Archive for MetroCard
This news comes as little surprise after the MTA dropped some hints last week, but MetroCard users won’t be getting a refund for the days of travel lost to Sandy and her storm surge. As The Times reported today, the MTA has determined that “processing refunds would have been a logistical nightmare.”
Details on the decision are scant. As The Times notes, the MTA didn’t offer a refund after Irene shut the system for a few days last year but did extend unlimited cards for a few days following the 2005 transit strike. According to an item in The Post, the MTA could have chosen to reimburse riders $3.47 per day for lost service, but again, how do you add monetary value to an unlimited ride card?
With customers grumbling, the Straphangers Campaign head Gene Russianoff offered up his take: “There’s no way to really calculate the number of trips not taken by the riders. At least this time they offered free fares on the Thursday and Friday after the hurricane. I thought that was a good gesture to the riding public.” Of course, those “free” fares were good only for the half of transit riders who are pay-per-ride card users. The rest of us were left stranded as time ticked off our unlimited ride cards, never to return.
Through the fortunes of good timing, my monthly MetroCard for October expired on Friday, October 26. Despite embarking on a weekend trip to Florida that day, I didn’t plan it that way; it just happened that I wrapped up that 30-day period a few days before Sandy took out the subway. Once the trains in my neck of the woods were largely offline until this past weekend, I didn’t start my next 30-day card until November 4. In fact, I didn’t take the subway again until November 4. Not everyone enjoyed such fortuitous timing.
On Thursday evening, while swiping through at Times Square, I noticed that the person in front of me hadn’t enjoyed the same luxury. His unlimited ride card was set to expire on November 24 — which means he started it on Thursday, October 25. With Sandy knocking out the subways for a few days last week, he missed time on his unlimited card. With the 30-days cards, time is indeed money as more time equals more swipes and more swipes equals more savings.
This story isn’t unique to the person in front of me. Across the city, cards lost time during the transit outage and subsequent restart. Some people couldn’t use their cards because the trains weren’t running between boroughs; others couldn’t use their cards because the trains simply weren’t running. And in the aftermath of Sandy, one question I keep hearing from subway riders concerns their unlimited ride cards. Will the MTA offer a refund or free time?
I reached out to the MTA for clarity on this issue earlier this week, and so far, the topic is not on their minds. “We haven’t made a decision either way, while we’ve been trying to get the system back,” an MTA spokesman said to me. Compensating MetroCard users for their lost time isn’t on the top of anyone’s to-do list.
But what should we expect going forward? By now — nearly two weeks since the MTA cut the subway system off — it seems unlikely that we’ll enjoy extended time on our cards. The age of the MetroCards leaves them a bit inflexible, and it’s not immediately obvious how the MTA can compensate unlimited card users for a few lost days. Seven-day cards have long since expired, and a good number of 30-day cards were due to do the same during the outage. Only those cards that began their 30-day periods before the hurricane and continue today could even be eligible for any benefits.
Ultimately, losing a few days on those MetroCards is a small price to pay for the hurricane, considering the state of some areas of New York City. So we’ll begrudgingly go without a few free days on the back end, and maybe one day, the technology will allow the MTA to put a pause on unlimited card usage. For now, though, the early 1990s MetroCards offer no such flexibility, and that’s what we have.
As we enter an era in which ads decorate the fronts of MetroCards, the law of unintended consequences has taken over. Without familiar markings or arrows leading the way forward, those straphangers unfamiliar with the basic how-to’s of a MetroCard are having trouble navigating the ad-covered cards. DNA Info’s Jill Colvin tracked down some confused tourists to get their takes on the situation.
Generally, European tourists seemed to be the ones most confused at Herald Square by the Gap cards. “We struggled a bit,” one Norwegian vistori said. “If there was ‘This way’ showing the direction,” things would be easier, the tourist said to Colvin. Some New Yorkers too were questioning the need to take away visual directions.
The MTA, meanwhile, said it was still too early to know just how confusing the redesigned cards are but pledged to keep an eye on the matter. “We’ll continue to monitor and evaluate,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said. “It’s an evolving program.” As I noted on Monday, future ad campaigns will have to work around the word “MetroCard” on the backs of the cards, but the direction exhorting users to “Insert this way/This side facing you” isn’t there to help.
