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For now, though, the MetroCard, outdated for years and clunky in its uniqueness, lives on.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.