Today, I continue the four-part series on the Future of the MetroCard. Yesterday, in Part 1, I outlined the benefits of smart cards. Today in Part 2, we focus on the deficiencies of the current MetroCard. Part 3, available here, summarizes the current plans for a smart card in NYC; and Part 4 proposes a new smart card for NYC.

Thank you all for yesterday’s excellent comments — please, keep them coming!

Part 2 – MetroCard FAIL

As reported yesterday, the MetroCard is at the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a very long, drawn out death.  If the MTA follows its usual schedule, we’ll see a MetroCard replacement probably sometime around 2050. But the MetroCard is young; subway tokens had been around for 50 years before the MetroCard killed them for good in 2003.

Despite its youth, the MetroCard is now obsolete.  If our goal is to expand our transit systems and increase ridership, then the MetroCard must be replaced. Here’s why:

1. The MetroCard is Slow.
A flimsy plastic card with a magnetic strip that gets damaged in one’s own packet is not efficient, reliable technology.  Even the best of us get slipped up: “Please swipe again.” “Swipe card again at this turnstile.” “Too fast. Swipe again.” “Insufficient Fare.” Or, the dreaded, “See agent.”  Then throw in a few thousand tourists (who are either used to smart-cards [thanks, Europe & Asia] or have never seen a subway before [thanks, middle-America]) and suddenly the turnstile is a nightmare.

Unlike the MetroCard, smart cards stay right in your wallet or handbag. In London, a whole business has been formed around OysterCard covers called OysterShells. And in Boston it’s not unusual to see a man lift his right hip up just far enough at the gate so the reader can scan the card in his pocket. Once you experience this magic, it’s hard to go back to the cumbersome swipe.

2. No MetroCards Allowed.
Although the New York Metropolitan region has the greatest transit use in the country, we suffer from an incredibly inefficient, decentralized transportation network.  Instead of one public agency, we have at least three (MTA, NJT, Port Authority), in addition to numerous private bus, ferry, and jitney companies.  The residents of NJ and CT  experience this most acutely, crossing state lines every day from one transit eco-system to another.

Right now, the MetroCard has the potential to bridge these separate systems, but instead continues to divide them. Besides MTA’s city sevices (and LI Bus), the MetroCard is only valid for the PATH and the Bee-Line Bus System in Westchester. Yet the PATH proves that riders would prefer one fare system; the majority of PATH riders use the MetroCard.

Despite what commuters would prefer, the MetroCard’s footprint remains small:

A system-wide smart card would dramatically transform New Yorkers’ perceptions of inter-modal transportation. Right now, MetroNorth stations in the Bronx and LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens are woefully under-utilized by MTA and its riders. Even Michael Bloomberg hopes to expand commuter rail service at these stations (thanks to reader, Kai, for the link).  If the MetroCard were introduced for these services, they would be immediately considered on par with the subway and the bus,  encouraging residents to use these stations within the urban core.

Of course, this is but one example — the implications for regional transportation are vast. Stamford to Newark; Jersey City to Brooklyn; Staten Island to Manhattan —  multiple modes, multiple agencies, one fare card.

3. MetroCard… more like StupidCard!
Sure, magnetic strips can store information, but the beauty of a SmartCard is its flexible, ever-expanding functionality. In Hong Kong, the Octopus smart card is used everywhere from the subway to parking meters, from 7-11 to Starbucks.  The technology of an RFID-chip embedded into the smart card allows for lots of information in one card.

Right now, Unlimited MetroCards don’t work on the PATH system.  Instead, you need a separate Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard.  This is redundant and wasteful — one smart card could do both. Similarly, the MTA creates separate MetroCards for each type of rider: student, senior citizen, disabled, etc.. Instead, one kind of smart card can be issued to everyone and customized, via programming, to reflect their status and meet their commuting needs.

In short, the MetroCard fails to provide the benefits of modern smart card technology. Not only is it (relatively) ancient and slow, the MetroCard fails to encourage inter-modal, inter-agency transportation use.  My analysis above is quick-and-dirty and largely anecdotal.  Please share your own thoughts on the MetroCard — where it fails, where it succeeds, and whether or not you think it should be replaced.

Spotted on 54th Street: A better use of the MetroCard?

Categories : MetroCard
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Subway Noise Revisited

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Hi everyone. While Ben is out of town on a well deserved break, Jeremy and I will do our best to keep the website in service over the next week. Let’s see if it’s still up and running when he returns.

