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Walder on the death of the MetroCard

by Benjamin Kabak

A swipeless, credit card-based fare payment system could be in our subway-riding future.

Since taking his spot atop the MTA hierarchy, Jay Walder has overseen a push to bring 21st Century transit technology into a system that has long been resistant to modernization. It was that drive that led Gov. David Paterson to appoint Walder to the authority’s top spot, and while many headline-generating projects — the MetroCard replacement program, the countdown clocks — have been in the works for a few years, Walder has seen them move from concept to reality.

In a few years, we could be mourning the death of the MetroCard as transit agencies around the world look to move toward an international fare payment standard. For the past six months ending on Tuesday, the MTA conducted a pilot program with Mastercard’s PayPass and Visa’s payWave technologies. In the final segment of my interview with him, Walder discussed the future of fare payment technologies and the eventual end of the swipe.

Second Ave. Sagas: Improving the fare technology has been a major push of yours over the last year. Where do things stand now? People ask me all the time about improving bus loading times, getting rid of MetroCards, what the next-generation fare payments are going to look like. How soon do you see that technology coming online and what will it look like?

It may well be that the single most demonstrative benefit of a new fare collection system would be on the buses.

Jay Walder: I’m glad you raised bus loading times because it may well be that the single most demonstrative benefit of a new fare collection system would be on the buses. The loading times are horrific on buses, and it’s due, in a large extent, to the fare collection system. The difference is that a MetroCard can take several seconds to dip and an Oyster Card in London is 200 miliseconds. We’re talking about a fundamental shift if we’re able to do it.

The good news out of the pilot program that we’ve had running along the Lexington Ave. line and eight connecting bus routes and express buses is that the system has technologically proven to be satisfactory and has met the objectives that we set out to achieve. It operates off of a standard payments technological platform which I think is beneficial to us going forward. There are some wrinkles that are exactly the sort of thing you would get in a pilot process so better to be doing it in a pilot than otherwise.

The pilot will end at the end of this month, and that’s important because the history of some of the technology pieces is that we did a pilot to get to the next pilot and then we did the next pilot to get to the pilot after that. The point of the pilot ending is that we are concentrating on moving out into the production phase of getting this done, and I think you will see contracts early-to-mid next year that will be moving this forward for the subway and bus system. They will be done in a way that can and should work with the Port Authority and New Jersey Transit. So we can potentially break down the barrier of the Hudson River that way. Also, we’re moving forward with some tests on how we can incorporate some of this into the commuter rail environment as well so that we might think of changing our fare collection process there.

Second Ave. Sagas: Do you anticipate that it will look pretty similar to the Pay Pass system as it’s been set up for the trial?

Walder: There are two parts of it. The actual technology of how this looks will be pretty similar. It might be slightly different, but again we’re trying to stay with standard technology. We’re not trying to build something that’s a custom fit. The second part is that there are elements of what we need to do that are not the norm of what Pay Pass does and we need to find ways to be able to do that as well.

You’ve also seen, if you look at some of what we’re doing on bridges and tunnels right now, we’ve entered into a pilot program there with Visa at a number of stores across the metropolitan region that may well be a model for how we might use the retail environment to refill cards as well. We’re looking at a whole range of things that are involved in that. I think you’ll see us moving to production phase next year.

One of the things we have to work out is the degree to which we do this to a parallel, sort of a side-by-side to the MetroCard or do the degree to which we really do this and have it implemented in a wider range of places but don’t really look to turn it on until we know we can take away the MetroCard. We’re trying to figure that out right now.

Second Ave. Sagas: When will this come online? Is there a year?

Walder: I’m staying away from giving you a year for the moment because we really need to take all of the results of the pilot into account. We need to develop firm plans for the way we’re going to roll this out, and I’m a little worried about being a hostage to fortune unless I give our people time to look at that.

But the direction of travel is very clear, the benefits are very clear. It will be something that is simpler for customers and provides more flexibility in the way we utilize our fare structures. I expect a lot more flexibility in the way that you may be able to get cards, reload cards, and do anything like that, including using the Internet in much different ways in which we do right now. We’ll be using the retail environment in much better ways than we’re able to do it right now. We’ll be potentially moving much more of the payments process away from the MTA and into the payments industry which may be a beneficial thing for us to do. Finally, I think it provides a degree of service, customer service, that people will appreciate. I think anybody who uses a cross-town bus will immediately appreciate it.

