Home MetroCard If a tree falls in the woods…

If a tree falls in the woods…

by Benjamin Kabak

In the Sunday Times this week, City Critic Ariel Kaminer profiled the MTA’s new contactless fare payment trial. I first introduced the trial in late May and discussed the impending end of the MetroCard swipe two weeks ago. In that sense, Kaminer’s piece is similar to the prior coverage. She tests the technology in New York City Transit’s subways, along the PATH trains and in New Jersey Transit buses and finds the intermodal system in various states of readiness.

Where her piece gets more interesting, however, is in its discussion of those who are and are not using the Pay Pass. “If news of this brave experiment hasn’t quite made its way to the bus drivers of the Garden State,” she writes, “it doesn’t seem to have seized the riders of Manhattan either. Stand at the PayPass turnstile in the Grand Central subway station and, I predict, your interest in technology and transportation will give out hours before you see anyone even try it.” A few straphangers with whom she spoke said they were interested in but had not planned to take advantage of the MTA’s six-month trial.

And so this begs the question: What good is a trial if no one comes? How will the MTA evaluate a technology in use along very few bus routes and only a select stops along one subway line? It can’t assess how the Pay Pass fares under the pressures of regular and heavy users of the transit system and is, for now, only as comprehensive as the trial makes it out to be. MTA officials assure me that they will consider these obstacles as they evaluate the trial, but until the authority prepares for a system-wide rollout of something else, I can’t get too excited for this fare payment technology of the future.

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Yonah Freemark June 14, 2010 - 4:47 pm

Why does New York feel obligated to have a trial at all? The MTA went through a very similar trial four years ago. Why are we going through this again?

Other American cities, including Chicago, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles… (not to mention most major foreign systems) have all been able to implement these tap-to-pay technologies perfectly fine. We have to go through yet another trial and then wait until 2014?

Christopher June 14, 2010 - 4:51 pm

Actually SF had a trial. Successive trials that lasted YEARS. At least 8 years, they continued to have problems making the system work for all the dozen or so transit agencies and SF Muni was one of the last hold outs on implementing the system. DC was slightly more quick in part because like the MTA, WMATA operates both buses and trains. But extending the system to the suburban buses took around a decade.

Alon Levy June 14, 2010 - 7:33 pm

Those existing tap-to-pay technologies weren’t invented here. They’re also too inexpensive to implement.

Christopher June 15, 2010 - 7:19 am

Those RFID technologies are the standard. I don’t know why it would be more expensive. Is the new system going to require PayPass? I suppose that’s what they are testing. Frankly I think it’s going fail. It’s just not widely adopted enough by consumers. OysterCard, SmartCard, TransLink — all are separate cards that work regionwide, on multiple transit systems, and can been automatically loaded each month with transit benefits. PayPass is not a viable longterm solution, but perhaps that’s what MTA is trying to discover.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 8:10 am

PayPass is far more widespread – among merchants and among consumers – than any regional transit card. That’s good for the both transit agencies (who have plenty of off-the-shelf PayPass readers to choose from) and riders (many of whom will already have compatible credit/debit card once the full rollout occurs, and those who don’t are still no worse off than with a proprietary regional transit card).

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 4:00 pm

No worse off? The money spent on two incompatible systems doesn’t matter?

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 6:17 pm

Two incompatible systems? PayPass and …?

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 7:33 pm

…the new card.

Octopus and Suica aren’t just transit cards. They’re used as anonymous or personalized electronic money, and are sold not just as cards but also as keychains and cellphones.

However, the technology was invented in Japan and Australia, which means New York never even tried to use it. There’s a big difference between inviting multiple vendors to bid and choosing PayPass over FeLiCa, and going with PayPass without even trying to use off-the-shelf transit cards.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 8:20 pm

The new card is just a crippled PayPass card!

PayPass isn’t just a transit card either. And unlike Octopus and Suica, PayPass cards and equipment are widely used and readily available in the U.S.

For roughly the twentieth time, PayPass is off-the-shelf!

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 9:02 pm

There are cities outside the US.

Christopher June 14, 2010 - 4:49 pm

My question is? Who even has PayPass? I don’t. Most banks seem to require you to ask for it. I’ve never taken that leap. (Or saw the need to.) It seems like systems that RFID payment systems in the US — like DC and SF — use entirely different cards. I think even the OysterCard in London is a unique card just for Transport London. So not sure why the PayPass insistence on the MTA’s part.

Adam G June 14, 2010 - 4:50 pm

It lets them do the trial without investing in cards and machines to dispense/refill them, I guess.

Christopher June 14, 2010 - 4:53 pm

I guess. But the trials in SF provided cards to potential users. True, you couldn’t participate without autofilling the cards at least at first.

