Archive for MetroCard

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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The MTA believes the current MetroCard system will be unsustainable and functionally obsolete by 2019, but a replacement effort is stuck in neutral with the agency aiming for a three- to five-year rollout time for the next-generation fare payment technology. With questions surrounding the widespread availability of bank-issued contactless credit or debit cards and a rapidly changing mobile payments, it is currently unclear what the eventual replacement for the MetroCard will be.

As part of Monday morning’s MTA Board committee meetings, the Capital Program Oversight Committee will hear an update on the new fare payment system, and the presentation materials are already available online [pdf]. From them, we can glean information concerning the current shape of the project, and seven years after the first contactless pilot and nearly a decade since the MTA first acknowledged the impending end of the MetroCard, more uncertainties surround the project than ever before.

So what’s happening with the project? For starters, it’s getting farmed out to the agencies from MTA HQ. As most of the work centers, unsurprisingly, around New York City Transit’s fare payment system, Transit will now have oversight of the MetroCard replacement project while Metro-North and the LIRR will work together (shocking, I know) to develop a rail road fare payment system. The Fare and Toll Payment System Coordination Committee, run out of MTA HQ, will ensure that all MTA agencies are collaborating on future fare and toll payment systems. Too many cooks stirring the soup or a much-needed division of labor that puts the project under the auspicies of Transit, a far more stable agency than MTA HQ?

No matter the answer to that question, something has to be done, and with Tom Prendergast a stalwart atop Transit even as the MTA has gone through a few CEOs itself, someone has to be willing to push forward. Notably, the MTA documents say that the MetroCard technology is nearing the end of its shelf life. It’s becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain, and the agency does not believe it can keep the equipment in a state of good repair much past 2019. While six years seems like a decent enough lead time, we know how quickly six years can flash by in the MTA’s world.

So with the same goals as earlier — decreasing operation costs, finding a low-cost open solution that won’t put the MTA at the mercy of an old, closed system — Transit will forge ahead with a contactless solution. It may not be as reliant on bank-issued cards as the MTA, under Jay Walder, had suggested a few years ago. According to these documents, bank-issued cards aren’t seeing as widespread an adoption as the MTA had anticipated. The presentation says that the value proposition remains “unclear for customers, retailers, [and] issuers.” With mobile payment technology quickly improving and new players frequently entering the game, the MTA wants to find something forward-looking that can be implemented relatively quickly as well.

So with a new time window — three to five years from now puts the project in the 2016-2018 range — the MTA almost wants to wait out the market. According to the presentation, the rough idea is to build contactless infrastructure on top of the existing system to layer it in while phasing out MetroCards. Such a move could make for a seamless transition when the MetroCard is finally killed. Still, though, the open payments model will not be fully implemented until the “landscape for transit is defined and less risky.”

For now then, the MTA has put forward some more modest goals. They will “refresh” the previous analysis while looking a more options for potential solutions. The agency will continue to build out an in-system telecommunications network as active cell service would be a vital piece for any potential mobile payments system. They will consult with their industry colleagues who have successfully implemented contactless card solutions in Chicago, London and elsewhere.

So where does that leave us? I hate to say the MTA is back at square one because it’s not. But it’s awfully close. The MetroCard shelf life is pushing the timeframe here, and the MTA has basically given itself a year of wiggle room with no clear answer as to a solution. (It’s worth noting that it took the MTA over four years from the first MetroCard pilot to outfit every turnstile in the system for the technology.) Furthermore, it sounds as though the MTA wants to be a leader in a field with no clear answer. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here if other solutions — like an Oyster card or an Octopus card — are adaptable in New York.

Ultimately, this is one clear area where a lack of institutional champion has left the MTA without a clear path. The next MTA head needs to make MetroCard replacement efforts a priority, and the agency heads now with more oversight on this project should strive to push it through as well. While we’ve prematurely eulogized the MetroCard a few times in recent years, its technological clock is ticking ever close to its end.

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I can’t say I’ve thought much about Student MetroCards in the years since the MTA threatened to do away with them entirely in late 2010, but something about that dust-up always struck me as wrong. As enrollment numbers in New York City public schools spiked at the end of the last decade, the MTA — and not the city or city — shouldered the increasing fare burden. Both the city and state have contributed $45 million a year each while the MTA’s contributions — once also around $45 million annually — have spiked to nearly $100 million. What was one an even funding agreement is anything but.

When the MTA threatened to do away with free student rides in 2010, I supported the idea. The MTA is a transportation agency and not a school bus company. If New York City wants its students to be able to get to school in the most cost-effective way possible, it should pay the transit fees. Word emerging from this week’s yellow school bus strike drives that point home.

In an article in today’s Times, Al Baker highlights a driving force behind the strike: It has simply gotten too expensive for the city to continue to pay as much as it does for busing for 10 percent of its students. Take a read at one great anecdote and some eye-popping figures:

The day before the start of New York City’s first school bus strike in 34 years, a long yellow bus pulled up at Public School 282 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the little bodies that popped out could be counted on one hand: Three. The big bus had dropped off part of its cargo earlier, at another school, but in all, 10 children had ridden on a bus fit for about 60. A similarly large bus pulled up with 17. Finally, a modern-looking bus whose side panel said it could carry 66 children arrived with its passengers: Five children.

“I think in some cases, we have one child on the bus,” said Kathleen Grimm, the city’s deputy schools chancellor for operations.

The strike that began Wednesday, which idled more than half of the city’s school buses and forced about 113,000 children to find new ways to school, was prompted by a fight over union jobs. But its true roots are in an attempt to reform one of the most inefficient transportation systems in the country, one that costs almost $7,000 a year for each passenger, an amount so high that many of those children could hire a livery cab for about the same price. By comparison with the next three largest school districts, Los Angeles spends about $3,200, Chicago about $5,000, and Miami, $1,000.

Take whatever said you please in this labor dispute, but one thing is for sure: Those figures are insane. The city spends $7000 per student — per student — to employ yellow buses. Some reports cite the total city expenditure as topping $1 billion annually to bus around 150,000 students. Meanwhile, for the students who don’t arrive via yellow bus and request a free student MetroCard — approximately 500,000 cards are handed out per semester — the city pays the MTA a whopping $45 million. What’s wrong with this picture?

Categories : MetroCard, MTA Economics
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For years, the MTA has offered a protection plan of sorts for MetroCards. For those who buy fare cards with a credit or debit card and find that card lost or stolen, a quick call to 511 can result in an eventual refund. It’s not the speediest process, but it works. Now that process is available online.

As part of an upgrade to the MTA’s eFix website, lost of stolen MetroCards may now be reported online. The site isn’t quite intuitive; a lost or stolen card gets reported via the “Balance Protection claim.” But there it is, a 21st Century solution to a misplaced or misappropriated MetroCard.

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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.

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The Sandy MetroCard conundrum

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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.

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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.

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