Home MetroCard The Metrocard’s unknown replacement as a campaign issue

The Metrocard’s unknown replacement as a campaign issue

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Larry Littlefield July 24, 2013 - 8:03 am

“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.”


“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.”

Based on past experience, I’d hesitate to justify any investment based on productivity savings with the TWU around. And in the end the public wants and deserves a station agent in every station. The big benefit of any new system in my view would be more rapid bus boarding.

Instead of complaining about the MTA, the pols should be complaining about the U.S. financial sector. It has been focused on playing a high stakes poker game, with the taxpayer covering the losses of the losers, while failing to advance at doing its job. If it invested more in technology and less in lobbying the MTA would be rolling out a new system now. Remember what Paul Volker said — the only socially useful financial innovation of the past 30 years was the ATM.

Scott E July 24, 2013 - 8:18 am

More than anything else, I believe people want a unified system that works on multiple modes/carriers of transportation and won’t carry the unexpected surprises of something new and unproven. Also, as you mention, there’s not a whole lot of time (or patience) for design and testing. For that reason, I believe the PATH SmartLink is really the only way to go.

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 10:17 am

Absolutely correct!

Could you imagine a single card that was valid on every mode of transit in the metro area? Oh wait, San Francisco has such a system & it’s called Clipper http://www.clippercard.com. Interestingly enough that is a Cubic system just like the Metrocard. Cubic has installed systemwide smartcard programs in such cities as Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis/ Saint Paul, Charlotte, Miami, San Diego (it’s hometown), Baltimore as an extention of Dc’s system & is working on systems in Philadelphia & expanding L A’s card program to minissiple systems around Los Angeles County.

Mike July 24, 2013 - 11:03 am

With Cubic handling the majority of the systems, hopefully they start looking towards cross-compatibility. Especially in the Northeast, it would be great if my SEPTA card would work on my frequent trips to NY, Boston, and DC.

SEPTA’s new system is supposed to be an “open” system where other forms of NFC payment devices will work, so hopefully they use that as a model for other cities to go forward.

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 11:32 am

With Cubic handling the majority of the systems, hopefully they start looking towards cross-compatibility. Especially in the Northeast, it would be great if my SEPTA card would work on my frequent trips to NY, Boston, and DC.


In some cases there is ressaprossity between transit systems with the Cubic tap cards, it’s just not well known or encouraged.

The most noted example is Smartrip in DC & the CharmCard in Baltimore, however I aided a gentalman a few years ago who was from Atlanta & he told me that when he took a trip to DC to visit his daughter, he forgot to buy a farecard & tried his Breezecard instead. By his surprise, it worked. Not only that, he found out there was an agreement to except each others fare media since they were functionally the same.

Frank July 24, 2013 - 3:22 pm

So in other words, there already is a de facto system in place, and the MTA wants to do things its own way.

How surprising.

alen July 24, 2013 - 3:31 pm

those are closed systems

in theory you can build an open system where you can use a smartphone or some NFC only device to pay. doesn’t matter who makes the device. and the back end will be easier to upgrade in pieces since its open.

as it is now with the metrocard, you have to upgrade the entire system at once or on a fairly fast schedule to go from metrocard to a newer system

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 4:57 pm

Those are closed systems.

Yes they are, but as the above example notes a ressaprossity agreement can thiroreticly open the system by ataching several closed looped systems together.

Although technicly you are right.

Alex July 24, 2013 - 12:33 pm

Clipper can be confusing though. I found that out the hard way when I tried to use money I’d placed on my Clipper Card using a MUNI TVM on the BART. Doesn’t work. Infuriating. How is a tourist or other infrequent user supposed to know the difference? Just making note that it’s better than what we have, but not perfect.

Alon Levy July 24, 2013 - 11:48 am

No! SmartLink, like Clipper, is a vendor-locked proprietary technology. New York shouldn’t be slave to a defense contractor that’s tried to branch out since the end of the Cold War. The region needs an open standard.

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 12:12 pm

I understand your point & I agree with an open standard,but until Visa, Mastercard & American express agree what that standard is, we’re stuck unless NFC adoption is widely excepted.

