Home MetroCard The Future of the MetroCard Part 2

The Future of the MetroCard Part 2

by Jeremy Steinemann

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?

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Nick August 4, 2009 - 11:48 am

After living in Boston for three years with the CharlieCard, I can attest to how amazing smart cards are. Even with the MBTA mucking up their potential and only utilizing their most basic features, Charlie really is a beautiful thing.

Alfred Beech August 4, 2009 - 11:59 am

When listing the shortcomings of the MetroCard, you should add that your monthly pass isn’t valid on some MTA rail lines, like the AirTrain. Want to get to the airport? You’ll have to buy another Metrocard.
If the MTA can’t make the use of the MetroCard ubiquitous within it’s own network, what hope is there that they can develop a card valid across agencies?

R2 August 4, 2009 - 12:37 pm

AirTrain is actually under the auspices of the Port Authority. It takes regular Metrocards for the sake of convenience. That it (nor PATH) doesn’t take senior or handicapped cards is a glaring omission. How hard is it to deduct the appropriate balance? Really!

I could not agree more that smart cards (or anything RFID-equipped) would foster regional interoperability in ways that a metrocard cannot.

While securing long-term, stable sources of funds must remain top priority (congestion pricing *cough cough*), I would like to see Jay Walder fast-track our version of the OysterCard

Jerrold August 4, 2009 - 12:07 pm

Also, the PATH turnstiles will not accept the Handicapped or Senior Citizen MetroCard, even if it IS a Pay-per-Ride card.

I remember how one time at the “temporary” World Trade Center PATH station (which by the way seems like it’s going to be permanent),
I was trying to use my Handicapped MetroCard and it would not work.
I asked for the assistance of an employee there, and he told me that it has to be the kind of MetroCard “that you put money on”.
I tried explaining in vain that it WAS a card that I put money on.

I later found out, of course, that nothing but the “regular” Pay-per-Ride cards are accepted by PATH.

Jerrold August 4, 2009 - 12:12 pm

Alfred, coming to think of it, what I said about PATH is ALSO true about the AirTrain.
The Handicapped or Senior card is not accepted there, even if you have more than enough money on it to cover the AirTrain fare.

Avi August 4, 2009 - 1:21 pm

The problem with combining the payment systems across multiple agencies is where do you stop? Sure MTA(subway and rail) and PATH makes sense. But once you add NJ Transit you open up a whole new can of worms. NJ Transit shares a station(Trenton) with Septa. Do you add Septa to the system? What about the NJ Riverlines? PATCO? It’s easy to keep saying yes, yes, yes, but before you know it you’re trying to coordinate an agreement between 10+ different agencies in 5+ states. Good luck getting everyone to agree on that.

Jerrold August 4, 2009 - 2:31 pm

SEPTA and the two others you mentioned do NOT operate into New York City, so there really is NOT any issue of “Where does it stop?”.
New Jersey Transit SHOULD be included, as should PATH, the LIRR and Metro North. Amtrak is for long-distance trips, rather than commutation, so it doesn’t have to be included.
Any line that does not even come into New York City is of course not logically part of a fare card that covers the New York metropolitan area.

mhig9000 August 4, 2009 - 6:19 pm

Yes, but half of NJT serves the Philadelphia metro area (maybe a little less than half), and half serves the NYC metro area, therefore SEPTA and PATCO would have to use the same system as the MTA for NJT to be compatible with both.

Jeremy Steinemann August 4, 2009 - 6:24 pm

I will try to incorporate some of this feedback in tomorrow’s post, but I have to at least step in here.

The question of regional integration is very important. Many advocates agree that a solution for the entire Northeast is essential. In fact, if you think about EZPass, you realize that auto-planners realized this and implemented cross-compatibility throughout the entire country.

However, I have to remark right now, that the percentage of service that NJT provides to Philadelphia and the surrounding area is WELL BELOW half of its total service patterns. That’s just a fact.

Dan Berkman August 5, 2009 - 10:27 am

That’s exactly right. My mom lives in Cambridge and when I visit I use Metrocard to get to Penn Station, a paper ticket to get on my Amtrak train and finally, a Charlie Card to get from South Station to Central Square. What if there was one ticket for all of these trips? A national system would be even better. Imagine going to Philly or Chicago and not having to stand at a ticket booth in the airport or train station. Sign me up!

Norman August 5, 2009 - 5:21 pm

Just to echo Jeremy – of the 9 lines I counted that NJ Transit operates, 8 fall within the NYC metropolitan and feed either Newark Penn, Hoboken, or NY Penn. Only 1 line (Atlantic City) feeds into Philadelphia’s 30th St Station.

