Oct
17

An ode to the Unlimited MetroCard

By

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.



Categories : MetroCard

60 Responses to “An ode to the Unlimited MetroCard”

  1. John-2 says:

    The unlimited is also something of a bad weather insurance card, in that distances you might walk under normal conditions are still at least partially workable in all but extraordinary weather conditions without having to think that it’s going to cost extra $$$ to avoid either getting soaked, dehydrated, frozen or have to deal with snow/ice for long distances on the sidewalk.

  2. Unlimited 30 cards are great. A break even of 48 trips is a bit high tho, isn’t it? Or is that 48 rides with each transfer counting as one ride?
    The 30-day card over here in Stockholm takes 32 trips to break even if traveling just within zone 1 (an area covering the whole subway network and a little bit more), but only 16 trips if one’s regular trip is across all three zones (the whole metropolitan area).

    Imagine a 30-day unlimited card covering ALL transit in the Tri-state area. What would that have to cost?

    • Alon Levy says:

      It’s 48 trips, where each trip can include a transfer. If you transfer inside the subway system then it doesn’t even count as a transfer because the faregates are at station entrances and not at transfer points, and if you transfer between buses or between the subway and a bus you get a free transfer anyway.

    • Tommy P says:

      I take a train to commute to and from work five days a week, so 2 trips x 5 days x 4 weeks = 40 trips pretty much guaranteed. Then include weekends and other side trips, breaking even at 48 isn’t that out of reach.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    It should be mentioned that with the Metrocard there was a massive decrease in the effective fare, and money was borrowed to pay for it. Some of the cut in per-ride fares was just added trips like your one stop, which really didn’t cost the system anything, but much of it was not.

    Past riders got a hell of a deal, at the expense of future riders. And much of what Giuliani and Pataki did, and not just at the MTA, had a similar effect.

  4. Scott E says:

    The unlimited card certainly has its benefits. Sometimes, I’d even swipe in one end of a station and out the other end if there was heavy rain outside, without even boarding a train!

    An interesting consequence of the unlimited cards is that, when coupled with an LIRR or MNR Mail-and-Ride monthly ticket, it could last as long as 31 days or as short as 28. It’s the same price, but since it’s on a monthly commuter-rail pass, it is effective for a calendar month, not necessarily 30 days.

  5. johndmuller says:

    Maybe it’s time to start thinking about retiring the sacred flat rate fare.

    I know it was really cool when you could go anywhere for 15 cents, or 35 cents, or 75 cents, or whatever number you remember, and we can store that memory in a very special place in our hearts (as if we haven’t already done that), but is it really so special to be able to go anywhere for 3 dollars or 5 dollars? And while it’s nice to just pay on your way into the subway, is it really so hard to register your exit too? After all we mostly use the fare-gates to get out anyway. Perhaps one day we will all be ‘chipped’ at birth (and I regret to say that I think that is all too possible) and on the upside, we won’t have to do anything but walk by the sensors to use the subway.

    Anyway, the point of those changes would be to charge different fares for different trips…

    I know what comes next, so lets air out the social aspects before getting down to any details. (Now I grew up in the Bronx, so I can hopefully get away with using the Bronx for an example.) The people in the Bronx are understood to be less well off than those in Manhattan, how can you charge them more than someone (richer) who lives in Manhattan (to get to their jobs in Manhattan)? Well I for sure don’t have a good answer to that question. I wish I did; while “We don’t need your stinking charity!” is maybe satisfying, it doesn’t put the bread on the table.

    I do have a pricing regime which might make things more palatable, a sort of zone system where each borough is a zone and Manhattan counts double. With the current pricing ballpark a basic borough fare of $1 and a Manhattan fare of $2 (Bronx to Manhattan: $1+$2=$3) might keep revenues about the same (someone else might well have a better idea of what would be good numbers). There is room for fiddling with the details, like what is Bronx to Queens, but this type of price structure might work on a number of levels, especially as local travel in the outer boroughs would suddenly become half price or less. I could see this approach possibly being politically popular as well, perhaps even in Manhattan (where, if you never went anywhere outside Manhattan, you would also be saving money).