Alon Levy July 24, 2013 - 3:58 pm

There’s an ISO standard for frequency with multiple vendors, used by the European smart cards and by Seoul, Beijing, and other cities. In the US it’s used in Boston and Seattle. There’s a separate open standard developed by Sony that it proposed to the ISO that the ISO rejected instead of the current standard; it is used everywhere in Japan, and in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Delhi, and also has multiple vendors, since Hong Kong uses different card manufacturers from the Japanese companies.

Not everything has to be decided by the American banking sector.

Henry July 27, 2013 - 1:35 pm

Hasn’t the European ISO been hacked several times? I don’t think the Sony FeLiCa standard has been yet, but I could be wrong.

BBnet3000 July 24, 2013 - 1:51 pm

Thumbs up to Alon’s reply

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 4:48 pm

Not everything has to be decided by the American banking sector.

Oh, I wish it were as simple as that, but I think you know better.

Karm July 24, 2013 - 5:34 pm

“shouldn’t be slave to a defense contractor that’s tried to branch out since the end of the Cold War”

the waterways and many animals are held hostage by the so-called “lawn care products” that are a result of the chemical companies branching out after WW2 and Vietnam with their chemical warefare experiments. I digress.

Alon Levy July 24, 2013 - 5:42 pm

Yeah, that, too. But there are clear, open alternatives to Cubic and its lobbying for making transit in LA and Vancouver worse with faregates.

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 6:42 pm

And what’s wrong with faregates beyond maintaining them? The Red Line when I road it in 2005 was so easily exploitable because there weren’t any gates to prevent fare evasion.

Alon Levy July 24, 2013 - 7:29 pm

Maintaining them costs money, installing them costs money, and fare evasion rates don’t drop too much if the stations remain unstaffed and if the fare structure is already set up to incentivize season passes.

Nick Ober July 24, 2013 - 8:33 am

I love the “let’s wait” argument…Hong Kong released its contactless RFID card system in 1997! London’s Oyster card has been available since 2003. The benefits of these systems are clear — especially with regard to bus loading time in areas without SBS. They’ve been tested. The time to wait is over.

Chris C July 24, 2013 - 8:39 am

Oyster was rolled out in 2003 for passenger use but the contract was signed in 1998. So it took 5 years to change over all the ticket machines and gate lines etc etc

Even when it started it was only on the Transport for London system. It has only been in the last few years that it has operated on the rail system and even then only in stations withing the London boundary. The rail companies were very reluctant to adopt Oyster and they were paid to install the machines.

Eric Brasure July 24, 2013 - 9:18 am

Pretty amazing to think that Hong Kong was using RFID in 1997 while in New York people could still pay for a ride with a token.

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 9:54 am

And they still do in Philadelphia for crying out loud!

Nathanael July 25, 2013 - 9:50 pm

SEPTA is very very very, um, “traditional”.

Karm July 24, 2013 - 5:32 pm

And medical records were digitized in Taiwan… and MRI’s have been cheap in Japan.. and on and on.

JJJJ July 24, 2013 - 10:26 am

Just use the PATH system! Its already there!

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 11:35 am

There’s a chance they might do that.

JJJJ July 24, 2013 - 1:54 pm

It shouldnt be left to chance. Just do it. At the very least, add a couple of path gates to every downtown station.

Gary Reilly July 24, 2013 - 10:43 am

Still trying to understand why an EZPass based solution hasn’t been pushed.

I’m not saying that’s the definitive answer – it just looks to me like an obvious option and I’m really curious as to why it isn’t widely discusse.

Mike July 24, 2013 - 10:55 am

That’s essentially what SEPTA is trying to do in Philadelphia. They’ll have an online portal where you can tie a CC to your farecard to automatically reload it, or to just register your RFID enabled CC or Debit card to use directly.

SEAN July 24, 2013 - 11:45 am

The EasyPay card is an EasyPass in the form of a Metrocard. I’ve been using one since 2007 & I encourage all those who could benefit from such a program to sign up. Yeah, it has it’s flaws but the positives far out way the drawbacks. http://www.easypaymetrocard.com or 1 877-323-7433.

Larry Littlefield July 24, 2013 - 11:38 am

You have to take into account the fact that whenver the MTA tries to do something, it ends up getting royally hosed by contractors and consultants. Multi-year delays, and over-runs in (for a systemwide implementation) the $billions.

