When they MTA Board approved the 2010-2014 capital plan last week, they killed the MetroCard. With little fan fare or much attention beyond a short article in the Daily News, the MTA Board has sentenced the MetroCard to death. If all goes according to plan, Jay Walder will oversee the debut of a contact-less fare system sans the MetroCard by 2014.
The story of the MetroCard begins in June 1993 when the MTA handed out 3000 sample MetroCards for use in the system. At the time, the agency had plans to introduce the technology in 1994 and roll it out system-wide by 1997. Transit officials had hoped to integrate the card to enable users to pay for “telephone calls, snacks or other purchases at subway kiosks” with their MetroCards. That plan has clearly not come to fruition.
By 1997, when the MetroCards turned from blue to gold, the technology was already obsolete. That year, Hong Kong launched the Octopus Card and became the first municipality to use a contactless smart card for its public transit fare payment system. While the MTA’s MetroCard has become ubiquitous in New York, cities around the globe from London to Washington, DC, have all embraced a smart card-type payment program.
Now, though, the smart card movement is on the way out, and as the MetroCard nears its two-decade mark — antiquity in technological years — the MTA will spend nearly a total of $220 million over the next five years to assess potential replacements. The end product will, according to MTA documents, allow for unified fare payments across New York City Transit, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North. “This system will speed payment, improve access to the system and provide opportunities for more seamless fare policy throughout the MTA region,” an MTA memo on the capital plan said.
Right now, the agency does not know exactly what its next fare payment plan will resemble. For the last few years, Transit had been testing a MasterCard-based trial along Lexington Ave. called “Tap & Go.” Riders with credit cards equipped with an RFID chip could just tap into the system and speed through the turnstile. That system will soon be expanded to buses and could provide a model for the future.
While I have long assumed that smart cards similar to the WMATA’s SmartCard or London’s Oyster Card would be our future, the MTA documents and a few recent studies now have me convinced otherwise. Late last week, Michael Frumin passed along a 2008 article portending the end of the Oyster Card by 2010. The MTA itself says it will explore “standard bank and credit cards, pre-paid transit payment cards, key-tags and smart phones” as next-generation payment modes. If the MTA develops and integrates this technology properly, it will not resemble either the MetroCard or familiar smart card currently in use across the globe.
In the end, the smart chip technology and next-gen fare modalities will allow the MTA more flexibility and will improve access to the system. Bus boarding speeds will stand to benefit greatly from a touch-and-go system while a credit- or debit-card based system would reduce the need for in-system cash handling. The new system will be designed to allow for what the MTA terms “inter-model fare payment options,” and the agency hopes to offer simplified and expanded fare payment options.
The MTA is not known for its technological innovation. It lags behind in website development and cannot get a train-arrival board program off the ground. But by devoting serious attention to its fare payment system and bringing a technologically-minded expert to head up the system, the agency could be turning a corner. If the MetroCard is the price we pay for it, I will mourn but not miss that gold and blue piece of plastic.