Archive for MetroCard

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.

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I had to assist someone with a Metrocard purchase yesterday, and I nearly did a double-take when the vending machine alerted me to the $1 surcharge for new cards. As a WageWorks member, my new Metrocards come in the mail and without the MTA’s so-called green fee so I haven’t had a chance to go through the purchase process in a while. For many, of course, since March, the added charge for a new card has been a part of the routine process.

Now that the MTA has been collecting revenue from these purchases for a few months, the agency is in a better position to shed light on the economics behind the move, and according to a report in the Daily News today, it is paying dividends. Pete Donohue says the MTA has already collected $10 million in fees. He has more of a breakdown:

The MTA expects to print 60 million fewer MetroCards next year – so much plastic that, placed end-to-end, the cards would stretch 3,196 miles, the distance from New York City to Los Angeles and up the West Coast to San Francisco. It sold 101 million MetroCards last year, said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg…

In its first four months, the green fee generated $10,841,000 for MTA coffers, said NYC Transit division budget director Aaron Stern. The MTA expects gross revenues to total nearly $24 million this year, and $28 million next year with a combined $3.8 million savings in production costs, said agency officials…

The green-fee windfall will be partially offset, officials said, by an estimated $11 million reduction in “fare media liability.” The MTA budget term is used to describe unused value riders leave on MetroCards: small change or trips paid for but not taken.

Initially, this is certainly good news for the MTA. Even though its fare media liability total is decreasing, it is saving significant costs by printing far fewer Metrocards, and the move has been environmentally friendly as well. I’m still a bit skeptical of the agency’s predictions of increased revenue from the fee next year though.

As I wrote in May, at a certain point, subway riders’ habits will change. Already Donohue easily found riders who have been using the same Metrocard since March, and that trend will continue. The MTA can save money on production costs, but will the revenue from the $1 fee continue to be as robust? Tourists will pay, but everyday riders will curtail their Metrocard purchases. For now, though, and until the Metrocard is finally phased out, the fee will remain.

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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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Along with a set of higher transit fares in early March came a $1 surcharge on all new Metrocards purchased via an in-system Metrocard Vending Machine. The fee, first introduced as a concept in the early part of this decade, was years in the making, and the MTA justified the levy as part of an effort to cut down on the costs of producing Metrocards. The $1 fee is supposed to act as a deterrent against purchases of new cards while the old one is still valid, but even if Metrocard littermay be on the decline, the $1 surcharge may be having more of an impact on the MTA’s bottom line than on straphanger purchase patterns.

According to the latest from Pete Donohue, the MTA is drawing in more money than expected as straphangers continue to buy new cards even in the face of the $1 fee. Specifics from the MTA are scarce as the agency hasn’t yet released any firm revenue figures, but here’s Donohue’s take:

The MTA is raking in more dough than expected with its controversial $1 MetroCard “green” fee — and that could put more pressure on transit officials to make system improvements or restore service that was cut three years ago. The surcharge, tacked on when someone buys a new MetroCard, went into effect in March with the latest round of fare hikes. The goal, transit officials said, was to encourage riders to refill and keep using their existing MetroCards.

It’s simple enough. Recycle and save a buck. And it’s good for the environment. But old habits die hard. In the first month after the fee went into effect, more riders than transit officials predicted continued to buy new MetroCards — and paid the extra $1, a transit executive said last week. If the trend continues, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will exceed the $20 million in new revenues and savings that it anticipated when drafting the budget, the executive said.

“I’m surprised,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “Anecdotally, in my many subway rides, I have seen fewer MetroCards littering the ground in subway stations. But apparently many riders are not reusing.”

It’s nearly impossible and ill-advised to draw any conclusions from one month’s data and when no firm figures are available. It’s more likely, especially during March, that most customers weren’t aware of the $1 surcharge, discarded an empty card and then had to buy a new one — and pay the $1 — when next they encountered a Metrocard machine. We’ll have wait until we have a good batch of substantial data to back up the claim that New Yorkers aren’t changing their habits and that the MTA is flush with the cash from the $1 surcharge.

Still, the idea of the surcharge is still worth a closer look. The MTA claims it will enjoy added revenue — some in the form of the surcharge and some in the form of fare media production costs — of around $18-$20 million a year annually from the so-called green fee. If New Yorkers are still buying up new Metrocards more frequently than they should, the MTA will take in more in surcharge revenue, but that revenue will be offset, in part, by higher fare media production costs. The $1 more than covers the cost of a new Metrocard though so the MTA would be better off if more riders will buying more cards.

