Let me tell you a little secret: Tonight, I took the G train from 7th Ave. to 15th Street. It’s not a particularly long ride, and I probably waited for a train longer than I was on it. But I just didn’t feel like walking, and I knew that it was early enough that the F or G were both still running pretty frequently. So with a flick of the MetroCard, I saved myself from walking about 6/10 of a mile. It was lazy, and it was glorious.
What made my little indulgence possible was, of course, my 30-day unlimited MetroCard. It didn’t cost me anything to swipe in at 7th Ave., and in fact, I was able to make use of what is in effect a sunk cost. Every month, I pay for a pre-tax 30-day unlimited ride card, and I have a certain number of rides to make the purchase a good investment. For those who pay full price, the break-even point is 48 rides, and after that, every swipe just makes that 30-day card a better deal.
Twenty years ago, we didn’t have that option. We loaded up on tokens and had to carry them everywhere. We had no free transfers between buses and subways, and each ride had to be planned in advance. We may have walked more or resorted to cabs as they offered better value for the ride in the early 1990s than they do now. For New Yorkers who don’t know or remember the past, it was truly a different time. The subway wasn’t nearly as integrated into everyday life as it is today.
It’s hard to understate what the unlimited MetroCard did. It wasn’t easy to see the project through, and it took combined pressure from the mayor and governor to see the change through. Rudy Giuliani pushed on the philosophy of “one fare, one city,” and George Pataki applied the necessary pressure from Albany. By the late 1990s, the MTA has moved beyond the idea that one ride should cost one fare. “The goal here,” Pataki said in 1997, “was very simply to empower the rider. Empower the person who takes the subway and the person who takes the bus by giving them the broadest possible range of options as to how they want to choose to use the mass transit system.”
It’s worked, and it’s become something we all take for granted. Tokens have become museum pieces, and nearly a third of all subway riders use some form of unlimited card. Others still are able to take advantage of the subway/bus transfer that comes with a pay-per-ride swipe. Only a small percentage of riders buy single-ride cards — the 2013 equivalent of a token — and most of those are tourists.
Meanwhile, the subways have seen nearly unprecedented ridership growth since the late 1990s, and while a reduction of crime and investment of the system deserve some credit, so too do the MetroCards. It’s easier than ever to justify a subway ride, and it’s now cheap and convenient. Just swipe that card, enjoy the fact that dollars aren’t deducted, and go. That’s how to draw people to transit.
As the MetroCard and its technology nears the end of its shelf life, I wonder about what comes next. The MTA doesn’t seem to know yet what its next-generation fare payment technology will be, but it will come equipped with the same flexibility. We won’t have that yellow and blue piece of plastic, but it’ll always be with us, a key part of New York City’s transit history.