Home MetroCard MetroCard: A problem of proprietary technology

MetroCard: A problem of proprietary technology

by Benjamin Kabak

MetroCard error messages seem to be an increasingly common phenomenon. (Photo by flickr user Triborough)

One day in the not-so-distant future, the MetroCard will die an ignoble death. Instead of an extraneous piece of plastic with a sensitive magnetic stripe, New Yorkers will wave their smart chip-enabled credit cards at a reader to pass through a swipeless entry point. It will speed of the city’s buses and eliminate the need for those annoying tics and error messages so prevalent at subway entrances.

For now, though, the MetroCard, outdated for years and clunky in its uniqueness, lives on. In his subway column today, Daily News writer Pete Donohue looks at the state MetroCard Vending Machines and finds maintenance and service lacking. As the system and technology grows older, it is, unsurprisingly, breaking down more frequently. He writes:

Transit workers have been called to repair the machines 234,170 times this year through September – approximately 870 times a day, Metropolitan Transportation Authority data show. This year, each defect went uncorrected on average 6.18 hours, up from 5.08 hours two years ago…

There are 1,648 MetroCard machines. Even with a defect, a machine regularly will still work to some degree. It might not accept dollar bills but will process a debit or credit card. It might sell MetroCards but not single-ride tickets…

You can thank those shifty-looking guys standing by the turnstiles for some of your MetroCard woes. The aptly named “swipers” swipe people through turnstiles for less than the $2.25 fare. They jam different machine components, like the bill-handling unit, to increase demand for their services. Still, even these ubiquitous scammers aren’t prolific enough to cause an average 26,000 repairs a month. Only 30% of repairs are attributed to tampering, the data show.

The machines are relatively old, and definitely cranky. They were installed about a decade ago and never replaced. They are at the edge of their “useful life,” an MTA spokesman said.

Donohue notes that Transit employees 124 workers who can service these machines. Based on these numbers, each worker must make approximately seven service calls per day to machines that could be anywhere in the system. Keeping the MVMs operating at top shape then is a Sisyphean task.

Meanwhile, as the MVMs break down, I’ve noticed an increasing number of error messages on the turnstiles themselves. “Please Swipe Again” has never been so abundant. Perhaps that’s because of the decreasing number of MTA station agents turnstile cleaners who are around to remove build-up from the magnetic card readers. Perhaps these error messages are due to the “useful life” of the technology. Most likely, the problems are a combination of the two.

Ultimately, the end-of-life problems that we’re seeing with the MetroCard technology is indicative of the issues with proprietary technology. Back in 2000, the Village Voice ran an exposé on Cubic and its multi-million-dollar relationship with the MTA, and the alt weekly highlighted the Closed Loop problem. Many of the problems mentioned in the article have since been addressed, but the MTA is still working with a clunky technology designed in the early 1990s that hasn’t achieved widespread adoption outside of the city. It will inevitably break down, and if the failure happens before the MTA’s next-generation fare technology is in place, it will be both costly and disastrous to maintain this aging infrastructure.

Those in charge at the MTA are well aware of this problem. In my conversations with the MTA officials, I’ve heard about the need to bring the contactless fare payment system online sooner rather than later. Still, we’re a few years away from that reality, and the MetroCard machines and card readers must last until then. Frequent breakdowns will just become a fact of life as the technology nears its 20th anniversary.

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Scott E November 22, 2010 - 12:19 pm

PATH has been using magnetic-stripe fare reading for some time now, too (granted, it’s a smaller and generally cleaner system, and they now have a contactless payment system as well). The difference with their turnstiles is that you insert the card through a slot, it gets sucked through the machine and reappears somewhere else, where you retrieve the card and pass through. Yet I have never heard of the “Please swipe again” (or equivalent) message there. Do they have these issues?

And, with respect to the MVMs requiring service, some appear to be simply a matter of replenishing the card stock. I wouldn’t call that a sign of faulty or dated technology any more than the office soda vending machine running out of diet Coke.

Kid Twist November 22, 2010 - 1:23 pm

The PATH turnstiles don’t need you to swipe again because they have electro-mechanical equipment inside that routes the farecard past the reader and makes sure the stripe is always aligned properly. In the subway, you do that.

petey November 22, 2010 - 12:27 pm

” “Please Swipe Again” has never been so abundant.”

this is also my experience.
i also don’t like “see agent”. in my experience the reason i have to see the agent would fit easily on the read-out (like ‘expired’). it also wouldn’t scare me, like being sent to the principal for a reason you don’t know.

Sharon November 22, 2010 - 11:19 pm

A little purel on the edge of your card is all that is needed to clean the slot. I used to do it all the time. Put it on the non magnetic side.

We need to move to contact less ASAP. used the pilot project on the 6 and it’s so fast

Farro November 22, 2010 - 12:28 pm

What I want to know about this planned contactless system: What about people without credit or debit cards?

SEAN November 22, 2010 - 12:47 pm

From what I understand is if you don’t have a paypass or paywave enabled card, you will be able to purchase a transit card with the same functionality. Once purchased, you KEEP them & recharge them as needed with an e-purse or a pass of some sourt.

A good example of this is Seattle’s ORCA card or DC’s SMARTRIP card.