Over the past year I’ve spent considerable time in the archives of the MTA Transit Museum poring over records, newspaper clippings, and correspondences between Transit Authority officials and members of the public. I’m doing this for the sake of reconstructing a historical soundscape of the subways, as part of my doctoral research at NYU. Over the months I’ve found quite a bit of information, although it’s not readily accessible due to the fact that “sound” isn’t something that the collection catalogs index. I tell you, there’s nothing more rewarding than going against the organizational grain in an archive and coming up with something that otherwise would be lost to time.

As was covered here earlier, a new report coming out of the University of Washington and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health later this month addresses the dangerously high noise levels present throughout the subway system. While the results of this survey will no doubt have an impact on the relationship between the MTA and the public in the next few years, it’s hardly the first time that the noisiness of the train has come under scrutiny. In fact, on October 29, 1904, the day after the subway opened, a J.R. Sedden wrote to the New York Times editor warning of “Auritis – A Subway Disease.” He predicted that it would become a fad among New York doctors over the next year. Although hearing loss has been a serious concern for passengers and transit workers ever since, the name never stuck. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing.

By the early 1970s, noise pollution had entered the public sphere as a serious issue. Around the same time that Mayor Lindsey was pushing for new noise-control codes to regulate the level of sound throughout New York, a series of reports on the noise levels of the subway were released, including one organized Columbia professor Cyril M. Harris and another from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the most interesting things that I found in my archival visits was the scant mention of an MTA public hearing held on December 11, 1974, concerning the noise levels of the subways. According to the MTA annual report from that year, the MTA board expected the public to be receptive to recently begun renovations of subway stations, including the installation of noise-canceling wall covers and other echo-deterring materials. Instead, the public overwhelmingly pressured the MTA that the more pressing issue was the elimination of wheel and brake noise. Apparently, the MTA took the public’s protests to heart and sunk several millions of dollars into maintenance efforts, including wheel-trueing and track welding, in order to reduce train noise.

Sadly, the MTA has no other record of this public hearing, so it’s hard to venture past speculation in recreating this little chunk of subway history. I’d love to read any press coverage or speak to someone who was in attendance. If you have any leads, please let me know!

Categories : MTA, Subway History
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This morning, I am starting a three-part series on the Future of the  MetroCard and smart card technology. Part 1 will outline the benefits of modern smart card technology; Part 2 will highlight the deficiencies of the current MetroCard system; ; and Part 3 will summarize the MTA’s current and future smart-card plans.

Part 1 – Why Smart Card?

During his final days as MTA Chief (and sacrificial-lamb of the NY State Senate), Elliot Sander announced informal plans for the MTA’s future replacement of the Metro Card. Described by the Post, rather ironically, as “Ez-Pass for the subway”, the future fare system would use tap-and-go Smart Card technology, increasingly the de-facto fare collection system for modern cities. The announcement was bittersweet for Sander, trumpeting a project he has prepped himself but will certainly outlive him at the MTA.

Indeed, in-coming MTA Chairman, Jay Walder, is famous for his own smart-card project, the wildly popular OysterCard in London. In 2006, as a consultant for McKinsey&Co., Walder helped prepare a report for the MTA that concluded that SmartCard technology could be successfully for the NYC market.  If SmartCard technology is going to happen in NYC — and I think it should — Walder is definitely the man for the job.

To see what the future might have in store for NYC, highlighted below are three smart card systems from around the world,  London, Hong Kong, and Boston:

It’s clear from the chart that Hong Kong’s OctopusCard is the winner in sheer functionality. On a recent vacation, I witnessed the Octopus Card first hand. In addition to the city’s countless private and quasi-public transit systems, the Octopus Card is accepted at convenience stores, Starbucks, McDonalds, and vending machines, just to name a few. In 2003, the city even converted all of its Parking Meters to accept Octopus and taxis are apparently on the way.

As I see it, there are 4 Key Benefits to smart card technology:

1. Speed. Smart cards dramatically reduce the time required for passengers to enter and exit the system.  This can be felt acutely in Boston, where buses still accept change in addition to the CharlieCard.  The collective groan when Grandmother Pebbles pulls out her change purse is palpable.

2. Regional Integration. If our goal is to increase the use of public transportation, it is imperative to remove any barriers that might impede a potential transit rider. In Hong Kong, the transporation system was developed (and is currently run) by various public and private companies, many of which have distinct geographic emphases. The SmartCard links the regional components of the system, removing any barriers for the rider between each agency. In fact, in Hong Kong, most riders fail to notice the different transit operators, since they all accept the same fare system.

