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Eliminating the need for a swipe

by Benjamin Kabak

How much can the MTA discern about a potential replacement for the MetroCard from a six-month pilot program? As the authority unveiled a new contactless PayPass program yesterday morning, that’s the question hovering just beneath the surface of New York’s next leap in fare-payment technology.

The details are mostly as I reported last week. On Tuesday morning, the MTA, Port Authority and New Jersey Transit along with MasterCard launched a six-month trial that will run until November. The trial enables transit riders to purchase fares and transfer between these independent systems by tapping a credit or debit card equipped with the proper RFID chip at the stations equipped to handle it. In New York City, only the Lexington Ave. IRT stations in Manhattan and Borough Hall in Brooklyn along with eight bus routes will accept the PayPass trial.

Officials from the various transit agencies praised the openness of the system. It is the first time in New York City’s history that the three rail carriers will accept the same type of payment. “The technology that we’re testing will make life easier for our customers and help reduce our cost of doing business at the same time,” MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder said in a statement. “By using an open network we’ll break down regional barriers and let people travel across the region with a card that’s already sitting in their wallets.”

From an implementation standpoint, the idea is simple. For the first two months of the pilot program, MasterCard users will be able to tap and go, and for the final four months, the pilot will be open to users of most major credit cards. Those who pay per ride won’t need to enroll while those who want to take advantage of discounted fares or unlimited ride options should head over to the Ride NY/NJ website. As I wondered last week, how will this system scale when the MTA attempts to role it out systemwide?

Beyond the technical aspects, though, the MTA has been very transparent in its goals. Walder wants to speed up bus boarding and turnstile movements while cutting down on the amount it costs the agency to collect fares. A savings of just two cents per dollar collected would net the MTA an additional $30 million a year. Additionally, this swipe-less technology will provide riders with a complete statement of transit trips made each month. That information today remains a mystery to all but the most dedicated travelers.

“The first thing people will notice is that the days of the mis-swipe are behind them,” Walder said. “It’s simple and easy to use. You touch it to a pad. You immediately go through the turnstile or get on the bus, and there’s no question about doing it.”

Yet, I have to wonder about the efficacy of such a limited pilot program. In an ideal world where money is no obstacle, every station would be equipped with at least one turnstile able to handle the pilot technology. As it stands now, few — if any — straphangers would use the unlimited ride options because the pilot is limited to just one subway route. If the agency can’t determine how widespread use would impact the new system, can they adequately assess the pilot program?

I posed that question to Aaron Donovan at the MTA yesterday, and he assured me that the authority would consider this problem in judging the new fare-collection technology. The authority anticipates that three types of costumers will use the new pilot: early adopters; regular commuters who use only the pilot routes and stations; and infrequent riders willing to use the Tap-and-Go technology to pay. Those who ride as I do — with a 30-day unlimited ride card — won’t be represented initially.

Still, authority officials believe the new faster fare payment system will be a hit. “People are going to look at it and say, ‘Why didn’t I have this sooner?'” Walder said. “It’s going to make their lifes easier. It’s going to be simple. It’s going to be quick. It’s going to be convenient.”

After the jump, a video on the new PayPass trial with soundbites from the region’s transit officials.

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JP June 2, 2010 - 7:08 am

Free transfers from PATH to MTA? Cool!

Oh wait.. It’s only on the 4,5,6? So we have to walk from WTC to Brooklyn Bridge or from 6th Park Av South to save a fare? I guess that’s still faster than waiting for the crosstown bus most of the time. Let’s hope this works out, and they install it on the 6th Avenue and Broadway lines next…

20th-Century Technology, here we come!

tacony palmyra June 2, 2010 - 7:40 am

I don’t think this necessarily means you’ll get free transfers between the PATH and MTA, does it? If they wanted to allow that I’d think they could have done so already, considering that they both already took pay-per-ride MetroCard. PATH is a different price anyway.

Scott E June 2, 2010 - 8:01 am

It’s kind of odd that the “Pre-fund” levels and bonuses are different for PATH and MTA/NYCT. Before, I could buy a $40 (or whatever amount) Metrocard from either agency and use it on both, now I need to pre-fund an MTA account and a separate PATH account. Yes, a common payment media simplifies things a bit (CVS, McDonalds, and many other merchants use it as well) but I don’t really see it unifying the systems at all – for the MTA, it’s merely a re-launch of the Paypass program that’s been in trial mode on the Lex line for years.

All of NJT, as far as I know, is a zone-based system where you pay based on how far you ride. I wonder how that works with this system.

Kid Twist June 2, 2010 - 9:17 am

It seems to be available on just a couple of NJT bus routes that are relatively short, so they’re no more than a couple of zones.

Alon Levy June 2, 2010 - 5:42 pm

Zone-based systems work wonderfully with RFID cards. In fact, the major cities in the world that have gone RFID – Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, London – all have zone-based systems. On systems with turnstiles, you’d swipe in and out. On systems without turnstiles, such as buses or commuter rail, you’re still responsible for swiping in and out; there would be a card reader at every bus entrance, or on every train car, and maybe also at every station. The fare is enforced by inspectors who carry handheld devices and check that you’ve swiped in but not out.

In case anyone wonders how much this whole shebang costs, the cost of a card reader mounted on a bus, bus stop, or train is now down to S$950 (about US$600). At two per bus and 3,200 buses on NYCT, that’s a whopping $4 million. I still can’t find numbers for the cost of the handheld devices, but on the highest reasonable estimate, it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars systemwide.

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Paulp June 2, 2010 - 9:38 am

I wonder if the MTA has calculated just how many riders have neither a checking acct or credit card and cannot use this device? Seems to me it might be almost as many as can use it.