This wraps up my interview with Jay Walder. In only 30 minutes, he and I discussed many topics, and hopefully, I’ll be able to sit down with him again in the near future to probe some issues that wasn’t able to cover. In case you missed it, in Part I, I looked at the MTA’s fiscal state; in Part II, we talked about labor relations and alternate revenue sources; and in Part III, I quizzed Walder on the Second Ave. Subway and various other construction plans.

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Alon Levy December 2, 2010 - 3:09 am

Why didn’t you bring up Octopus and ask about electronic money?

Benjamin Kabak December 2, 2010 - 8:59 am

Didn’t have time. I got this question in when we were already past the 30 minutes, and Walder had another appointment. It’s on the list for next time.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines December 2, 2010 - 9:02 am

[…] Jay Walder on the MTA’s Next-Gen Fare Payment System (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

John December 2, 2010 - 9:16 am

I’d be interested to hear Walder expand on the logistics of how the system is going to work interns of occasional and/or out-of-town users of the subway and people without credit/debt cards. It would seem like some sort of infrastructure will have to be put in place to allow those groups subway access, via some sort of continuation of payment machines in the stations, since it’s doubtful the MTA could get away with what some of the new toll roads around the nation are doing, telling drivers you can only access certain high-volume exits after hours unless you have some sort of EZ Pass equivalent (subways would be entry instead of exit, but the problem could be the same – no debt/credit card with an electronic chip, no access to low-volume stations during off-hours).

Dan Berkman December 2, 2010 - 10:27 am

In Boston, they have stored value paper tickets that you can buy that go into the fare gates and pop out, just like in London. Now that I have a Charlie Card-their name for the payment card-whenever I go up to Boston, I take that, but before it came in the mail, I just used a paper ticket that was easy to purchase at the same machines that let you load up your plastic payment card. I don’t know if you can buy a weekly or monthly pass without a real plastic card though?

John December 2, 2010 - 11:10 am

That’s kind of what I’m wondering — can the MTA get away with creating a system of all electronic transfers, where no cash is handled in-station and management of the payments is done by the credit card companies?

I just can’t see that happening without a ton of lawsuits from people demanding to have access to the system without using smart credit/debt cards. But if you have to maintain machines and personnel at each station 24/7/365 to serve those customers, you’re going to lose a lot of the cost savings a wholly-electronic payment system would allow.

Bruce December 2, 2010 - 12:18 pm

I’d be happy to see any hindrance to cutting more staff in subway stations for safety reasons. Especially considering the MTA’s record of operating security cameras.

Benjamin Kabak December 2, 2010 - 12:20 pm

Now that a non-technophobe is in charge, the cameras are working fine. I realize that doesn’t fit the narrative, but it’s the truth.

Marcus December 2, 2010 - 4:54 pm

You can buy monthly passes with any accepted form of payment (ie. Credit, debit or cash).

The other thing that Boston does that’s someone different than other cities is they give out the Charlie Cards for free, often leaving stacks of them around stations for people to pick up. In London and elsewhere you have to pay a deposit.

sharon December 5, 2010 - 8:05 pm

The number of people who fall into the group that does not have a debit/credit card or a cell phone will be far smaller than you might think. He did mention that they would sell cards at retail outlets similar to prepaid phone cards and those cards could be refilled over the internet.

Seniors and the disabled already have special cards and that would continue. It would serve the mta’s best interest to partner with employers to get as many people as possible on tax free transit savings accounts. This would further offload the number of people needing to refill their cards at retail outlets and allow the mta to raise the fare and push the cost onto the federal government

paulb December 2, 2010 - 10:31 am

Walder’s only got a thousand things to do, not enough money to do them, an undisciplined and unhelpful state legislature, mischievous media, and a riding (and paying) public that doesn’t trust him or his agency (sometimes maybe justified distrust but often not), has little respect for his work force, and mostly, if they could afford to, would avoid using his product in the first place by driving, taking taxis, or living somewhere else.

But he gets to play with the one of the biggest train sets anywhere. What boy wouldn’t want the job?

Jonathan December 2, 2010 - 10:44 am

My building’s laundry room just went to stored-value cards from quarters. Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if the same system could be used for laundry and transit, so that I could check my farecard balance on the way out the door, or add more fare money when I got back home?

