but after nearly five decades, the MTA did away with tokens as calls from rider advocates for unlimited ride options and free transfers grew louder. Tokens were last accepted by the MTA on April 13, 2003.

Recently, though, as costs of maintaining the MetroCard system have increased and the early 1990s technology has aged, the MTA has tried to find a suitable next-generation replacement. An extensive pilot program throughout the mid-2000s and early 2010s involved a credit and debit card-based touch system, but recent revelations that the banking industry has not been quick to adopt the technology led the MTA to scrap these plans. It seems likely that the MTA will instead develop a proprietary payment card — if it can do so before 2019. If they cannot, we get tokens.

Initial reactions from both subway riders and those fighting for the rights of passengers have been mixed. Some are looking forward to the return of a beloved New York icon while others are worrying about the impact tokens will have on ridership. There’s no such thing, after all, as an unlimited ride token.

“Let’s not be too happy,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “We fought long and hard for unlimited ride cards, and the return of the token could drastically impact transit ridership.”

For the MTA, the token could bring about an uptick in revenue as well. With the introduction of pay-per-ride discounts and unlimited ride cards, the real cost of a subway ride dropped well below inflation-adjusted fare levels from the years before the introduction of the MetroCard. The token, without such discounts, will help the MTA beef up its finances.

On the other hand, New Yorkers long accustomed to monthly discounts and frequent rider incentives may find such a marked increase in fares and a corresponding decrease in convenience too much to handle. Additionally, no one wants to carry around bags of tokens either. They are, after all, significantly heavier than a flimsy piece of plastic.

“Our move to reexamine tokens would come only as a last-ditch effort if our technological initiatives are unsuccessful,” Tom Prendergast, the MTA’s interim executive director, said. “It’s premature to discuss these long-term plans, but we cannot close the fare gate to any option currently on the table.”

Losing the MetroCard, ultimately, would be a blow to an agency that has long struggled with technological innovation. Costs are costs, though, and if it’s better for the MTA to resort to an older fare payment system rather than burn money on maintaining what will then be a 30-year-old technology, we may have to make some sacrifices.

Still, 2019 is a long way off, and perhaps the MTA can find a technological solution before the next six years elapse.

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Chet April 1, 2013 - 11:42 am

And a happy April Fools’ Day to you too Ben.. ๐Ÿ™‚

Matthias April 1, 2013 - 11:47 am

Brilliant, thanks!

Someone April 1, 2013 - 11:49 am

Good April Fool’s joke, Ben! Made my day. ๐Ÿ™‚

Marsha April 1, 2013 - 12:06 pm

YAY! Now I can start hoarding tokens again.

Bolwerk April 1, 2013 - 12:07 pm

I actually miss the token. Every time I go to Philadelphia, I feel a little nostalgic.

Jerrold April 1, 2013 - 12:28 pm

I knew it was April Fool as soon as I saw the headine of the article.

Did people here also see Wikipedia last night?
Wiki goes by Greenwich Mean Time (or whatever it’s called now), so their obvious April Fool articles were up there yesterday evening.

NickCave April 1, 2013 - 12:37 pm

This is the MTA we’re talking about, so this could be totally plausible, regardless of what the calendar says.

Gary Reilly April 1, 2013 - 12:41 pm

I was really hoping the lawsuit was today’s holiday post.

Mike April 1, 2013 - 12:52 pm

Never too sure with the MTA.

I’d actually like new tech that was of a national standard. It would be great for travelers if the same Metrocard worked in NY, Chicago, DC and more. It could have a universal cash wallet and room for a few timed unlimiteds. The cash wallet could be tapped when entering or exiting.

It wouldn’t be too hard to implement, if the standards were set by the Department of Transportation and it’s use were a requirement for federal funding over a certain amount.

It would bring costs down, when the development efforts could be handled by a single firm.

Skip Skipson April 1, 2013 - 12:58 pm

LOL, the the 2nd avenue line becoming a ‘shuttle’ a few years ago, had me going for a bit longer….

For April 2014 try
MTA to combine Cortelyou & Beverly Road Stations into one station.
Community Boards in Astoria express Unanimous support for extending to N train to Laguardia Airport.
Fung Wah to replace M60 bus service.
State passes MTA ‘lockbox’ bill with budget

Someone April 1, 2013 - 1:22 pm

Also consider:

-N/Q to be extended to Astoria over two years
-All Select Bus Service bus lines discontinued
-Broadway-Hewes Street transfer to open

Steven M. Bellovin April 1, 2013 - 1:06 pm

The Taipei Metro uses tokens for single-ride fares: RFID-containing plastic tokens. You place them over a sensor to enter; you put them in a slot in the turnstile to exit: http://english.trtc.com.tw/ct......;mp=122032

Alon Levy April 1, 2013 - 9:30 pm

Shanghai does the same slot thing for single-ride tickets, but those are plastic cards rather than tokens.

Alek April 1, 2013 - 1:08 pm

Nice April Fools Ben!

Tonight the long awaited (J) fastrack finally arrives! Let see if they going to do Chambers clean up!

Frank B April 1, 2013 - 1:48 pm

That really was too funny. ๐Ÿ˜€

The Cobalt Devil April 1, 2013 - 1:55 pm

This is even better than last year’s “MTA to Reopen Old South Ferry Loop in April 2013.”

Hey, wait a minute!

John-2 April 1, 2013 - 2:49 pm

Ben could also have done “After 65 years, MTA to return New York Aquarium to Battery Park” by filling up the lower South Ferry station with sea water, and that would have been sort of accurate, too.

Someone April 1, 2013 - 4:19 pm

Turns out, Ben didn’t do an April Fool’s post last year.

The post from the year before— now, that was amazing.

llqbtt April 1, 2013 - 2:22 pm

Good one!! So plausible too!

btw, MTA appointed a new Chairman today!

SEAN April 1, 2013 - 3:14 pm

How about…

Woodside station to get new elevators next year.
MTA to spend $750,000 to study facial recognition for fare payment
MTA to spend$ 28,000,000,000 to connect the brand new Penn Station & Grand Central Terminal. Expected completion 2062.

Someone April 1, 2013 - 4:13 pm

How about:

~MTA to proceed with extension of G train to Staten Island as planned

~MTA starts the construction of more than 100 route miles of new subway lines, which include an extension of the 7 train to Secaucus

~All stations in the subway to get platform screen doors and countdown clocks by 2018

~R46 to be retired in 2014 due to the need for 60-foot cars

Roxie Mika April 1, 2013 - 4:18 pm

…I feel like maybe it’s a little sad that I considered this not entirely far-fetched. Either it says something about the MTA… or about me.

Spiderpig April 1, 2013 - 5:07 pm

Well written…

Nathanael April 3, 2013 - 6:49 pm

Gah! I fell for this one. I went to the comments ready to say “But I thought the MTA retrofitted the turnstiles so they don’t take tokens at all any more — or are the turnstiles still designed to take both tokens and Metrocards like they were when Metrocards were introduced?”

Shawn April 7, 2013 - 1:25 pm

haha I read this today and fell for it! Maybe it says something about the MTA that such an april fool’s article can so easily be taken as truth!

Richard December 4, 2013 - 10:14 pm

I want Smartcards not tokens.

Michael April 8, 2014 - 2:07 am

I very much enjoyed reading this article! Thanks Ben for taking the lighter fun side of transit.



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