After nearly ten years of fits and starts, the MTA’s on-again, off-again plan to replace the swipe-based Metrocard with something more modern has taken on a quixotic overtone. Numerous pilots led the MTA to issue plans for a charge card-based contactless solution, but low adoption rates by the country’s major banks led the agency to shelf this project. It’s all rather “inside baseball,” but this week, for some reason, it became a part of the ongoing drama that is the current mayoral campaign.
It takes a lot of institutional memory to remember the MTA’s first contactless pilot back in the early-to-mid 2000s, but there it was. Sponsored by Mastercard, the 2006 pilot ran for a bunch of much with limited success on the Lexington Ave. IRT, and a few years ago, a wider pilot also sponsored by Mastercard seemed promising as well. The MTA had hoped to start the gradual Metrocard phase-out by 2012, and when Jay Walder arrived, he expressed his desire to ditch the Metrocard in favor of something that moved beyond the proprietary technology of London’s Oyster card.
When Walder left, the halting effort faltered. The MTA had issued a comprehensive document in May of 2011 with its plans in place, but the technology never caught on. Earlier this year, the agency said they hope to have a plan in place within five years as, by 2019, it will become prohibitively expensive to maintain the current Metrocard technology. The MTA, I concluded, was stuck, but outside of the occasional swipe error, the vast majority of subway riders are perfectly happy with their Metrocards.
Christine Quinn is not one of them. In comments earlier this week, she urged the MTA to hurry it up already, and while it’s not exactly a mainstream campaign issue, her points are valid. Erin Durkin reported:
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is pushing the MTA to speed up a delayed plan to let straphangers get on to subways without swiping MetroCards…“The reality is a promise was made to straphangers and that promise was not lived up to,” the mayoral hopeful said. “We in New York City have fallen behind other municipalities in providing the quickest, easiest, most cost effective transit in the country, in part because we’re still so dedicated to using the MetroCard.”
…Quinn chalked up the delay to “a combination of faulty planning, turnover in leadership, and misguided prioritization.”
MTA officials say their original plan depended on banks developing credit and debit cards with chips in them to allow contactless use, which the industry was expected to do a few years ago but never happened on a widespread basis. Now, the agency is waiting to see whether private industry ends up turning to credit cards, mobile phones, key fobs, or some other type of technology for no-swipe payments. “We don’t want to get in the business of issuing our own card and we don’t want to pick winners,” said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg. “The idea is lets wait, rather than making a bad bet.”
In the meantime, the agency is working on designing the back end of a no-swipe system including wiring and office equipment, which they can add card readers to when a technology is chosen down the road. “It would be incorrect to say that we’re not working on it, that we’re not pushing for it, but we want to do it smart,” Lisberg said. “If we were to choose a new technology now, we’d be locked into that.”
Lisberg’s comments are the most we’ve seen from the MTA on this topic in months, and the fact that they now have a full-time Chairman and CEO who plans to stick around means that institutional turnover at the top should be eliminated for the next few years. But Quinn is right: With the Metrocard still in play, the MTA is not maximizing the revenue it draws in from fares, and even shaving a few cents per dollar off of its fare collection costs can help the MTA realize a few hundred million in added revenue.
The debate though seems to be one of approach. Swipe-less touch-based technology that works is out there. It exists in Boston and Washington, D.C., London and Hong Kong. It’s coming to Philadelphia too. Meanwhile, a bank card-based system is slowly getting rolled out in London at the behest of Transport for London. The MTA, though, has taken a more passive approach that looks more like paralysis than anything else. Waiting for the next technology and then slowly bringing it to market means we’re stuck with the Metrocard for the foreseeable future.
As with most things MTA, the next mayor’s power is limited, but their board appointees, as the Daily News notes, can push the issue. Quinn’s concern won’t win her flocks of voters, but it’s an astute issue that’s been hanging over the MTA’s collective heads for nearly eight years and counting. It’s time to move it forward.