    Why bother with this? Good question. Perhaps extending some of the lines into Westchester or Nassau counties (the boroughs are each counties too), so add another zone fare for them. I don’t know about Nassau, but there are a number of reasonable destinations from the Bronx into Westchester: i.e., Yonkers Raceway/Casino is a straight shot beyond the Jerome Ave. line and only a mile or 2 away (although you might want to send the nearby B or D line instead); there is the 1 train to downtown Yonkers, and the 3 or 5 to Mt. Vernon. And then there is the 7 train to New Jersey.

    Once a smarter fare system is in place, there are many possibilities.

    • Joseph Steindam says:

      I still object to this premise on the issue of equity, but if you wanted to implement a zone system that didn’t penalize people for traveling through Manhattan from one outer borough to another, you would probably make the cost of traveling into Manhattan (in your example $3) the maximum fare. So that a trip on the D from Yankee Stadium to West 4th or Coney Island would be the same.

      I actually feel that the equity issue is sort of a weak argument, mainly because (I forget the exact number at this point) a large numbers of New Yorkers, I think including a majority of those in the outer boroughs, live in the borough they work in. If intra-borough trips were cheaper, including buses which mostly operate intra-borough, it might offset any equity issues. I think the bigger benefit is that it reinforces the unity between boroughs that all trips cost the same, it makes travel through the whole city relatively simple. I realize I’m not really making an eloquent argument to retaining the flat fare, but I think it’s a necessity for the NYC Subway.

    • Anon256 says:

      There aren’t enough turnstiles (nor is there space to add them) to deal with the crowds leaving stations if everybody had to swipe on exit; systems with zone fares have to devote much more space to turnstiles. Also, how would your proposal deal with unlimited-ride card holders? (Really I’m surprised that these are only 1/3 of riders; it seems bizarre to live in NYC and not have an unlimited Metrocard.)

      Extending subways to the low-density areas beyond the city line (which already have much faster commuter rail service) is ridiculous for a number of reasons; you’re worrying about a few million dollars of fare revenue while proposing a multibillion-dollar capital boondoggle.

  6. Phantom says:

    Many I know stopped the unlimited card with the last fare change. If you’re not a weekend rider, it doesn’t make sense for many of us.

    There will never be a fare system in NYC. The ” outer boroughs ” will hang anyone who proposes it.

    • Many you know are bad at math. Before the most recent fare hike, the breakeven point was actually higher than it is now. It dropped by 2-3 rides.

      • Phantom says:

        The unlimited card was never a good deal for many.

        A lot of people leave plenty of money on the MTA table by buying unlimited without thinking.

        Yes, Manhattan is the center of the city and region and no where else is. It’s not outdated or an insult to other places to use the term outer boroughs. Jeez, some are just looking to be insulted.

    • Eric Brasure says:

      I don’t often ride transit on the weekends, but I still buy an unlimited every month. Why? Because it’s one less thing to worry about. And honestly, even if you never ride transit on the weekend, going back and forth to work burns 40 trips a month on average. It’s not that hard to make 8 more trips (to the doctor, or the dentist, or to run an errand in a different part of Manhattan than you work, or to get a haircut, or whatever.)

      Of course, it just so happens that I’ve been tracking my usage for a little over three years, and my average ride costs $2.16. There are months where it doesn’t break even, but obviously over the long term, it still does.

      I don’t expect everyone to be crazy like me and keep track of every swipe for three years, but I would bet a hundred bucks that the people you know that stopped buying unlimited are spending more money on transit now.

    • Lady Feliz says:

      There is no such thing as an “outer borough.” All five boroughs became part of Greater New York at midnight on January 1, 1898. There has never been anything in the NYC Charter that states that one borough is in the middle and the rest radiate out from there. Sorry to bust your bubble, but the MTA is a citywide entity serving the entire city, not just lofty Manhattanites.

      • Boris says:

        I’d love to see the subway expanded and reorganized to serve all portions of the city equally (proportional to population and commuting patterns), but as of today and for many years to come, we have a hub-and-spoke system where Manhattan is basically the main, and often only, worthy destination. I don’t like it either, but the outer boroughs are the outer boroughs.

        • Lady Feliz says:

          Guess you’ve never heard of a little place called “Brooklyn” which seems to be a popular “worthy” destination as of late. And to folks who live, work and/or go to school in the Bronx or Staten Island, those areas are “worthy” destinations also. Sorry, but “outer-borough” is “out-dated”…it’s all one big city.