In an effort to squeeze money out of every available surface, the MTA announced in July an initiative to sell ads on Metrocards. With the potential to make up to half a million dollars per ad campaign, the cash-strapped authority saw this venture as a potential revenue maximizer, and this past weekend, the MTA unveiled the first such cards carrying an advertisement for The Gap.
The cards themselves, seen above, come as something as a shock to those of us used to the familiar gold background with blue lettering. Gone is anything identifying the thing as a Metrocard, and in its place is a coupon for The Gap. In honor of the clothing giant’s remodeled flagship store at 34th Street and Broadway, just possessing and presenting the Metrocard at any Gap in the city nets its owner a 20 percent discount from October 10 through November 18. These cards are the first in over 15 years that don’t say Metrocard on the front.
“Opening up the front of MetroCards to advertising gives the MTA a new source of revenue,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota. “We will monitor public acceptance of ads going forward to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with use of the transit system. There is no reason why the MTA shouldn’t put every resource it can toward helping its fragile finances.”
According to the MTA, The Gap cards will make up around 10 percent of the monthly Metrocard sales and will be available at station booths and vending machines at 10 stations near the new flagship store. Those stations include Herald Square, Penn Station, Union Square, Grand Central, Columbus Circle, Times Square, 59th/Lexington, 86th St. on the East Side and the E/M stop at Lexington — essentially all of Manhattan’s most popular stations. The cards are inserted randomly into the preexisting supply of the regular blue-and-gold cards in the vending machines, but station agents can sell ad-supported cards with rides until supplies run out.
Interestingly, The Gap’s reasoning for using the Metrocard as an ad platform contains some interesting contradictions. “Because the MTA MetroCard is an iconic element of every New Yorker’s life, it felt like an appropriate vehicle to promote the opening of our newly remodeled flagship store at 34th and Broadway,” Chris Gayton, Gap’s senior director of media, said. “We’re excited to take part in this historic moment as the first advertiser on the front of the MetroCard.”
Of course, by buying out the entire front of the Metrocard, the flimsy piece of plastic is hardly iconic. In fact, it’s even easier to lose in one’s wallet because nothing on it other than a magnetic strip identifies it as a Metrocard. It’s just a generic fare payment card with some Gap branding, and nothing about it screams “everyday New York life.” This problem will be solved in the next full-card ad campaign, likely to launch in December of January. The MTA will print ad-supported cards with the word “MetroCard” on the back in the white space near the top. This is designed to “remove any doubt a customer could have about what he or she was purchasing.”
Still, the MTA can’t complain about the new revenue stream, and in fact, MTA officials say the calls from interested advertisers keep pouring in. “Since we first announced that we would accept branded MetroCards, our phones have been ringing non-stop with inquires,” Paul J. Fleuranges, the MTA’s Senior Director of Corporate and Internal Communications, said. “In the coming months, MTA customers will see other branded cards in the system. Like The Gap, advertisers are looking to showcase their logo and provide customers with a call to action. We look forward to seeing how creative advertisers can get with the card.”
On another note, the site went unexpectedly dark last Wednesday for a few days, and more than a few of you wrote in concerning my disappearance. My grandmother passed away on Wednesday evening, and I took a few days off to spend some time mourning and remembering her with my family. She was an avid reader of this site and always loved seeing where I’d end up next. Thanks to those who wrote in, and thanks for your patience over the past few days.
Imagine, if you will, the computer you owned in 1993. Perhaps it was a Macintosh Quadra 660AV. For over $2000, you could get a blazin’ fast 25-MHz with 8 MB of RAM and a 230 MB hard drive. Perhaps it was a seven-pound laptop with an 80-MB hard drive or perhaps it was something else from Apple’s cutting-edge 1993 catalog. Whatever it was, that machine has long since gone to meet its maker. If you’re like most people, in fact, you’ve probably gone through four or five computers over the past 19 years.
The MTA meanwhile is still working off of that early 1990s computer. Every time we buy our Metrocards or swipe through the turnstile, we are using that computer system purchased in 1993. In reality, it’s even older, with the underlying technology dating from the 1980s. It’s end though isn’t as near as we’d like to think.