Yet, it’s too early for conclusions. We can speculate, but revenue figures are out, all we know is that the $1 fee is a work in progress, hopefully just like the plans to replace the Metrocard as well.

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It’s been six weeks since the MTA raised fares and instituted a $1 fee for all new MetroCard purchases made at a vending machine, and already, straphangers may be starting to change their purchasing patterns. The MTA won’t release official numbers on fare media liability for a few months, but if our eyes are to be believed, the fee is having its intended impact.

Take a glance down around the fare control area during your next subway rider, and you will likely see the floor. By itself, this isn’t so strange, but just a few months ago that floor would often be littered with discarded MetroCards. New Yorkers in a hurry often didn’t take the time to toss their empty cards and would rather drop them than refill them. Today, the situation seems different, and my mom — a very long-time SAS reader — offered up this observation:

There is a noticeable lack on MetroCards being tossed on the ground as a result of the $1 charge. The other day Dad needed to a monthly MetroCard, and he had tossed his old one forgetting about the $1 charge. He scoured the 96th St. station and stairs and couldn’t find one. We looked when we got out of the subway and same thing — none on the ground.

I’ve noticed the same around the Grand Army Plaza and 7th Ave. B/Q stations in Brooklyn. MetroCard litter has all but disappeared lately. I’m still awaiting word from the MTA on their own numbers, but the fee may just be working. A $1 surcharge doesn’t sound like much, but for New Yorkers who refuse to give up any extra money to the MTA if they can help, it may be enough of a deterrent to refill and reuse. What have you seen?

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Could tokens be making a comeback? One plan calls for their reintroduction by 2019.

Could tokens be making a comeback? One plan calls for their reintroduction by 2019.

As the MTA tries to get plans to replace the MetroCard back on track, the agency is considering reintroducing tokens as a last-ditch effort, according to multiple MTA sources. If the MetroCard reaches the end of its life, as is expected to happen by 2019, with no successor technology in place, the MTA may resort to tokens to save on fare payment system maintenance costs.

Previously, tokens had been in use since the mid-1950s when the fare jumped from a dime to 15 cents. Along with the increase came a move to offer up straphangers just one coin, but after nearly five decades, the MTA did away with tokens as calls from rider advocates for unlimited ride options and free transfers grew louder. Tokens were last accepted by the MTA on April 13, 2003.

Recently, though, as costs of maintaining the MetroCard system have increased and the early 1990s technology has aged, the MTA has tried to find a suitable next-generation replacement. An extensive pilot program throughout the mid-2000s and early 2010s involved a credit and debit card-based touch system, but recent revelations that the banking industry has not been quick to adopt the technology led the MTA to scrap these plans. It seems likely that the MTA will instead develop a proprietary payment card — if it can do so before 2019. If they cannot, we get tokens.

Initial reactions from both subway riders and those fighting for the rights of passengers have been mixed. Some are looking forward to the return of a beloved New York icon while others are worrying about the impact tokens will have on ridership. There’s no such thing, after all, as an unlimited ride token.

“Let’s not be too happy,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “We fought long and hard for unlimited ride cards, and the return of the token could drastically impact transit ridership.”

For the MTA, the token could bring about an uptick in revenue as well. With the introduction of pay-per-ride discounts and unlimited ride cards, the real cost of a subway ride dropped well below inflation-adjusted fare levels from the years before the introduction of the MetroCard. The token, without such discounts, will help the MTA beef up its finances.

On the other hand, New Yorkers long accustomed to monthly discounts and frequent rider incentives may find such a marked increase in fares and a corresponding decrease in convenience too much to handle. Additionally, no one wants to carry around bags of tokens either. They are, after all, significantly heavier than a flimsy piece of plastic.

“Our move to reexamine tokens would come only as a last-ditch effort if our technological initiatives are unsuccessful,” Tom Prendergast, the MTA’s interim executive director, said. “It’s premature to discuss these long-term plans, but we cannot close the fare gate to any option currently on the table.”

Losing the MetroCard, ultimately, would be a blow to an agency that has long struggled with technological innovation. Costs are costs, though, and if it’s better for the MTA to resort to an older fare payment system rather than burn money on maintaining what will then be a 30-year-old technology, we may have to make some sacrifices.

Still, 2019 is a long way off, and perhaps the MTA can find a technological solution before the next six years elapse.