          • Tower18 says:

            All those places are still outer boroughs, “worthy” or not. It’s just the way it is, stop being so sensitive about it.

            • Lady Feliz says:

              Not being sensitive. Language has meaning. If you keep insisting that the other four boroughs outside of Manhattan are somehow “outer” boroughs, then they’ll get treated like outer boroughs. If I have five kids and I tell the other four that the oldest kid is the center of my life and they are just there to serve the elder sibling, how do you think that would work out for the other four?

              One city, five boroughs. Nobody is in or out, we just don’t all live in Manhattan.

  7. anon_coward says:

    they had subway bus transfers in the token days. you had to stand in line at the booth to ask for a transfer. most people didn’t bother

    and it will be a cold day in hell before the unlimited metro card goes away. a lot of people take the train to go shopping on the weekends. no unlimited metro card and they will buy online, drive or not go to the malls

    • ajedrez says:

      Was that for all buses, or just ones like the B54, Bx55, etc that were acting as replacements for subway lines?

      • anon_coward says:

        pretty sure it was for all of them since i’ve lived in queens since the early 80’s

        • Lady Feliz says:

          No sir, it was only for buses that replaced elevated trains or streetcars that were discontinued, such as the Third Ave el in the Bronx. Otherwise, nobody had free bus/subway transfers.

    • pete says:

      They already took away the 1 day unlimited. They will kill the 7 day during the next fare hike leaving unlimited cards to hardcore weekday commuters.

  8. AP says:

    Like many New Yorkers, I work 9-5-ish in Manhattan and commute from another borough. Sometimes I go somewhere after work, using another swipe on my 30-day unlimited, though I don’t use it much on weekends.

    My unlimited is truly worth the money because my husband has a different work schedule (mostly nights and weekends), which enables us to SHARE a 30-day unlimited, thereby getting far more than the 48 rides that make it a good value.

  9. Wayne's World says:

    Now that you’ve come clean, I’ll admit that there are many times when I’m going to Lincoln Center that I’ve taken the subway from Columbus Circle to 66th Street courtesy of my unlimited ride Metrocard. I usually leave the office later than I should for whatever event I’m attending. So I slide into the south end of the Columbus Circle IRT station and walk north along the platform to the front end where I went to exit from at 66th Street. Usually, by the time I’m at the front end, the train will have come. So it’s kind of like a moving sidewalk to 66th Street. I always want to kiss my glorious unlimited ride Metrocard when that happens. Though I don’t tell my wife what I’ve done when I meet her at Lincoln Center so as to avoid hearing, “I can’t believe you rode just one stop.”

  10. Lady Feliz says:

    The Metrocard also halved the fare for many people who had to take buses then subways to get around. My $5.50 round trip fare (including 50 cents for the ferry) from Staten Island to Midtown was cut in half overnight with the advent of Metrocard transfers used between my Staten Island bus ride and the subways at South Ferry. Islanders were lucky because they tried out the Metrocard on some SI buses and the subway booths at Whitehall St/South Ferry before bringing the Metrocard on line system-wide (which took a while; I remember using tokens at stations uptown and the Metrocard at South Ferry LOL.

  11. ddartley says:

    NYCT’s next fare payment technology MUST integrate with the bike share system!!

    • Epson45 says:

      How about no.

    • al says:

      If the MTA choose a contactless fare payment system that is compatible with debit/credit cards, then this would be relatively simple. The MTA would also save enough over the Metrocard to pay for the transition in a year or two. Expand it to LIRR and MNCR, and install fare control at stations, and they could shift all those assistant conductor slots to maintenance, and engineers to operate more midday, evening, and weekend train service.

      • Dan says:

        Having ridden LIRR hundreds of times to and from Penn, I think pre-boarding/departure fare control would be very hard to do for LIRR/MNR because of the extremely large crowds at rush hour for trains that leave at set times at much lower frequencies than on the subway. You will have long lines to be sure.

        Just so much easier to check tickets on board while the train is going between stations.

      • Epson45 says:

        Would never work at with the FRA work rules.

  12. Epson45 says:

    Its expensive if you have only 1 person is riding the 30 day. 2 people with 30 day card does help…just to split the $112 cost. Otherwise 2015 is around the corner and MTA could raise it up to $120 or more.