Alon Levy December 2, 2010 - 1:49 pm

If the MTA came up with its own Octopus/Suica system and licensed it as electronic money, then chances are your building’s laundry would piggyback on it instead of issuing its own cards.

Larry Littlefield December 2, 2010 - 10:45 am

The big quality of service benefit would be on the buses, but the big cost benefit would be on commuter rail.

I wonder if the MTA would go with a combination of electronic payment and an honor system — random checks to see people paid with steep fines if they didn’t, rather than checking every passenger. And if they’d still be required by contract to have all those conductors even so.

SEAN December 2, 2010 - 11:24 am

That’s what CalTrain does in the bay area. Before you board the train you “tap on” & when you leave the train you “tap off.” Conductors cary card readers to check for fare payment.

The same card is used on MUNI, BART, AC Transit & is comeing to SamTrams & San Jose’s VTA shortly.

Alon Levy December 2, 2010 - 1:47 pm

Caltrain still has conductors, which means it hasn’t fully thought this system through.

Alon Levy December 2, 2010 - 1:48 pm

In Switzerland and a bunch of other Central European countries, they have POP on commuter rail using just paper tickets.

sharon December 5, 2010 - 8:09 pm

The union would never go to it but I think Walder has it on his radar. The problem with LIRR and MNRR is that they are under stupid outdated federal rail laws. They may need a federal waiver to get it done. With Oboma the socialist in power, forget about it. Oboma the environmentalist fought the us Post Office from cutting mail delivery back from 6 days to 5 days. it would have saved tons of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the air. The Union was against the loss of job positions as no layoffs were to take place.

Andrew December 5, 2010 - 10:11 pm

Who’s Oboma?

BrooklynBus December 2, 2010 - 11:09 am

The horrific bus loading times on Manhattan crosstown routes Walder refers to is due to the MTA’s decision to operate over-crowded two-door articulated buses that take five minutes to load and unload at each corner. A short trip from 6th Avenue to 12th Avenue takes 30 minutes without traffic when the buses are crowded. The MTA causes some of the problems it complains about themselves.

sharon December 5, 2010 - 8:12 pm

Bus load times were better before metrocard. The B36 at sheepshead bay station takes nearly 5 min to unload and reload. It took a minute or two less prior to metro card. The articulated buses need on street fare control. they make no sense without it

Andrew December 5, 2010 - 10:07 pm

Articulated buses certainly exacerbate the problem, but the problem is pretty serious on lots of busy lines that don’t run articulated buses.

Son of Spam December 2, 2010 - 12:27 pm

Ben, thank you for sharing this interview. Very insightful, and it solidifies the thought that Walder is ultimately the best person for this job at this point in time.

I wish the MTA would do more of this sort of thing on a mainstream level and stop being such a punching bag for the politicians in Albany, the press and the public.

Farro December 2, 2010 - 4:12 pm

It is *extremely* important that those without debit or credit cards be able to enter the system–just for starters, think of all the young people who use the subway…

Brandon December 2, 2010 - 5:36 pm

I would hope they would have dedicated smart cards as another option. None of my cards have a smart chip. I’m also not sure id want to use a credit card for this purpose anyway.

sharon December 5, 2010 - 8:13 pm

Your credit card company will issue one if you asked. Some even have little keychain sized ones. You are not responsible for any charges if the card got stolen so it is far safer than using current metrocards that if you loose it you lost your money

Andrew December 5, 2010 - 10:10 pm

Many banks don’t offer smartcards, although I assume they’ll be a lot more widespread by 2014.

Obviously, there will be an option (probably dedicated smartcards) for people without smartcard credit cards, and for people without credit cards at all, and for people who just don’t want to use their credit cards for transit.

myki December 3, 2010 - 4:21 am

Sensible to stick with “off the shelf” smartcards. In Melbourne, Australia, a custom smartcard system (myki) is in the process of being rolled out, and it’s suffered substantial cost overruns, delays, scope reduction and poor user acceptance and is still not functioning as intended.
It *might* turn out to be great, but is the pain of creating a new system worth it? Only time will tell, but at present, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed.

Urban Omnibus » The Omnibus Roundup – Trams, Ferries, Subways, Weeksville & the Queen of the Pop-up Plaza November 14, 2012 - 10:43 am

[…] financial state, labor relations, the status of the much discussed Second Avenue line, and the potential death of the MetroCard. Walder recounts the difficulties in finding funding for New York’s costly subway system and […]


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