Home MetroCard The Future of the MetroCard – Part 1

The Future of the MetroCard – Part 1

by Jeremy Steinemann

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.

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anonymouse August 3, 2009 - 11:46 am

One HUGE downside to smart card technology though is the amount of trouble that the technology seems to be having in American cities, with the worst example being Translink in the Bay Area. It’s going to be totally awesome in unifying the fare payment systems of two dozen providers, once they roll it out, which last I heard was scheduled for the summer. Of 2007. Given that there’s been almost no progress since then (BART still doesn’t accept it, for example), it’s clear there are significant problems. I think ORCA in Seattle is having some issues, and TAP in Southern California might have had them as well. On the other hand, the Charliecard, Oyster, and Octopus all work just fine without huge problems, so maybe the MTA will manage to get a functional system. And that, really, is the important thing. The MetroCard works, whereas with smart-card systems, there’s a significant risk that it just won’t.

Alfred Beech August 3, 2009 - 11:50 am

There are other advantage to smart cards that might be more immediately appreciated by Metro card holders. The Parisian “Intégrale” card:
-Can be replaced free if lost or stolen
-Is paid for on a yearly basis, but can be put “on vacation” if you’re out of town. There’s no need to pay for a full month if you’re going to be in the Hamptons for three weeks of that time.

And let’s not forget the environmental improvement. How many old Metro cards are actually recycled?

Chicken Underwear August 4, 2009 - 7:12 am

I could make a living from those “lost or stolen” cards.


It will be game over for me when they move to a new technology

JP August 4, 2009 - 1:28 pm

dc metro cards are made of paper

Kai August 3, 2009 - 2:49 pm

Mike Bloomberg’s campaign put out a bunch of “plans” recently. One is “Expand CityTicket program to all LIRR and Metro North stations at all times so Bronx and Queens riders pay reduced fares.”

This is something where a new, smart MetroCard could come in handy.

Kai August 3, 2009 - 2:50 pm Reply
SEAN August 3, 2009 - 3:12 pm

How great would it be if you could buy a rail ticket just by tapping a smart card. What ever is done must include Con DOT, the Port Authority, NJT As well as the MTA .

What is the only thing that could sink this plan? Oh yeah the me first polititions who cant see the big picture.

Kai August 3, 2009 - 3:23 pm

Cards also need to support unlimited NYCT + Declining balance for other services. Currently this isn’t possible. If you have an unlimited Metrocard you have to get an extra card to have a balance to use for PATH, Express Bus, etc.

John August 3, 2009 - 3:46 pm

This may fit better in tomorrow’s post, but I love the smart card system as long as they make it easy for occasional riders (tourists) to get their hands on the actual card. In LA, for example, if you want a day pass you need a TAP card, but they don’t sell the physical cards at Metro stations. They sell them at some transit offices and various locations around town (grocery stores, etc.), but not at the actual places you’ll be using it. For instance there is no place near LAX to buy a TAP card (as far as I could find out anyway).

Once I got my hands on a card though, it worked great (other than the little glitch where the grocery store I bought it at apparently put on a day pass for a date that had already passed, so I had to buy another day pass, but I can post that story in the “downsides” post!)

tacony palmyra August 3, 2009 - 4:12 pm

The PATH already has a smart card that you can tap, so you don’t need to venture as far as Boston to find an example of that technology in action. The downside is that while the PATH does accept non-unlimited Metrocards, of course the MTA doesn’t accept PATH smart cards. It’d make sense, I think, for the MTA to piggyback on PATH’s existing technology, since there already is some cross-compatibility between the two systems.

SEAN August 3, 2009 - 5:32 pm

Lets go another step. You should be able to transfer from PATH to NJ Transit busses & trains with the same card. Example-when purchasing a rail ticket just tap the card to complete the transaction, & the required fare is deducted. However the current zoned fare system on busses would require the driver to input data based on both embarkation & destenation. This may cause NJT to have to create two fare structures. Most local rutes would have a flat fare reguardless of distance, while interstate fares remain zoned.

In the case of the former you just tap & go, while several factors come into play for the latter. On outbound trips from Philadelphia or New York you would still buy a ticket as you currently do, but it would be done by tapping the card. For inbound rides or intrastate trips on interstate routes the driver would calculate the fare then you tap the card. Routes 62, 64, 65, 66, 67 & 68 would have the same rules as interstate routes do to the extreme distences covered.

Mager transfer points & terminals should have fare machines that eccept the cards.

Private opperators such as Coach USA, Decamp & others would need to be required to join this program to capture the greatest number of riders possible.