    • I mean, it’s not expensive if that same person is paying for a pay-per-ride card and uses more than 48 swipes per month. This is Economics 101. Maybe the upfront costs seem higher, but out-of-pocket expenses can be significantly more.

      • Epson45 says:

        No, it is EXPENSIVE. Almost all the working class do not have a raise. MTA fare did get a raise. That’s unfair.

        • The pay-per-ride fare went up, and the bulk discount went down too. There’s no way around a simple economic fact: If you ride the subway 48 times or more in a 30-day period and do not use an unlimited card, you are wasting money.

          • Epson45 says:

            But you clearly don’t understand, Ben. It is EXPENSIVE. $112. Not everyone has Transitchek like you.

            • So what you’re saying is that the upfront cost of a 30-day Metrocard is a barrier. That’s fine; I get it. But you have to recognize that if you don’t spend that $112, as soon as you swipe a pay-per-ride card, even with the bulk discount, the 49th time in a 30-day period, you are losing money. That’s the equation without Transitchek. I’d think that anyone who uses the subway that much is doing so to go to a job, and then, they can budget appropriately to have $112 available one time a month rather than paying out of pocket for 30 days.

              • Epson45 says:

                No, you don’t get at all. Talking to a brick wall.

                • VLM says:

                  Let’s be perfectly blunt here: The only person being a brick wall, and a rude one at that, is you. Ben has explained in great detail a few times how, even if a 30-day card is expensive, it’s more expensive to spend on a pay-per-ride card if you ride frequently over the course of a month. So either explain yourself better or be less rude. It’s unbecoming.

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    He could make it better, but Epson does kinda have a point. It’s not always possible to get an unlimited in the course of a single paycheck, and it’s not always easy to save up for the next paycheck to get one, especially since you need to be spending on transit while you do it.

                    That’s true of a lot of household “commodities.” Bulk buy your non-perishable food, paper towels, toilet paper, cleaners, etc., and you save some money. But you pay a lot more up front. It’s easier to spend less when you’re wealthier.

  13. Johnny says:

    I swipe 3-4 times a day, 6 days a week. Comes out to about $1.16 a ride. Not bad!

  14. Greg C. says:

    In San Francisco, the Clipper card can be used on the Muni (buses and trams), BART, and Caltrain — and even for parking in municipal-owned garages. Very convenient. It’s a tap-based, RFID chip system; you can reload it with money at all Walgreens, online, or at all BART and Caltrain stations. There’s no “unlimited” option, though, largely because BART and Caltrain charge different fares by distance (and are operated by different authorities than Muni, and I imagine figuring out how to split an unlimited card’s revenue among all three authorities would be politically difficult).

    I could see doing this in NY, though, as the MTA operates commuter rail as well as the subway. But probably there should be two tiers: one monthly cost for a “NYC-only” unlimited card, and a higher one for “NYC plus commuter rail”.

    Or to get more complex, you could have a card that’s both “unlimited” for bus and subway and contains a cash amount for use on other systems.

    • MetroDerp says:

      BART and WMATA in DC alike need to stop the purely distance-based fare systems. They’re confusing and the 5-cent differences are unnecessary.

      Instead, for hybrid commuter rail-subway systems like them (and ignoring the drawbacks of such systems), implement a zone system a la London. You still get paying by distance, but it’s a little easier to figure out and then you can easily do unlimited farecards based on zones. So, say, one that’s valid for travel in and between zones 1 and 2, and longer trips come out of pay-as-you-go.

      Additionally capping the total fares that can be paid in one day would also make a lot of sense for the out-of-towners who are most likely to be confused by a zone system. Even if they opt for pay-as-you-go, they won’t be totally screwed by tons of journeys at the maximum rates.

      • pete says:

        The WMATA needs distance fares, because unlike NYC, the DC Metro turns into a commuter railroad with commuter rail station spacing the moment you leave DC. Unlike NYC, the rich live in the rings around the city (DC). The poor in DC live in almost downtown DC (Green line, etc).

        • MetroDerp says:

          I’m not saying end pricing based on distance, I’m just saying it should be streamlined into a zone system.

          As for your conception of development patterns in DC, it’s about 20 years out of date. The midcity Green Line is where a huge portion of development and gentrification is happening right now (trust me, I live off the U Street Station). The poor are getting pushed to East of the River (e.g., Anacostia) and the southernmost counties of Maryland.