3. Inter-modal Integration. In a similar way, a smart card removes barriers between different modes of transportation.  A transit rider in London can use the OysterCard for the National Railway, the Tube, double-decker buses, and more. The result is a wider conception of transportation opportunities. Riders switch modes without regard to payment method.

4. Flexible pricing strategies. Unlike a token, which holds a pre-determined value, or a paper ticket, which has a value that must be set in advance, smart cards are fully dynamic. For example, a subway ride in London can start at $2.60, but rises to as high as $20 depending upon the length of the trip and time of the day.  Dynamic payment, however, does NOT have to mean Pay-as-you-go only. As Boston and London demonstrate, unlimited-ride passes are perfectly compatible with smart card technology.  In one smart card you can store your monthly pass — good for the subway you take everyday — in addition to a stored value — which you use for the ferry/train/tram/taxi you use occasionally.  The key point is that smart cards provide a transit operator with multiple options, rather than boxing them into one pricing strategy. As a result, more than one transit operator can implement the card without forgoing their individual fare structure.

Now, you could argue that the Metro Card has the potential to provide all four of the benefits described above. (Part 2, tomorrow, will provide an analysis of the Metro Card and its deficiencies.)  What is important to understand is that what makes a smart card successful is the scope of its implementation. A Smart Card allows for fare integration across all modes and systems, thereby encouraging greater use of the system.  However, if the smart card is not implemented across the majority of systems and modes — which the Metro Card most certainly is not — then it will fail to provide the benefits above.

Categories : MetroCard
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Guest-blogging will continue this week at Second Avenue Sagas. Replacing Ben are Bill Boyer and myself, Jeremy Steinemann. Bill and I will be playing tag-team from Monday to Friday. Expect some excellent posts on the history and future of the subway system, as well as the usual news coverage.

Categories : Self Promotion
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Weekend service advisories

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Live from Israel where even in the small city of Haifa they have physically separated bus lanes, it’s the weekend service advisories. These are directly cut-and-pasted from the MTA’s email. Be sure to verify all changes before heading underground.

From 12:01 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturday, August 1, from 12:01 a.m. to 8 a.m. Sunday, August 2 and from 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Manhattan-bound 24 trains skip Eastern Parkway, Grand Army Plaza and Bergen Street due to switch work near Eastern Parkway.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Manhattan-bound 2 trains run express from Gun Hill Road 2 to East 180th Street due to structural steel repairs between East 180th Street and Dyre Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, uptown 4 trains run express from Brooklyn Bridge to 14th Street due to construction of the Broadway-Lafayette Street to Bleecker Street transfer.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, uptown 6 trains run express from Brooklyn Bridge to 14th Street due to construction of the Broadway-Lafayette Street to Bleecker Street transfer.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Manhattan-bound 6 trains run express from Hunts Point Avenue to 3rd Avenue due to platform edge rehabilitation at Cypress Avenue, East 143rd Street, East 149th Street and Longwood Avenue stations.

From 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, August 1 and Sunday, August 2, free shuttle buses replace A trains between 80th Street and Lefferts Boulevard due to switch work and rail repairs near Rockaway Boulevard.
Trains to the Rockaways skip 88th Street and Rockaway Blvd. Trains to Manhattan make station stops at Rockaway Blvd. and 88th Street.

From12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, downtown C trains run express from 145th Street to Canal Street due to fan plant rehabilitation near 7th Avenue in Manhattan.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Brooklyn-bound D trains skip DeKalb Avenue and run express from Pacific Street to 36th Street due to track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, D trains run in two sections due to fan plant rehabilitation near 7th Avenue in Manhattan.
• Between 205th Street and the Lower East Side-2nd Avenue F station and
• Between West 4th Street and Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue
Customers continuing their trip may transfer across the platform at Broadway-Lafayette.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, downtown D trains run local on the A line from 145th Street to West 4th Street due to fan plant rehabilitation near 7th Avenue in Manhattan.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Manhattan-bound D trains run local from 36th Street to DeKalb Avenue due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, July 31 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Manhattan-bound EF trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to Queens Plaza and 21st Street-Queensbridge, respectively, due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Jamaica-bound EF trains run local from Queens Plaza and 21st Street-Queensbridge, respectively, to Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, July 31 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, there is no G
service between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, August 1, J trains run in two sections due to track cleaning:
• Between Jamaica Center-Parsons Archer and Essex Street and
• Between Essex Street and Chambers Street

