Twenty years ago, Rudy Giuliani was our mayor, Bill Clinton the president and Mike Gallego the Yankees’ starting short stop. Twenty years ago also marked the day the MetroCard made its New York City debut. On January 6, 1994, at two stations in Lower Manhattan, the MetroCard made its debut as riders at the IRT’s City Hall stop and the BMT’s Whitehall St. station could swipe in with the blue-and-yellow pieces of plastic.
Those first cards deducted $1.25 per swipe and MTA officials spoke of the ways in which this new payment system would change the fare structure throughout the city. “It’s a new era for our customers,” then-MTA Chairman Peter E. Stangl said. “It opens up the possibility for fare structures that over time will help us increase our ridership, which is why we’re in business.”
Three years later, in 1997, every station was equipped with MetroCard-ready turnstiles, and the MTA could begin offering unlimited ride cards thus realizing Stangl’s words. Those unlimited fare cards revolutionized transit and lead to a massive increase in ridership. The costs are higher today, but the bulk discount options remain a good deal for daily riders.
Over the years, the MetroCard has had its ups, downs and “please swipe again at this turnstile” moments. It took nearly 19 years for display screens to show the expiration dates for unlimited cards, and lately, both the fronts and backs of the cards have been for sale. I’ve always loved my unlimited MetroCard though through thick and thin.
In commemorating today’s anniversary, the MTA put out a brief release on the MetroCard’s two decades. “You can’t think of New York City without thinking of the MetroCard,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said. “After two decades, it still serves millions of bus and subway riders daily offering a great transportation value. Of course, we are well on our way to developing the next generation of fare payment, part of our effort to upgrade and modernize the City’s mass transit system.”
Echoing Bianco’s line, the MTA says the agency is “working on something even better,” but we still don’t know what that will be. The replacement project had foundered over the past six or seven years and seemed rudderless last February. But the MTA knows that the costs of maintaining the twenty-year old system are continuing to creep upward, and a replacement is on tap. (That too is the top of my March 19 Problem Solvers session.)
Today, we’ll tip our caps to that ubiquitous piece of plastic. Please, swipe again.