Avi August 5, 2009 - 11:15 pm

So is NJT going to implement two incompatible systems? Do you really expect them to maintain two different systems? Also the NEC line is really a feeder for both SEPTA and MTA. The northern end is NYP and the Southern end at Trenton shares the station with SEPTA trains connecting to Philadelphia. So if you get on at Trenton what card do you use? The SEPTA card that is usable at the same station, or the MTA card based 90 miles away but used on other parts of the same line?

rhywun August 4, 2009 - 1:54 pm

OK, the MetroCard is flimsy but other than that, are any of these other benefits *technically* impossible to achieve with the MetroCard? For example, you can’t have a monthly MTA fare & a pay-as-you go amount on the same card, BUT is that because it’s not possible with the current technology or is it because the MTA hasn’t bothered programming it? These questions need more research before we commit what will surely require hundreds of millions of dollars to yet another fare system.

Josh August 5, 2009 - 11:01 am

I was wondering the same thing.

Scott E August 4, 2009 - 3:39 pm

One of the biggest obstacles to migrating to a SmartCard is always-on connectivity. Right now, your card balance is stored magnetically ON THE CARD. When you swipe the card, the new balance (after deducting the fare) is written to the card, and the card’s serial number and balance are stored in a database in the turnstile. Peridodically, the turnstile connects to a centralized database and uploads all the recent activity (used for recordkeeping, forensic, and EasyPay Xpress Metrocard refilling purposes). At the same time, a “blacklist” of stolen or fraudulent serial numbers is downloaded to the turnstile. A similar exchange of information happens on buses when they pull into a depot at the end of their route.

As far as I understand, an RFID “Smartcard” cannot write information to the card, so the fare gate must instantly connect to a centralized database every time a card is used to check if the card is valid and update the available balance. This means that you need a reliable, fast, and always-on connection at every fare-collection point, which we currently don’t have (except for the Lexington Ave line trial). It’s possible, though difficult to bring this connectivity to each turnstile. To bring it to every bus, wirelessly, would be a herculean effort that I just don’t see happening.

Josh August 5, 2009 - 11:04 am

To bring it to every bus, wirelessly, would be a herculean effort that I just don’t see happening.

I’m not sure why that should be true. London has waaaaaay more bus lines than we do here in NYC but they’ve managed to make Oyster cards operable on all of them.

oscar August 5, 2009 - 11:13 am

buses should be free

David March 8, 2017 - 5:11 pm

Chicago connects their Ventra cards to every bus via cell phone signals. As long as there’s cell service (which–aside from an emergency–is pretty much always in a city) the cards work on buses with no problem.

Robert August 4, 2009 - 4:04 pm

Look, I think it’s a great idea for the pure convenience value in the subway. But I’m a bit confused about how you propose to have the LIRR and Metro-North involved in this. Train conductors can’t punch a Smart Card, and you can’t swipe it at your seat. Yes, you could use it to buy a ticket at a machine, but what’s the point of that? Might as well just use your credit card, instead of having to put money on your Smart Card and then use that money to buy a ticket.

Kai August 4, 2009 - 7:15 pm

I once rode the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London, which runs under the “honor” system with random checks like the Bx12 Select bus. The random checkers were on my train, they took my OysterCard and held it up to a portable device to check if I had paid at a DLR station before I boarded.

Robert August 5, 2009 - 11:19 pm

Oh, I see. Interesting.

Alon Levy August 5, 2009 - 4:19 am

Then drop the conductors and build fare gates, like they do on commuter rail systems in developed countries.

oscar August 5, 2009 - 11:15 am

but if you drop conductors, how can they collect disability and retire at an early age?

Evan August 4, 2009 - 5:16 pm

actually with smartcard….tickets for LIRR or Metro-North can be loaded onto the card and the conductors have portable smartcard readers. That’s the way they do it in London on the National Rail.

mhig9000 August 4, 2009 - 6:33 pm

Why not just take this a step further and integrate it with the “blink” system for credit card payments?

I bet Visa or Mastercard or Discover would be willing to help subsidize the the implementation of a new system if they were allowed to buy a contract to be the exclusive card issuer. People who already have a credit card with the company could simply designate a credit card from that company to have a transit account attached to it, which would allow for unlimited passes, as well as bonuses as with pay-per-ride metrocards, and then the credit card could just be billed directly for one time purchases, such as the airtrain, or day trips on commuter rail.

People without a credit card from the company could buy a cheap stand alone card for a one time fee (similar to Visa Gift Cards, and just like most existing smart card systems), and then load money onto the card or purchase a monthly pass from a bank account or using cash from machines at train stations.

And I’m sure the card issuers would be glad to maintain internet account management for riders and handle all software maintenance for free if they had a contract that would guarantee they would receive a processing fee from most fare payments on the system.

This also has the advantage of being an existing network with proven and cheap hardware, as well as having the potential to be adopted by any city nationwide and thus providing nationwide compatibility.