From 4:30 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 10 p.m. Sunday, August 2, there are no L trains between Broadway Junction and Rockaway Parkway due to switch renewal north of Atlantic Avenue. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Manhattan-bound N trains run express on the D line from Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street due to track panel installation.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, N trains run local on the R line between Canal Street and 36th Street due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Coney Island-bound N trains run local from 36th to 59th Streets due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

At all times until December 2009, the Coney Island-bound side of the Avenue U and Neck Road stations are closed for rehabilitation. Customers should use Kings Highway BQ, Sheepshead Bay BQ, or Avenue U F stations as alternatives.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Brooklyn-bound Q trains run on the R line from Canal Street to DeKalb Avenue due to track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 3, Q trains run local between 57th Street-7th Avenue and Canal Street due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

From 5 a.m. to midnight Saturday, August 1 and Sunday, August 2, there are no R trains between Forest Hills-71st Street and 36th Street (Brooklyn) due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.
The EFNQ trains provide alternate service.

From 6:30 a.m. Saturday, August 1 to7 p.m. Sunday, August 2, there are no shuttle trains between Franklin Avenue and Prospect Park due to cable and conduit work.
Free shuttle buses provide alternate service.

Categories : Service Advisories
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MTA Employee Wins Lottery

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Aubrey Boyce, a subway collection agent from Kew Gardens, has won $133 million in the Mega Millions jackpot, the New York Daily News reported today. Boyce identified himself as being from South America (he didn’t specify which country, although some reports have claimed he is from Guyana) and has spent the last eight years working for the MTA. As a collection agent, his job is to go around to different subway stations and collect the money from MetroCard machines and (formerly) token booths.

Boyce’s plan for the money? Yeah, he’s quitting his job. And taking his wife on a vacation to “someplace warm.”

Categories : MTA
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Since I take the subway instead of driving, I don’t get road rage – but, occasionally, I get ‘subway rage.’ I’m going to list a couple of the things that make me the most crazy on the subway, and I want to hear from you guys in the comments about your own mass transit pet peeves:

  • People having loud, TMI phone conversations when the train is above ground.
  • When a crowded rush hour train is pulling into a busy station and someone in the middle of the car starts shoving his or her way toward the door, seemingly unaware that many other people will be getting out at the stop as well.
  • People who have their iPod turned on so loud other people can hear it, despite the whole “headphones” thing. There’s an extra demerit for anyone who sings or raps along with what they’re listening to.
  • Perfectly healthy adults who don’t give up their seats for a pregnant woman or disabled person.

What about you guys?

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The MTA Meets Twitter

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For those of you who are on Twitter, there are now Twitter accounts for mass transit lines and highways throughout New York state, including the New York City subway. There’s a full index of accounts here. Those of you in New York City can choose to follow the general 511 account, or simply follow the line you take the most often.

If you’re a Twitter fan or just want to check online to see if there are problems along your subway line or highway before you set out on your commute, this is a great quick way to get information. And if you hate Twitter, keep in mind that you don’t have to have an account to view a specific page. Don’t worry – I won’t tell anyone.

Next up? The PATH is planning to get an account too.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Quinnipiac University has conducted a poll about New York City urban life. Here are some of the transit-related tidbits:

  • 58 percent of respondents like the new pedestrian mall on Broadway between Times and Herald Squares.
  • 52 percent rate overall subway service as “excellent” or “good,” with 56 percent giving the same rating to city bus service.
  • 67 percent are opposed to East River bridge tolls.
  • 23 percent of New Yorkers drive to work. [Side note: I personally find this hard to fathom, unless they’re including people who drive in from the suburbs. I don’t even know if 23 percent of New York City residents even own cars. Maybe it’s just me.]
  • 64 percent are “not too confident” or “not confident” that the 7 train extension will be completed on schedule.
Categories : 7 Line Extension, MTA
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While most of us take the subway every day, how many of us know anything about the people who conduct the trains? When I asked my friends who their favorite subway conductors were, most of their responses were things like “That guy on the A who sings the names of the stations” or “One time I had a conductor on the N who not only announced the stops but said which tourist attractions were near each one.”

Well, I have a favorite driver – his name is Eric Booker, and he conducts the 7 train. However, Eric’s not terribly famous for his day job. Under his nickname, “Badlands,” he’s one of the country’s foremost champions in a very unusual sport – competitive eating. Booker holds records in events from hamentaschen to burritos to peas. He’s one of the IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating)’s biggest celebrities and makes regular appearances at the best-known eating competition of all, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest, held every Fourth of July on Coney Island.

When he’s not eating or conducting the 7 train, “Badlands” is also an aspiring rapper. You can check out one of his songs (which is about Krystal hamburgers, obviously) here.

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