Cards need to be sold in most retailers, banks, drug stores & other outlets to make them accessable as possible. example-Washington DC’s Smartrip cards are avaleable all over the metro area including many CVS locations

rhywun August 3, 2009 - 9:12 pm

Wouldn’t it be easier to just have the rider tap the card upon boarding and again upon exiting? It would slow down boardings but that’s probably not a big deal on NJT. In any event, anything that gets rid of those infernal ticket machines at the PA is a big win.

JC Frank August 4, 2009 - 10:45 am

I found the PATH smart card to work quite well, you can replenish on line and set it up automatically if you’re not using Transit Checks. For this system to work well, it needs to be a regional solution so that one card can handle everything.

R2 August 3, 2009 - 4:47 pm

Absolutely cannot wait for smart cards. Would be great to catch up w/ Hong Kong c. 1994 🙂

There IS/(maybe “was”) an ongoing smart card trial (on the Lex) underway now, but that trial has been going on for at least 2 years, if not more. C’mon already!

Fruminator August 3, 2009 - 5:35 pm

wise up folks:

1) the Octopus card in HK is even greater than you think. you can use it at everything from 7/11 to supermarkets to Mr. Softee trucks to ice skating rinks, to pay for things totally unrelated to transport

2) Walder’s report with McKinsy highlights the use of contactless bankcards, rather than proprietary smartcards. i.e. what you can already use to enter the system on the 4/5/6 if you have a certain kind of citibank card. if post 3 of 3 in this post doesn’t discuss this prospect, then you are wasting your breath.

rhywun August 3, 2009 - 9:17 pm

I’m looking forward to hearing why the current MetroCard can’t provide all of these benefits, except maybe the last one (I don’t see bodegas installing MetroCard readers any time soon). I’m concerned about another huge technology deployment so soon after the last one–and at a time when technological deployments aren’t exactly the MTA’s strong suit.

Josh August 4, 2009 - 11:04 am

Re. speed, isn’t the relevant standard of comparison “smartcard vs. metrocard” rather than “smartcard vs. coins”?

JP August 4, 2009 - 1:27 pm

not if you’re including buses

Josh August 5, 2009 - 10:54 am

Why? I mean, yes, if you’re going to eliminate the ability to pay for buses with coins, then for those passengers the speed increase will be “smartcard vs. coins”, but you could do that without switching from metrocard to smartcard.

The Future of the MetroCard Part 2 :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 4, 2009 - 11:11 am

[…] I continue the three-part series on the Future of the MetroCard. Yesterday, in Part 1, I outlined the benefits of smart cards. Today, we focus on the deficiencies of the current […]

Damned Architect August 5, 2009 - 3:09 pm

All the above praise of Hong Kong and their integrated Octopus system is correct, but who says it even has to be a card? The last time I was in Hong Kong, I picked up an Octopus key chain that I hung from my jacket zipper to buying everything even easier. For those of us who are old school, there’s even an Octopus watch that can be used just by dipping ones wrist at the octopus box! Not even Singapore comes close to this sort of multi-functionality.

The Future of the MetroCard Part 3 :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 5, 2009 - 7:08 pm

[…] three on the my  series on the Metro Card and smart card technologies.  In case you missed them: Part 1 and Part 2.   In order to incorporate a lot of the comments we have received, I have decided to […]

The Future of the MetroCard Part 4 :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 6, 2009 - 1:27 pm

[…] is the final part of a four-part series on the Future of the MetroCard and smart card technologies. Part 1 outlined the benefits of smart card technology; Part 2 outlined the deficiencies of the MetroCard; […]

Ariel August 9, 2009 - 10:19 pm

I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a year and even their subway system had a smart card. Considering that Argentina is still a developing nation, it’s insane that the MTA is trying to catch up to their technology!

martin September 7, 2009 - 7:05 am

I think the Oyster system is great – though you seem to have repeated an error made in the New York Times: adult single fares range from £1.10-6.50 (about $1.80 – $10.60), depending on time, distance, and mode of transport.

It can also do clever things which aren’t possible with paper tickets: if you’re using a card as pay-as-you-go, it’ll cap a day’s charges as less than the cost of an equivalent day pass. There’s no such thing as a free transfer in London, but with Oyster, a journey using both the train and the Underground counts as single journey, and is charged accordingly.

I’ve got an integrated card: it’s my Visa card (with a mag stripe, electronic chip, and Visa PayWave), and Oyster card, all-in-one.

Urban Omnibus » The Omnibus Roundup – deforestation, smart MetroCards, public art and the Street View car September 28, 2010 - 11:42 pm

[…] MTA hired a smart card czar. In case you missed it, in August Second Avenue Sagas posted a great four-part piece on the future of MetroCards that gives a good […]

Maybelle Milette December 5, 2011 - 10:22 am

This article is indeed an opinion piece, which also relates Dr. Dahlan’s opinions as he announced them during the conference and analyses them.


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