And as some posters have mentioned, most smart card systems need to be “always on” just like the national credit card networks. It seems silly to develop a brand new system that would essentially serve the same purpose as a credit card, most people who buy monthly passes or commuter rail tickets use a credit card anyway so just cut out a step.

herenthere August 4, 2009 - 11:18 pm

Hong Kong’s Octopus Card is supremely awesome and can never be matched by any other system’s…it’s so ubiquitous, that they even have Octopus Watches…

justanotherblogger August 5, 2009 - 11:26 am

I agree, the octopus card is amazing.

You can use it for parking meters, grocery purchases, ALL regional transit operators (subway, multiple bus companies, multiple ferry companies, and even taxis).

In fact, you can even use it as a key fob to many apartment buildings.

Mike G August 5, 2009 - 1:12 am

As a frequent user of Queens busses and riding the LA Metro busses last month, I can tell you the TAP card significantly decreased boarding times on the LA bus versus NYCT busses.

Riding the Q27 and Q46 frequently, I can tell you that it must be atleast 25% of the ride time is spent getting people on the bus. The time people spend figuring out how to put the Metrocard in the slot, the fairbox sucks in the card, possibly sucks it in once or twice, then spits it out, the person removes the card, looks at the balance or when it expired, is eliminated by Smartcard Technology.

As I saw on the LA busses, you walk on, and in one motion tap the card, and move on. The time savings is remarkable, especially at busy bus stops and terminals.

The efficiency savings created by Smartcards on MTA busses might possibly negate the cost of establishing such a system throughout NYCT

Jim August 5, 2009 - 8:48 am

I’m not sure how many of you actually ride the PATH…but since this is an NYC subway blog, I’m sure most don’t. The Port Authority is already using an RFID card called “Smartlink” for access to their system. It’s fantastic. I set up my automatic payment account and pay per ride…then I do nothing but touch my wallet to the sensor and POOF! Access granted. When I get to about 2-3 rides remaining, my card gets refilled. No need to wait on line to buy rides anymore. Only problem I have with it is this card is not integrated with the “transit check” system yet, so i’m using “after tax” dollars. I’m sure it will make it’s way over to that sooner or later though…especially if a broader acceptance of the card becomes a reality.

See site: http://www.pathsmartlinkcard.com/

Adam August 5, 2009 - 10:51 am

My company gives TransitCheks out in the form of prepaid Visa Debit cards which can be used to buy tickets for anything, Subway, PATH, NJT, etc. We are based in NJ and I live in NYC, so I use the TransitChek debit card to fill up my PATH SmartLink online, and to buy 30-day unlimited MetroCards.

The only downside is that we get three new debit cards each quarter (one for each month) instead of just having a single card that is refilled. I’ve got a drawerful of empty debit cards.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines August 5, 2009 - 9:13 am

[…] Second Ave. Sagas Discusses the Future of the MetroCard, or Lack Thereof […]

Ian MacAllen August 5, 2009 - 10:26 am

The real need for a fully integrated system is no more evident than within the New Jersey Transit organization. Besides the commuter rail NJ Transit operates, there are also three light rail systems. The Newark Subway and Hudson Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) both augment New York City transit. The Newark subway connects Essex County suburbs with Newark’s Penn Station where the PATH terminates and Northeast Corridor commuter trains stop before proceeding to the city. HBLR provides a connection to PATH trains on a north-south axis through Hudson County (ironically, not to Bergen County). However, the ticketing system is an utter failure.

HBLR and the Newark Subway rely on identical rail cars; they were all purchased at the same time. Both system also use identical time stamp ticket systems where riders buy a ticket and receive a time stamp as they enter the system. However, tickets on the two systems are incompatible, have separate prices, and cannot be purchased at the same location. Indeed, NJ Transit ticket kiosks rarely allow riders to purchase tickets for more than one mode of transportation, even though the same ticket kiosks are used to print all tickets.

A ticket kiosk in the Newark subway system will only sell Newark Subway tickets; NJ Transit commuter rail tickets in Newark Penn Station must be purchased at kiosks upstairs in the main station. Commuter station ticket kiosks won’t sell tickets for either light rail system. In the Hoboken Terminus, where commuter trains and HBLR trains meet, tickets can be purchase for both modes from the same kiosk, but must be purchased in separate transactions, and forget about a Newark Subway ticket in Hoboken.

Crazier still, before the PATH converted to SmartCards, PATH stations had NJ Transit ticket kiosks. These were not for the sake of convenience; they sold QuickTrip tickets. Of course, the ticket kiosks did not sell commuter rail tickets.

NJ Transit ticket kiosks rely on dynamic touch screen displays and print tickets for all systems on identical pink tickets with magnetic strips. The touchscreens in each station are programmed to display specific ticket options, even though the systems use the same ticket material.