For the better part of seven years, the MTA has engaged in various pilots and initiatives to find a replacement for the Metrocard. As various transit agencies the world over have adapted smart cards, a 2006 pilot picked up again in 2010 examined a contactless system that used similar chips found in credit or debit cards. After the most recent pilot, the MTA unveiled its plans for an E-ZPass for transit in mid-2011, and Joe Lhota affirmed his commitment to the project in early 2012.
Since that statement in 2012 and really since 2011, the future of the Metrocard replacement is anything but clear, and late last week, Dana Rubinstein wondered why we’re still stuck with the antiquated, swipe-based technology. In a statement to Capital New York, the MTA remained a bit vague about the whole thing. “Yes, we are still working on it, always have been,” Adam Lisberg, said to Rubinstein. “But, no I don’t have a date for you.”
Rubinstein runs through the litany of arguments in favor of a next-gen solution: The Metrocard costs far too much to maintain; fare collection costs are through the roof; there’s no interoperability across transit systems as a new card would bring; swiping takes too long; etc., etc., etc. Meanwhile, even as the MTA’s BusTime installations allow for an open-payment system, the MTA’s progress has been slow.
Time, though, could force the agency’s hand. As Bill Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA noted, twenty years might just be too long a time for us to continue to rely on the Metrocard. “The MetroCard system is reaching the end of its useful life,” he said. “You’ve got to replace it with something.”
The problem with technology is that it all eventually becomes obsolete. Maintenance costs grow too high and compatibility declines. With the Metrocard pushing 20 in New York, its time has come, but when will something replace it? Based on the MTA’s technological adoption rates — bad for countdown clocks, good for BusTime, bad for CBTC — even if the agency had a plan in place today, we’re still a few years away from anything concrete, and no plan exists.
So much like we often do, we’ll wait. The MTA is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on an intercom system for the subway as the next-gen fare payment system inches slowly forward. One of those technologies will have a real impact on the MTA and its riders while the other will feature soothing blue lights. That seems to say it all.
Earlier this week, when we learned that subway turnstiles have started to show the expiration dates for unlimited ride MetroCards, I thought of it as a parting gift from Cubic. The MTA has repeatedly stressed plans to phase out MetroCards by 2015, and straphangers had been clamoring for such information on the turnstile screens for upwards of 15 years. So for the next two or three years, we’ll enjoy a piece of information that’s been available on buses nearly since the beginning.
While having an expiration date reminder in front of us sure will be convenient, it got me thinking of the other pearls of wisdom subway turnstiles display on a regular basis. Tops among those are a message to keep swiping. “Please Swipe Again.” We’ve all been done that path, sometimes on the receiving end of the message and sometimes in a growing line as an out-of-towner or just an unlucky sap can’t quite swipe fast or slow enough for the card reader to pick up the bits of information it needs to process the transaction. It’s an annoying and tedious part of life with MetroCards.
It’s also been a part of the post-token world we live in since the beginning. Take a ride into subway news past with me. Our first stop is in 1998 as New Yorkers are still adjusting to these strange things called MetroCards. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone alleges that the MTA’s new system is seriously flawed. Nine out of ten straphangers report problems with their MetroCards, he says. It’s a number that seemingly defies logic, but I’d wager a guess that every single one of you reading this has, at one point or another, gotten that dreaded “Please swipe again” message.
At the time, Vallone railed against the tendency of a MetroCard reader to double-charge riders. That “Please swipe again” message often meant that the turnstile had deducted the fare but not yet properly waved the passenger through. Moving to another turnstile would cause a second fare to be culled from that card. “The transit authority needs to do much more to educate people about the Metrocard,” Vallone said. “Riders should be warned that they can be bilked out of an extra fare and told how to avoid it.”
In response, we are now told to “Please swipe again at this turnstile” when applicable, but the problems didn’t stop there. A year later, politicians and subway riders were again bemoaning the same problem. In a City Council survey from 1999, over 60 percent of riders said they had to swipe again after receiving an error message. The card readers weren’t going to get any better with age.