JP June 14, 2010 - 7:45 pm

I don’t know one person who has PayPass. I thought I’d be able to use my own credit card. I can’t.

Andrew June 14, 2010 - 11:25 pm

I have three (and I didn’t ask for any of them). Want one?

I get the sense that some banks issue them as standard equipment while others don’t issue them at all. If you want one, open an account with Citi or Chase, or ask your bank to get with the program.

Christopher June 15, 2010 - 7:13 am

I have been with Citi for 6 years. They don’t issue them without requesting them. And explain to me why I would request one?

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 7:21 am

I got one from Citi and two from Chase without requesting them.

Why would you request one? I was skeptical at first, but they are a little bit faster than swiping.

Andrew June 14, 2010 - 11:23 pm

One of the main points of moving to a standardized PayPass-style system is to get the MTA out of the business of maintaining its own proprietary debit card system, along with all the customer service issues that crop up.

When all is said and done, most riders will use their everyday credit or debit cards. Some riders (those without credit or debit cards and those who prefer not to use them at the turnstile) will have to use dedicated transit cards of some sort, but those will probably be essentially private-label debit cards valid only on participating transit services.

So there will need to be machines to dispense and refill cards, but the demand will be far lower than it is at the MVM’s now.

Benjamin Kabak June 15, 2010 - 8:23 am

To be clear, I have no problem with the MTA’s using PayPass/credit card technology for this pilot. Tons of people I know have credit cards with the chip in it, and they’re becoming de rigueur as older cards expire. The issue I have is that it’s far too limited. Not enough people use only the Lexington Ave. line or only the East Side buses for this system, even as a trial, to work too well.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 6:14 pm

How do you know how many people are needed for a successful trial? I don’t have an exact number, but I’m sure a tiny fraction of the system’s total ridership is sufficient for the purposes of testing the communication networks and whatever other backend stuff needs to be tested.

And remember, for pay-per-ride users (who don’t need to transfer to unequipped bus lines), it doesn’t even matter much whether they use the same medium for all of their fare payments. It’s only unlimited users who are left out. As I said before, some tourists are probably stumbling onto it by accident.

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 7:35 pm

Many of the original problems in FeLiCa took billions of taps to sort out. The privacy issue still looms; years after it was introduced, Oyster still isn’t completely secure.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 8:21 pm

PayPass has already had billions of taps. The concern isn’t with PayPass itself; it’s with its interface with the transit system.

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 8:26 pm

FeliCa’s original problems were exactly in the interface with transit – namely, the value adding. They’ve been fixed since, but it took years and Hong Kong had to endure some pain. Singapore and Tokyo, which were later adopters, got a largely bug-free system.

Aaron June 14, 2010 - 8:27 pm

I’m with Chase and I think I have it – last time I was at a Yankees game I went to pay for food with my check card and they had me wave it over a sensor a la Boston’s Charlie Card, rather than swiping it.

John June 15, 2010 - 10:00 am

Yeah I think most or all Chase cards have it now. It never gets old going to McDonald’s and waving my card over their Paypass sensor and having the cashier say “No you swipe it over….oh, never mind.”

Son of Spam June 14, 2010 - 8:01 pm

I think the real question should be: “Why would someone pay extra money to the MTA in order for them to test their technology?”

If you start a monthly pay pass account, you still have to pay in another form at other stations, thereby deducting from any savings you get from your monthly pre-pay. I’m sure there are people who will fall into the very small window of having to use only Paypass stations and buses, but really, MTA, enough for a full-blown technology test?

Creating “bridge” metrocards with RFIDs built in so that a person can use it at either a paypass entry or old-style swipe would have been the better way to go, but I’m sure I’m sure they wouldn’t have been able to get the funding from MasterCard to implement it. I’m assuming they’re picking up some of this cost, given the state of the MTA’s finances.

This reeks of “Look at what we did! We’re moving forward!” and surely will appear on the list of “Goals Achieved” at the end of the year.

Andrew June 14, 2010 - 11:11 pm

That’s an obvious problem with the pilot for most unlimited riders. But pay-per-ride users don’t lose much. And some of the pilot participants are probably unwitting tourists who don’t even realize that this isn’t the traditional way to pay fares (at least until they try to make their return trip and discover there’s no way in without buying a MetroCard).

Hybrid cards would have been a pretty hefty investment for a six-month pilot, especially since there’s no need for hybrid cards once this is rolled out systemwide.

Andrew June 14, 2010 - 11:07 pm

If the point of this pilot were market research, then it wouldn’t make any sense.

But that isn’t the point. The point is to test the technical side – e.g., the communication networks (wired and wireless) – and to address whatever problems are found while usage is still low.