The key here is OFF THE SHELF. They are waiting for something to be on the shelf.

Tower18 July 24, 2013 - 12:46 pm

It’s not like proven examples don’t exist in numerous other cities.

Henry July 27, 2013 - 1:36 pm

There are open technical standards for smartcards already. The problem is that the MTA wants to wait for a newer technology with a newer standard so that it doesn’t get bitten in the ass like it did by adopting the Metrocard when Cubic offered it a smartcard system.

Roxie July 24, 2013 - 11:43 am

They should really just use some sort of NFC-based solution (like SEPTA’s NPT system, since that’s apparently relatively open). Most debit cards come with an NFC chip built in nowadays, and so do most Android phones from 2012 or so. Hell, sufficiently build up the demand and even Apple will probably relent. Paired with free WiFi in every subway station, “your iPhone or iPod touch can be your personal NPT card” would tip things in Apple’s favor pretty quickly, especially since Google doesn’t seem to care much for drawing attention to Wallet…

alen July 24, 2013 - 12:01 pm

i’m all for using smartphones, but the fact is that something like 40% of the people in the USA don’t have a smartphone. and a large percentage of those probably won’t want one

Larry Littlefield July 24, 2013 - 1:08 pm

The MTA will always have to serve the illiterate poor person, or the tech-phobic senior, or the recent immigrant who can’t speak English, who rides once a month and pays in cash. That’s the problem with a lot of this stuff.

alen July 24, 2013 - 1:11 pm

the problem with smartphones is that they cost extra money in the form of a data plan.

i’m personally looking at dumping AT&T later this year or next, going to t-mobile and paying for a minimum of 4G data and keeping my iphone 5 for three or four years. and buying an extra ipad or 2. tired for paying a lot of money for data that i end up not using a lot of times

Roxie July 24, 2013 - 1:33 pm

I’m not saying they should require smartphones. That much is obvious; most of my friends, for instance, are broke enough that they’ll be rocking their cheap old Android phones or iPhone 4s for a good while. I, myself, only have a Galaxy S III because it was on sale for next to nothing on Sprint last Black Friday.

What I was trying to get across is that using a relatively standard NFC solution (like what SEPTA’s seems to be) would definitely aid them in the long run, because then people with smartphones which have NFC support (the number of which is rising lately since NFC gets cheaper and cheaper and becomes “last gen’s tech”) would be able to tap and pay just as well as they could with a regular NPT card.

Henry July 27, 2013 - 1:38 pm

The problem is that NFC still has some rocky issues to sort through. For one thing, my Chase Card works if you swipe on a reader, but not if you tap it, simply because it’s a debit card and not a credit card.

They could also adopt the Square technology, which is pretty solid, but that would mean that the MTA would be venderlocked to Starbucks. I could see the headlines now…

Andre L. July 25, 2013 - 3:21 pm

Some solution can be provided like machines that provide cards. Just because there will always be a minority of people who can’t use modern technology doesn’t mean a transportation system should be designed taking at its center of the user experience the semi-illiterate-recent-immigrant-who-didn’t-have-computers-at-home-country-is-afraid-of-machines-and-rides-once-a-month.

alen July 25, 2013 - 3:34 pm

does anyone know what the ROI is on going be to implement NFC? i’m not against it, but if i lose my metro card it’s only $1 to buy another one. if i don’t have a NFC phone how much will it cost for a simple NFC device? will it save the MTA money to operate a system like this?

Henry July 27, 2013 - 1:42 pm

The MTA wasted a lot of money printing new metrocards. Presumably, people aren’t stupid enough to throw away smartcards and magnetic strip cards will be kept for single-ride purposes, but the idea is to save money.

The Metrocard Machines are also outdated pieces of junk that cost a fortune to maintain, so that’s the other part of it. Less dwell time on buses also speeds up run time and saves money that way as well.

A few dollars here and there end up becoming millions, which can then be used to add service or restore cuts.

Josh July 25, 2013 - 6:17 pm

“Most debit cards come with an NFC chip built in nowadays”

Do they? I’m pretty sure my recently-issued Bank of America debit card doesn’t have one.

Henry July 27, 2013 - 1:54 pm

It varies from bank to bank, city to city. You could always try tapping it on the readers.


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