And what about that magnetic strip? Magnetic strips on NJ Transit tickets serve a single purpose: access to the Northeast Corridor at Secaucus Junction. While ten of the eleven commuter lines in the system stop at Secaucus, access to the Northeast corridor platform is restricted by glass turnstiles that require a ticket to enter, though access to other train platforms are not restricted.

If there was ever a reason for an integrated, universal payment system, NJ Transit would be proof enough. The metropolitan region is intimately connected by mass transit, but the petty fiefdoms of baureaucratic agencies continue to impede integration; the long term sucess the New York region is dependent on a single, regional agency.

Ian MacAllen August 5, 2009 - 11:00 am

One other oddity worth noting is the ACES train, the express service from New York to Atlantic City (with one stop in Newark). The service is operated by Amtrak. The trains are owned by NJ Transit. These trains are leased by the Casino Reinvestment Agency.

Because ACES is operated by Amtrak, the ticket kiosks for NJ Transit trains cannot be used. Instead, Amtrak has two dedicated ticket kiosks in Atlantic City, but doesn’t operate other trains from the station.

Adam August 5, 2009 - 11:26 am

The magnetic strip on NJT Tickets is also used to access AirTrain at Newark Airport.

Ian MacAllen August 5, 2009 - 2:00 pm

Oh yes, you are quite right about the AirTran. That’s another great example of the shortcomings of decentralized planning. The monorail is short of Newark Penn Station by about 2 miles. Taking the PATH to the airport then requires a transfer to NJ Transit trains, which now add several minutes to stop at the station at an otherwise straight and relatively fast section of track. Now the Port Authority is talking about extending PATH service from Penn Station to the Airport.

SEAN August 5, 2009 - 2:55 pm

Every transit opperator in metro DC is hooked into the Smartrip card system. MTA Baltimore is joining Smartrip shortly.

All busses in Chicagoland use the same card reguardless if it’s the CTA or Pace . BTW the CTA has over 2000 busses as does Washington DC Metrobus & there partner agencies in MD & VA including Baltimore MTA

So tell me again why we cant do the same? Political leaders will have to get cracking on such a card if they want to remain in office. If any politition is planning to rail against such a bold plan might as well step aside now. Politicos in upstate NY who’s goal IS to blead the MTA dry, I’m talking to you!

Newarkista August 5, 2009 - 4:02 pm

Integration with Philly/SEPTA would be nice, but I don’t think you understand the dark ages those of us who use SEPTA are in. SEPTA ticket purchase requires going to a ticket agent (a person!) and standing in line for a stupid paper ticket. In Trenton the integration from NJT to SEPTA is nice only on paper (you really need to pre-purchase the SEPTA ticket for it to work). SEPTA trains stop more often and travel much slower than NJT trains, making any SEPTA travel far less time-efficient than NJT. An indication of these woes: I’ve fantasized about a hostile takeover of SEPTA by NJT or MTA (I use all three extensively). It’s just a different (and painful) world in Philly. The most likely situation of initial insistence on SEPTA integration is that SEPTA would slow the whole process (if designing an integrated smart card system from scratch were the goal).

Remember that EZPass regional integration didn’t occur immediately. It was recognized as a superior and dominant technology and the other toll collection systems (even those in the midwest) adopted it eventually as a de facto standard. So let some system (any system!) lead the way with smart cards; the other systems will eventually want to take part.

SEAN August 5, 2009 - 5:11 pm

I’ve never sene a transit system with such conviluted fares as SEPTA. Read one of there schedules & you’ll understand what I’m saying.

Sample fares

Base Fare $2
Transfer .50
Zones .50 each

before you know it, a one way ride could be $4. That is the fare between Philadelphia & either Chesterbrook or Valley Forge Park without transfering. Don’t get me started on pass options, there are so many types of passes that it will make even seasoned transit riders crazy.

People think transit fares are to expencive in New York? Please! When all is said & done MTA fares are a barggin compared to SEPTA fares.

AlexB August 5, 2009 - 6:45 pm

If the point of the smart card is that it can constantly adjust your subscription from pay-per-ride to monthly and allows interoperability between different systems run by different organizations, I see no reason why it has to be limited to a particular city or region. I use the card to get on the MTA’s subway, transfer to the PANYNJ’s Airtrain, catch a plane to Chicago, get off, use the card to get on the Blue Line to the Loop. Why not? It’s government approved and all dollars are pre-tax. Obviously not going to happen tomorrow, but it seems like the logical conclusion of the discussion.

The Future of the MetroCard Part 3 :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 5, 2009 - 7:09 pm

[…] 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 split part […]

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The Future of the MetroCard Part 4 :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog August 6, 2009 - 1:28 pm

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