Over the years, the same complaints kept creeping up. A 2005 story in The Times noted that service calls to turnstiles had been holding steady at around 2000 per month. The most frequent culprit were dirty heads that couldn’t read all four of the MetroCard’s data points, thus delaying customers trying to get to their trains. Even then, seven years ago, as Cubic worked to replace the aging card readers, the MTA said it would “study” smart card technology but was “nowhere close to making the leap.” We’re still waiting.
These days, swipe failures are a fact of life. The Wall Street Journal tried to teach its readers how to swipe properly in a 2010 article, and a 2011 report from the MTA found that 20 percent of all swipes were misread. Straphangers have simply come to accept a certain number of error messages, and regular commuters pick up on the prickly turnstiles and card readers at their local stations. We adapt because we have to.
Within the next few years, MetroCards will go the way of tokens, and with them, hopefully, the never-ending exaction to please swipe again. The contactless fare card should cure these swipe-related woes. We won’t suffer through people who don’t dip properly on the buses, and it’s much harder to mess up a tap than it is to mis-swipe. That’s one element of the MetroCard no one will miss.
Back in March, I mused on monthly (and weekly) MetroCards via my Twitter account:
I wish the NYC turnstiles were programmed to display expiration dates for Unlimited MetroCard.
— Second Ave. Sagas (@SecondAveSagas) March 24, 2012
Wishes apparently do come true.
This morning, an astute reader noted that the turnstile at Roosevelt Ave. had given him an expiration date. At first, I thought it might be a glitch, but after posing the question on Facebook, it seemed to be more than an isolated incident. Straphangers in Brooklyn, Chelsea and the Upper East Side reported seeming similar displays at Altantic Ave., 14th St. and 86th St., respectively. So I asked the MTA about the upgrades, and they confirmed it for me.
As part of what Transit is deeming “routine maintenance of the MetroCard system,” the agency is testing new software that displays expiration dates for unlimited-ride MetroCards when these cards are swiped through subway turnstiles. It’s unclear how long it will take for this test to arrive throughout the system, and it’s even more unclear why it’s taken 17 years since the introduction of the MetroCard for this basic piece of useful information to make its way to turnstile displays.
Even with MetroCards potentially on the way out in a matter of years (rather than, say, decades), this is a welcome, if long delayed, development. I’ll try to snap a photo when I see this in place somewhere, but I didn’t notice it this morning at Grand Army Plaza or at lunch when I swiped through on a whim at Times Square. Keep your eyes out, though; it’s coming soon.
For parts of the last two years, as I mentioned last week, the MTA has discussed a $1 surcharge on new Metrocards purchased via the Metrocard Vending Machines. With the Metrocard technology nearing the end of its life, the MTA is looking to both realize revenue and cut down on waste and costs by encouraging straphangers to reuse their cards. They’ve even made unlimited cards refillable.
Yet, the surcharge has yet to materialize. Some technological problems led to a delay, but now, as part of the 2013 budget, the MTA is gearing up to introduce the surcharge. We don’t know when the surcharge will go into place; we just know that the MTA will cut costs by $2 million while generating $18 million in revenue. And someone is unhappy.
That someone is coming to us from Bayside, Queens, a neighborhood not served by the subway. The complaint comes to us from Edward Braunstein, the area’s Democratic Assembly representative. He said:
“Unlike MetroCard vending machines, LIRR vending machines are incapable of refilling previously purchased cards,” said Braunstein. “The MTA justifies this surcharge by arguing that recycling MetroCards is good for the environment. Therefore, the MTA plan to promote refilling by adding a $1 surcharge for new cards serves no purpose at these machines and is unfair to commuters in the outer boroughs.”
“Many of my constituents purchase their new MetroCards at the vending machines at LIRR stations because they are only available outlets. After I reached out to the MTA and informed them of this problem, the agency still refused to reconsider the proposed surcharge.”
For Braunstein this isn’t the first time he’s voiced such complaints. He expressed identical sentiments back in 2011 when the MTA announced a delay in implementing the fee. Now, he’s back on his soapbox. His concerns though ring more a bit false.
First, Braunstein’s overall point is moot. When the MTA announced the surcharge, the agency said it would be in place only at spots where customers could refill their cards. Since they cannot do so at the LIRR machines, the surcharge won’t apply. Problem solved.
