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.