John June 2, 2010 - 9:51 am

If this is anything like other cities, they’d be able to buy a standalone card for $5 or so.

Al D June 2, 2010 - 9:41 am

It sounds as if MTA, PATH, NJT are testing to see what, if any, major glithces would need to be worked out prior to a full implementation. A test with only a few riders would surely reveal this, and the more I think about, it’s more about testing the back end (or back office end) as the solution itself is sound. That’s why there’s no need for a system-wide test.

Josh K June 2, 2010 - 10:43 am

Of course, there’s still the lingering issues of RFID card security as well. What is to keep someone with bad intentions from using a portable RFID scanner to get your card’s ID number, cloning it and selling cloned cards, using your account number?

This is a known issue that the card companies keep ignoring.

Kevin June 2, 2010 - 1:02 pm

It all depends on what RFID tech they put in their cards. Sony has a proprietary standard called FeliCa, which is widely used in Japan and Hong Kong. It uses encryption to resist “drive-by” malicious readers. The Hong Kong Octopus Card, based off the FeliCa standard, has not been successfully hacked thus far.

Josh K June 2, 2010 - 2:56 pm

Unfortunately, time and money are not on the card issuer’s side in this battle. Given enough motive and opportunity, combined with the ever increasing speed of mobile computing technologies, this encryption will eventually be cracked and cracked in such a way as to be commercially viable on the black market. Once it is cracked, it will go undetected for some period of time. Once it is detected, all of the card readers and cards will have to be upgraded, at significant cost. Then the battle starts again.

It takes crackers, what, a week or so, to crack the security that keeps iPhones with AT&T? No matter how proprietary the tech is, if it’s easy enough for an embedded controller in the reader to decrypt, then it is very likely as easy to crack and clone by a mobile computer, once the encryption algorithm is cracked.

Unfortunately, there are some people with nothing better to do with their free time and others who get paid to crack this sort of tech for black marketeers. If there’s a black market demand (which in NYC, there’s a guaranteed black market), then they’ll find a way to make it profitable. Just like cloned metrocard “swipes” are now.

Josh K June 2, 2010 - 2:56 pm

Oh, then there’s also all of those illegally copied gate keys floating around too. That just bypasses the whole turnstile issue.

Alon Levy June 2, 2010 - 5:23 pm

Don’t forget that in every city in the world that uses those RFID cards, the cards are completely independent of your credit card or personal information. Not only are the cards separate from your credit card, but also you cannot link them to your credit card and charge them automatically. Best you can do is buy a $40 device from Sony that plugs to your laptop and allows you to charge your card with an online purchase.

This anonymity makes the cards very easy theft targets, but difficult identity theft devices. Singapore has an epidemic of CashCards (=RFID cards used for congestion pricing) being stolen from cars, but not of identity theft. In fact I’ve never heard of identity theft being a problem in Singapore, unlike in the US, where people think a social security number and a birthdate are a valid replacement for a tamper-proof photo ID.

Josh H June 2, 2010 - 11:34 am

Though I guess starting the pilot program exclusively with Mastercard is a way to offload some of the cost of the program, do you think they’ll eventually have a standalone card like Oyster, which would seem to address the issues raised above by Paulp and Josh K above?

(I’m sure there are lots of people who would be happy to have this function integrated into their credit/debit card, but personally I’d just prefer to have it separate.)

Kevin June 2, 2010 - 12:56 pm

It’s a pity the PATH SmartLink card isn’t included in this larger trial. Any future implementation of smart cards should follow a system like the SmartLink instead of relying on bank-issued cards only. Not everyone wants to be affiliated with a bank or a credit-card company.

JPN June 2, 2010 - 8:24 pm

This system will not work for me as I share my unlimited-ride MetroCard with my family (actually only my mother, and we usually don’t ride at the same time). Not unless one account can be created for two credit or debit cards.

Matt June 6, 2010 - 2:20 pm

IMHO, this is the wrong direction to go in. The best strategy for NYC (and for neighboring metro areas in the northeast) would be to work together on creating a unified RFID card that works in NYC, Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, etc.

You should be able to buy the cards for cheap at subway stations and bodegas and whatnot, activate them online, and then add money to them or set up auto-pay. You should also be able to buy monthly/weekly unlimited passes for any city online or at that city’s vending machines in stations. It should also be easy to report your card as lost/stolen, thereby deactivating it immediately and canceling any auto-renew subscriptions.

It’s also worth noting that this would be a boon for bus systems in outlying cities that don’t have a heavy-rail transit system. The cards could be used to pay bus fares too.

All of this was done years ago for highway toll payments using EZPass. There’s no reason it can’t be done for mass transit too, and in such a way that respects privacy and data security.

Marc June 8, 2010 - 12:04 pm

The downside of using a transit-only RFID card like SmartLink, as most transit systems in the world do, is that the MTA would be tied to a sole contractor, Cubic, the maker of the MetroCard system. (Cubic also makes the fare collection system for Chicago, Atlanta, and DC among other cities.) I gather by the ability to integrate credit card RFID cards into MetroCard, the MTA’s contract allows that level of access to the system. I kind of doubt that Cubic would allow the MTA to give a directly competing company like NXP (London, Paris, Boston, Minneapolis, Moscow). I hope the MTA picks the system that is least costly in the long run.

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Linda June 16, 2010 - 9:07 pm

I miss Japan’s rail, and marvel at Oyster.. but I don’t really like the way you have to use your credit card for these tap things. Too much financial liability.. rather have the MTA go back to the drawing board.. how about designing a Metrocard system that is a tap situation then.

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