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.