Benjamin Kabak June 14, 2010 - 11:08 pm

If no one’s using the technology, how are they going to test the technical side? I don’t know a single person beyond a Times reporters who did it for an article who’s used PayPass. Do you?

Andrew June 14, 2010 - 11:14 pm

No, but no one is pretty extreme. I’m sure the numbers aren’t huge, but I doubt no one is using it.

And the pilot just started two weeks ago! Give it some time to get off the ground. Also remember that in August it will work with more credit cards than it does now. It’s not going to attract huge crowds, but it doesn’t need to attract huge crowds.

John Paul N. June 15, 2010 - 1:25 am

On the NJ side, the reporter says she had to wait for the third bus before the contactless payment would be accepted. That is not a good implementation of a test run.

Also at first glance, having the trial on both the Lexington Avenue Line and the M101/M102/M103 makes no sense to me.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 6:20 pm

From the article, it seemed like some bus drivers didn’t know about the system. A training issue rather than a technical issue. Or maybe not.

The point is to test it on the subway system and on two agencies’ bus systems.

John Paul N. June 16, 2010 - 3:29 am

But in the same geographical area (East Side) and on parallel routes (Lexington Av. subways and buses)? There could be a perfectly valid reason, but I’m not immediately seeing it. The only inference I could think of is that area has a good number of MasterCard PayPass users.

John Paul N. June 16, 2010 - 3:58 am

Actually, after reading the FAQ (go down to “Can anyone participate in the Trial?”), it says Visa payWave users will be able to use the trial system beginning August 1st. As Visa is the market share winner, with the right publicity, volumes should show a good uptick. Only then is it a better test of heavy-use New York City-area conditions.

Andrew June 17, 2010 - 7:39 am

It’s also valid on the M14, M23, M79, and M86 – in other words, on the routes that operate articulated buses out of Quill and 100th Street depots. Those are the buses that have the readers installed. They’re busy crosstown routes with lots of transfers to and from the 4/5/6.

(Also on the BxM7 – not sure why that one in particular, but they probably wanted to toss in one express route.)

John Paul N. June 17, 2010 - 11:34 am

Ah, that makes sense. That certainly limits the candidates. Consequently, the Lex subway also makes a good choice because of the number of bus connections with express stations (3 stations on the Lex, 2 on the other two West Side express lines).

Chicken Underwear June 15, 2010 - 5:08 am

Why should anyone bother to use it when you still have to use your MetroCard and most other places? How many people used the MetroCard when it was first introduced and only worked in a few stations?

Daniel Howard June 15, 2010 - 11:09 am

Yeah, I guess I’m not the first to chime in:


Of course, what kind of puny test environment is Chicago, right? 😉

Seriously, this technology beats the crap out of metro cards, and this “trial” is a stalling technique. Just deploy the damn thing so people can get nostalgic about these flimsy little metro cards we primitives use today.


John June 15, 2010 - 2:36 pm

I tend to agree. This is tried and true technology. Tying it to a credit card seems kind of cool as an option, but if it slows things down forget it.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 6:16 pm

Chicago is a great test environment, but Chicago doesn’t have the same communications backbone as New York.

Everybody knows that these things work. The question is whether any changes need to be made under the hood to any of the bits and pieces of the system unique to New York.

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 7:39 pm

One advantage of off-the-shelf global standards is that they’ve already had to deal with multiple communications networks.

However, in New York it’s a disadvantage, because it means less money for testers, credit card lobbyists, and consultants overseeing the installation.

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 8:28 pm

Now up to roughly twenty-one. PayPass is still off-the-shelf.

The subway has its own communication network, which may not be quite the same as anybody else’s.

Alon Levy June 15, 2010 - 9:06 pm

Everyone else has their own communications networks, too. FeliCa still adapted. The core part is the reader-card interaction, which is short-range RFID and does not interact with the rest of the communications network. The other parts can piggyback off of the existing MetroCard network. This is something FeliCa is quite familiar with; its domination in Japan means that soon it’ll have majority share of the world’s rail ridership.

How many transit systems have used PayPass before?

Andrew June 17, 2010 - 7:35 am

I don’t see why the RFID bit would be any different in the subway from McDonald’s, and it works fine in McDonald’s. That’s one part that I don’t think needs extensive tests.

The question is how those RFID units are connected to the rest of the world. The existing MetroCard network may or may not be adequate.

This is a move away from requiring a dedicated card for transit. PayPass is widely used in this part of the world; subway riders are much more likely to have PayPass cards than FeliCa cards. PayPass is the appropriate standard. I don’t know (or care) how many transit systems have used PayPass. (Do you think Duane Reade cared how many drug stores were using PayPass before adopting the technology?)

Andrew June 15, 2010 - 8:29 pm

Here are a few slides on this:


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