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Let’s think about the MetroCard not as an individualized piece of plastic you have to swipe through a turnstile for entry into the subway. Let’s instead think about it as a computer system from the early 1990s that relies upon four magnetic contact points and a flimsy piece of prickly plastic. Are you still using your Macintosh LC? What about Windows 3? Are you surprised then, as I often am, that this piece of transportation technology still works, let alone reasonably well?

Of course, the MetroCard, a closed system from 20 years ago, doesn’t work on its own. The MTA spends millions of dollars each year maintaining and attempting to upgrade this clunky system, and the MTA spends millions of dollars each year purchasing reams of new MetroCards. It is, evidently, an inefficient technology leftover from twenty years ago, and the MTA has tried to replace it.

They’ve failed spectacularly. The agency has spent nearly a decade attempting to identify a potential replacement even as other transit agencies manage to adapt smartcard-based, contactless, RFID solutions to the fare payment problem. At first, it seemed as though a credit/debit card-based solution would arrive by 2015, but by the end of January, we learned any plans to replace the MetroCards are unformed and three to five years away. With steady turnover atop the MTA and no champion, a MetroCard replacement program seems to be foundering.

So what’s the problem here? Why can’t the MTA just do what they’ve done in D.C, Boston, London and countless other cities? Well, the MTA wants to be a leader in the field while cutting down on fare-collection costs and finding a technology that will work for the next two decades and beyond, but it doesn’t know what that collection is. Time and again, we’ve seen how the MTA isn’t particularly good at technology, and although the agency has shown improvement in certain areas over the years, the MetroCard is starting to stick out like a sore thumb.

The Times today weighs in on the issue as Matt Flegenheimer tried to get to the bottom of the MetroCard mess. He doesn’t hold back:

Agency officials now concede that the MetroCard, which the authority had once hoped to phase out as early as 2012, is not going anywhere anytime soon, despite the rising cost of maintaining the system. And no one is quite sure what will replace it.

At an authority committee meeting last month, officials suggested that a single unfortunate bet had disrupted the project: While other transit agencies invested in contactless payment systems that they would construct themselves, the authority had hoped to evade the burden and cost of building its own. So the agency planned to replace MetroCards with riders’ own contactless bank cards, embedded with computer chips to facilitate fare payment without a swipe. But banks did not issue the cards widely enough in recent years, officials said, scuttling a plan to introduce a new system as early as 2012….

The authority said a new system would be put into effect within three to five years. Any further delay could prove perilous; officials have said that the current MetroCard system cannot be maintained beyond 2019. Michael DeVitto, the vice president and program executive for fare payment programs at New York City Transit, said there was “no linkage” between the estimates for the new system and the expected breakdown of the MetroCard. He said he could not “envision any scenario” in which the authority would spend more money to extend the MetroCard’s stay.

Mr. DeVitto said the authority still expected to avoid building its own system, and would rely instead on a third-party device. But it is unclear what form that might take. Options the authority has mentioned recently, besides a smart card, include a key fob or a cellphone payment system. The authority will also need to accommodate riders without access to bank cards or cellphones. “We’re still working that out,” Mr. DeVitto said.

“We’re still working it out” has been the party line through countless pilot programs, restructurings of the new fare payment technology group and numerous MTA heads. Meanwhile, even Philadelphia where SPETA could set records for its ineptitude and still uses tokens, is moving forward with a contactless system. They even have a timeline!

The bottom line is that the MTA is stuck. They’re racing against time and money but are basically starting out at the beginning. Most of us have gone through six or seven computers since Windows 3 and our Mac LCs, but the MTA has theirs powering the entire fare payment system. It’s expensive to run, expensive to maintain and obsolete. But tomorrow morning, I’ll still swipe through, hoping not to be told to please swipe again.

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After my conversations with the MTA over the past few days and my initial assessment on the universal MetroCard, I received word today from a Transit spokesperson that in fact the new MetroCard offering is more universal than I had originally understood it to be. I was wrong with the information in my post last night, and I need to offer up a correction. Specifically, the new programming does indeed allow usage of time and value concurrently but only under certain circumstances.

According to Transit spokesperson Kevin Ortiz, the card works as follows: If a customer buys a 30-day pass and adds $15 to that card, the unlimited pass will be activated on first swipe, and for all subway and local bus use, the money cannot be accessed until time runs out. In other words, a straphanger can’t swipe in on time and then hand the pass back to a friend for a swipe that deducts money.