On another level, though, Braunstein’s all-or-nothing approach isn’t the right one anyway. Just because some Bayside residents purchase their Metrocards at LIRR vending machines doesn’t mean they have no other option. If they’re taking the LIRR to Penn Station (or even to points in between), Metrocard Vending Machines are in abundance. Purchasing a Metrocard with an LIRR ticket saves time but no money. If residents are that concerned with the fee, they can just buy their cards at vending machines in the subway.
Furthermore, the MTA could waive the fee for Metrocards purchased at these LIRR machines or figure out a stop-gap solution. They don’t need to discard the fee just because some — but not nearly all — folks a neighborhood of a around 80,000 people in total may be inconvenienced. That’s a typical all-or-nothing response from an Assembly representative.
I’m not the biggest fan of the $1 surcharge. It strikes me as a money grab with some positive side effects, but seeing as how the Metrocard should be phased out within the next 2-3 years, I can’t get too worked up over it. Braunstein, though, an opponent of congestion pricing, is a position to do so. He offers no other solutions and just wants to say no, just like every other politician who could champion transit in New York City.
For the last twenty months, the MTA has talked on and off about instituting a $1 surcharge on all new MetroCard fees. Instead of refilling a non-expired unlimited or pay-per-ride card, straphangers would have to pay $1 for a new card. The MTA says such a surcharge would net them $20 million annually in fees and savings, but many New Yorkers have called it a typical nickel-and-dime move. Mostly, it’s just been an idea on paper.
The idea, though, reared its head earlier this week as the MTA’s fragile 2013 budget includes an interesting line item. In the four-year projections, the MTA is, starting in 2013, relying on $20 million annually from the MetroCard “Green Fee” and Cost Savings. That seems to jibe with the revelation from October that the fee would not be instituted until 2013.
Today, Pete Donohue has a a piece on the surcharge. While the news isn’t, well, new, some of his details are. According to Donohue, as Transit is pushing the surcharge as a production savings, the reality is that it’s more of a fee. The agency will realize $2 million in cost savings from reduced MetroCard printing volumes while enjoying $18 million in added revenue from the fee.
“We want people to use fewer MetroCards,” Adam Lisberg, MTA spokesman, said. “It’s good for the environment and will reduce litter in our stations. Everyone has had the experience of walking into a station and seeing MetroCards littering the ground. If it costs $1 to replace your card, you won’t see that anymore.”
I’m mostly intrigued to see the impact the surcharge will have on the MTA’s fare media liability total. I’ve speculated in the past that encouraging straphangers to reuse their cards could actually cause decline in other revenues. Meanwhile, the MTA has plans to replace the MetroCard in 2015 (or so) and has offered up no date yet on when this “Green Fee” surcharge will actually be put into place. Perhaps all this hand-wringing is for naught.
Everyday, millions of New Yorkers run a flimsy piece of plastic through a prickly card reader as they head to and from work, school and play. Since the middle of 1997 when the gold card made its debut, these MetroCard have looked the same — a logo on front and an ad or PSA on the back. My current card urges me, tirelessly so, to say something if I see something.
Now, though, the MTA, in an effort to milk some more dollars out of the MetroCards, is willing to change the front. For the right price, the authority will accept advertising for the MetroCard fronts. “Millions of New Yorkers carry MetroCards with them everywhere they go, and use them multiple times a day,” MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota said in announcing the move today. “For those with a message and a desire to reach millions of people in a novel, attention-getting way, there is no better way to advertise.”
The MTA is billing this as a relaunching of an advertising program, and as such, they have unveiled new rates. Depending upon the number of cards purchased, the authority will charge between 18 and 51? per card for those who wish to utilize the back of a MetroCard. They expect to realize between $25,500 and $450,000 per ad campaign. While rates for the front were not released, the MTA said such deals would be “offered at a premium.” Ads that include a Transit-sponsored campaign will be 20 percent off.
It’s tough to see this as anything but a positive for an agency searching for cash. I could care less about the sanctity of the MetroCard. It’s hardly iconic, and in a few years, it’s going to be replaced anyway. Plus, most of us already carrying advertisements for whatever company sponsors our credit card bonuses or the banks that issue our debit cards. So we’ll be bombarded with one more ad in the subway, and the gold and blue card may look a bit busier on the front. It’s the price to pay.