Sharon November 22, 2010 - 11:24 pm

Almost all your smart phones and cell phones will have chips to pay fares and other stuff within the year. It will be standard on most phones by the end of 2011. The cell phone carriers, apple, google, pay pal are all rolling out products. If you don’t have a credit card or cell phone you can buy refill cards at stores the same way you do for prepaid phone cards. In fact you can use you balance on your prepaid card to pay your fare. It will be my guess that the MVM’s in some form will remain as a refill machine without the main part that fails, the metrocard reader/encoder

Brandon November 22, 2010 - 12:38 pm

Farry, im guessing (hoping?) that people who dont have a contactless credit cards will be able to get a dedicated card from the MTA for this use. Honestly, i think id rather do that anyway.

They should have had the magnetic cards that get sucked through in the first place, like every system instituted since the 60s. (DC Metro, BART, Montreal, the list goes on)

Sharon November 22, 2010 - 11:25 pm

The reason they don’t is that it is easy to jam

BrooklynBus November 22, 2010 - 1:22 pm

So ten years is near the end of their useful life? Did they know this ten years ago when they were put in and forecast replacement costs in their planning? Why is it that the mechanical turnstiles lasted for 50 years? Why is it that the more sophisticated something gets the shorter its life expectancy becomes?

Sharon November 23, 2010 - 10:43 pm

Because technology changes so fast today. Nothing more elegant than the old mechanical turn styles. They were far faster to use than metro card but in the end they were too labor intensive. In a day when labor costs are so high at the mta they had to go.

The mta should get smart and out of the fare collection business and sign a contract with mastercard or visa to provide end to end service. They will go for this because it will give them a leg up in the contact less payment systems on cell phones. Apple, Google, Verizon/ATT are looking to unseat mastercard and visa and steal their transaction fees at all retail

With the MTA on board it will give them a dedicated head start. The will collect a fee on all transactions in the system. For instance if a amex card is used at a turn style, mastercard will collect a transaction fee.

Farro November 22, 2010 - 1:28 pm

The one I never understood was “Please Swipe again at this turnstile.” I only ever got it when I had a student metrocard, and if I then did as the machine demanded, I wouldn’t be let in because that error message used up one of my rides (there’s a time limit between rides on student metrocards).

BrooklynBus November 22, 2010 - 8:23 pm

The purpose of the “Please Swipe again at this turnstile” message is so you shouldn’t be charged an additional ride. IF you go to another turnstile, you will be charged.

Farro November 22, 2010 - 11:48 pm

But I would swipe it at that same turnstile and my ride was already deducted…

BrooklynBus November 30, 2010 - 12:55 pm

Are you saying you were charged twice for the same ride at the same turnstile?

Nabe News: November 22 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle November 22, 2010 - 1:30 pm

[…] outdated technology that is the MetroCard, and looking forward to a different future payment method [Second Avenue […]

Marsha November 22, 2010 - 2:27 pm

The MetroCard machines at 96th Street will not accept our credit cards, which is very frustrating because that is our home stop. Complaints to the person in the booth get a shrug. We now have to buy/refill our MetroCards at the station of exit instead of entry.

Sharon November 22, 2010 - 11:27 pm

Put a little purel on your mastercard and clean the swipe reader. It will work better. Station agents neglect the machines it gives more reason to end there jobs.

Just sign up for ezpay express already. No need to go to a machine ever.

Andrew November 25, 2010 - 12:02 am

I don’t know which of the three 96th Street stations you mean, but they all have shared northbound/southbound entrances, so I don’t see how buying on exit is any different from buying on entry – you’re using the same machines. (I have a feeling I’m misunderstanding you somehow.)

In any case, there isn’t much the agent can do. Try calling or writing the MTA.

BrooklynBus November 30, 2010 - 12:58 pm

I guess he just complaining about the inconvenience of not being able to refill at his home station.

Sounds like a problem with the machines. Don’t see why the agent can’t take the complaint and pass along the information. I thought they are supposed to be customer service agents anyway. He shouldn’t have to call or write the MTA.

ant6n November 22, 2010 - 2:44 pm

Just don’t expect the contactless cards to be faster. The contactless OPUS cards in Montreal are much slower than the metro cards in New York.

Sharon November 23, 2010 - 10:44 pm

I agree when i used them but the contact less trail on the Lex is quicker than the system in Montreal. I was in Montreal over the summer

Alon Levy November 22, 2010 - 3:36 pm

This is what happens when you base these things on pork to defense contractors. Cubic’s proprietary smartcard sucks, too, to the point that Chicago wants to scrap it and go for something compatible with Oyster and PayPass.

BrooklynBus November 22, 2010 - 8:26 pm

A little off-topic, but a friend of mine was on a bus and someone swiped his credit card to pay his fare. The driver then had to wait until the machine spit out a receipt for the passenger to sign. Has anyone ever heard of this?

matt November 23, 2010 - 1:00 am

i’m not sure how many other systems have this, but in houston for the light rail and bus services we have the “Q card” where you simply tap the back of a card on this electronic pad….i’ve done it like 20 times and its been flawless 20 times. i’m a native new yorker and i know i will get an error message at least 5 out of 20 original swipes for a MTA subway swipe.

Richard December 23, 2011 - 1:04 am

The MTA shoud just covert the same metrocard to a smartcard with a similar look except the magnetic spripe would be coverted to a embedelled com. chip thats read by a sensor & the MVM can have the sensor like the PATH’s MVM.


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