There is, however, flexibility that makes the card far more useful than I originally thought. If a customer uses the card at a location where the 30-day pass is not accepted, the money can be accessed. In other words, if a MetroCard user has a card with time and money and wants to use an express bus, PATH or the AirTrain, the monetary value of the fare will be deducted from the card as long as their is enough value on the card. So my initial understanding of the card, gleaned through conversations with MTA officials, was incorrect, and the universal card will indeed be more useful than just as a storage device.

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Scenes from a brochure. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

Update (1:20 p.m.): I’ve left the original post below in tact, but some of the key information regarding the universality of the new time-and-money MetroCards is wrong. For the corrected update on PATH and AirTrain functionality, please see this correction.

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When the MTA’s new fares arrive in March 3, a sneaky little surcharge will arrive with them. After years of talking about it, the MTA is finally implementing a $1 fee on all new MetroCards purchased via the system’s ubiquitous vending machines. As with many things in life, though, there’s almost an upside to this fee: The MTA will be implementing universal MetroCards that can carry both time and money. Sadly, though, the cards fall short of their promise.

Let’s start first with the good news: Beginning today, MetroCards can now hold any combination of unlimited rides and a dollar value. If you want a card with 30 days and $30 on it, now you can fulfill your MetroCard dreams. The vending machines, as the above photo collage shows, will offer up the existential choice of adding more time or adding more value to your MetroCard.

In a brochure released touting the changes, the MTA mentions the $1 surcharge as the driving force behind this change. “By refilling and reusing your current MetroCard, you will avoid this additional fee” of the surcharge, the agency says. The fee will not apply to reduced-fare MetroCards, transit benefit organization customers who get their MetroCards from employers or benefit providers, new cards purchased at out-of-system vendors, EasyPayXpress customers and those buying combination railroad/MetroCard tickets. It is designed to cut down on the $10 million the MTA spends annually on MetroCards currently.

So what’s the bad news? Well, these cards are basically just storage. There’s absolutely no flexibility in the way time and money are used, and a MetroCard holder with both time and money on his or her card must use up all of the time before the money becomes accessible. For instance, let’s say I buy a 30-day card and add $15 to the card. The first swipe on this card will start the 30-day counter, and only after the 30 days and only if there is no time refill on this card will I be able to access the $15.

Regular riders of the transit system’s legs that take cash only may be wondering about the value of such cards. Express bus riders, for instance, cannot combine an unlimited ride card and a cash card. But more importantly, these new “universal” cards don’t cut down on the need for two cards for PATH riders or those relying on the AirTrain. I can’t use a card with time and money to first get to Howard Beach and then swipe in at the AirTrain. I still have to use two separate cards for these two transactions, and the same applies to MetroCard users on PATH. It’s a shockingly inefficient limitation on a twenty-year-old piece of technology.

When I first got word of the universal MetroCard, I had high hopes for the program, but unless changes are made to the programming, it’s a rather disappointing debut. Without the flexibility of using money in money-only machines while time remains on the card, the universal MetroCard is simply good for storage. I guess I’ll have one less card to carry around in my wallet, but that’s just a consolation prize.

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A fuzzier MetroCard designed and made by Lisa Scruggs. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Everyday, millions of New Yorkers carry with them an oft-overlooked piece of plastic. The MetroCard symbolizes so much about the city and its subway riders, but we usually just take it for granted. Sometimes, it works; sometimes, it doesn’t; sometimes, it expires.

One day in the unknown future, the MTA will replace the MetroCard with something else. What that something else will be is still up for debate. It will likely be a sturdier piece of plastic, and something we don’t discard by the millions every day, week or month. For now, though, the MetroCard endures, a stubborn reminder of the MTA’s tenuous relationship with modern technology.

For a group of artists, though, the MetroCard is a blank slate. It can be deconstructed and recomposed. It can serve as a small blank canvas for city scenes, abstract art or anything really, and for the next few days, thousands of these MetroCards are on display at a gallery in Tribeca. Called Single Fare 3, the exhibit at the RH Gallery includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photography and even video. Some pieces are easily recognizable as a MetroCard while others transfer these 2×3 inch canvasses into something else entirely.

I’ve stopped by the exhibit twice over the last few days and have walked away with purchases of two of the cards. For everyone else with even just a little bit of time on their hands, check it out. The show runs through February 22 at the RH Gallery, 137 Duane St. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. through the end fo the exhibit. Some of my favorite MetroCards, captured in photos, are in the slideshow below. Others are available via my Instagram account.

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