    • Ted K. says:

      Actually, there IS an “unlimited” option with the SFBay area’s Clipper card. If you do most of your riding within San Francisco it’s worth it to purchase the “A” pass which effectively makes the BART service from the Balboa Park to the Embarcadero stations a high speed extension of the SFMuni.

      Currently I’m using the “M” pass for San Francisco travel. I also have a cash balance for SamTrans, BART, etc. But in the past, when I was making frequent trips from the Outer Mission [e.g. Geneva + Mission] to the Downtown [e.g. Eighth + Market], having a faster way (typically 20 – 30 minutes vs. 40 – 50 minutes) to travel was worth the higher price of the “A” pass.

      http://www.sfmta.com/getting-a.....hly-passes

    • Steve says:

      It’s not that complex to have both unlimited and cash basis on the same card, and in fact MetroCards now (finally) do that. On the same MetroCard you can have both time (7 or 30-Day Unlimited) and cash. This is useful mainly for using the same MetroCard on both the subway and the JFK AirTrain or the PATH, both of which take MetroCards but charge a pay-per-ride fare, but it also gives a lot more flexibility, such as if you’re going on vacation 5 days after your unlimited runs out and you know you won’t be traveling enough to justify a 7-Day Unlimited, you can simply use the stored cash value and load the next unlimited when you return from vacation.

  15. Demetria says:

    Whenever I go back to my regular pay-per-ride card (usually when I’m traveling for a week and it makes sense to hold off for a week before triggering my next unlimited 30 day) I always notice how frustrating it is to

    1) deal with out of system transfers (Queens Plaza/Queensboro Plaza, 49th st N to 50th st 1 to save time are my main ones).

    2)I do still occasionally end up on the wrong side of the track where there is no underpass.

    3) When its raining taking the subway a stop or two to avoid getting soaked

    4) When I have a friend in town who wants to explore the city and will be taking multiple trips on the subway (Met, lower Manhattan, Williamsburg, Statue of Liberty, Bronx Zoo) and how they can really save $10 a day by just giving me $5 and me going to work and home again with a pay-per-ride

    5) The three times I’ve lost my metrocard and Easypay have canceled it and issued me a new one, i.e. no money lost.

  16. llqbtt says:

    I think that you’re just trying to bump up the G ridership numbers

  17. Duke says:

    I can’t think of any circumstance where I’d hop on the subway for one stop like that even if it’s faster. I’d rather walk half a mile horizontally than go up and down a couple flights of stairs, and even without that, getting on and off the train seems to take more effort compared to just walking (call it a mental transfer cost).

    Nonetheless, there are three reasons why I love carrying an unlimited card:
    1) being opportunistic and hopping on the bus for a short trip if you’re walking and it happens to come by
    2) out of system subway transfers such as 1-E at 50th St
    3) no marginal cost of a ride means I am motivated to maximize the number of rides I take, pay per ride encourages you to minimize it.

  18. johndmuller says:

    It seems that Smart cards (and Smart phones) are presumed to be the next generation of payment method, although as such systems are already in use elsewhere, it’s not out of the question that some significantly different method may arrive before the MTA is ready to do anything in this area.

    In some ways it doesn’t really matter what the exact technology is, provided that at least a certain minimum level of tech is in play. If the fare media is associated with a particular person, like an unlimited metrocard or MN monthly commutation card is, the MTA could optimize your charges after the fact, depending on actual usage, giving you the best deal of the possible plans. Similarly, with multiple trip tickets, one could let MTA retroactively select whatever discount plan would have been best for you to have used. Some additional data entry might be required during commuter rail trips and/or if subway pricing was more variable. Some new fare plans could perhaps be developed.

    Different fare collection systems could make fraud harder (or perhaps easier) and new more complicated pricing schemes might have a negative (or positive maybe) effect on MTA’s bottom line.

    • Epson45 says:

      NFC on a smartphone still has never taken off and you know what NFC stands for?

      • Miles Bader says:

        NFC on a smartphone is not a separate thing from smartcards, they can be completely compatible and interchangeable. Whether or not people use phones or cards isn’t something that the service being used (such as the subway) need concern themselves with too much.

        [The phone makers need to think about of course, to determine if they want to bother putting NFC hardware in their phones, but they could just quit entirely and it wouldn’t make a huge difference in the end.]

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