Home MetroCard An ode to ‘Please Swipe Again’

An ode to ‘Please Swipe Again’

by Benjamin Kabak

An all too familiar message no one likes to see.

Earlier this week, when we learned that subway turnstiles have started to show the expiration dates for unlimited ride MetroCards, I thought of it as a parting gift from Cubic. The MTA has repeatedly stressed plans to phase out MetroCards by 2015, and straphangers had been clamoring for such information on the turnstile screens for upwards of 15 years. So for the next two or three years, we’ll enjoy a piece of information that’s been available on buses nearly since the beginning.

While having an expiration date reminder in front of us sure will be convenient, it got me thinking of the other pearls of wisdom subway turnstiles display on a regular basis. Tops among those are a message to keep swiping. “Please Swipe Again.” We’ve all been done that path, sometimes on the receiving end of the message and sometimes in a growing line as an out-of-towner or just an unlucky sap can’t quite swipe fast or slow enough for the card reader to pick up the bits of information it needs to process the transaction. It’s an annoying and tedious part of life with MetroCards.

It’s also been a part of the post-token world we live in since the beginning. Take a ride into subway news past with me. Our first stop is in 1998 as New Yorkers are still adjusting to these strange things called MetroCards. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone alleges that the MTA’s new system is seriously flawed. Nine out of ten straphangers report problems with their MetroCards, he says. It’s a number that seemingly defies logic, but I’d wager a guess that every single one of you reading this has, at one point or another, gotten that dreaded “Please swipe again” message.

At the time, Vallone railed against the tendency of a MetroCard reader to double-charge riders. That “Please swipe again” message often meant that the turnstile had deducted the fare but not yet properly waved the passenger through. Moving to another turnstile would cause a second fare to be culled from that card. “The transit authority needs to do much more to educate people about the Metrocard,” Vallone said. “Riders should be warned that they can be bilked out of an extra fare and told how to avoid it.”

In response, we are now told to “Please swipe again at this turnstile” when applicable, but the problems didn’t stop there. A year later, politicians and subway riders were again bemoaning the same problem. In a City Council survey from 1999, over 60 percent of riders said they had to swipe again after receiving an error message. The card readers weren’t going to get any better with age.

Over the years, the same complaints kept creeping up. A 2005 story in The Times noted that service calls to turnstiles had been holding steady at around 2000 per month. The most frequent culprit were dirty heads that couldn’t read all four of the MetroCard’s data points, thus delaying customers trying to get to their trains. Even then, seven years ago, as Cubic worked to replace the aging card readers, the MTA said it would “study” smart card technology but was “nowhere close to making the leap.” We’re still waiting.

These days, swipe failures are a fact of life. The Wall Street Journal tried to teach its readers how to swipe properly in a 2010 article, and a 2011 report from the MTA found that 20 percent of all swipes were misread. Straphangers have simply come to accept a certain number of error messages, and regular commuters pick up on the prickly turnstiles and card readers at their local stations. We adapt because we have to.

Within the next few years, MetroCards will go the way of tokens, and with them, hopefully, the never-ending exaction to please swipe again. The contactless fare card should cure these swipe-related woes. We won’t suffer through people who don’t dip properly on the buses, and it’s much harder to mess up a tap than it is to mis-swipe. That’s one element of the MetroCard no one will miss.

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Vincent August 10, 2012 - 1:24 am

The time “Please Swipe Again” bothers me is when I have less than 2 fares on my MetroCard; and for what I recall reading are for security reasons, I’m required to swipe again. I always seem to forget I’m down to the last fare, and thus I’m stuck bumping into the turnstile before swiping a second time.

R. Graham August 10, 2012 - 2:17 am

Now that, in my opinion, is the true story! A turnstile bar to the hip. We’ve all taken one at one time or another. Especially us cocky confident swipers on the long “Go” swipe streak. Nothing will take the confidence out of your swipe more than that bar to the hip. And the harder you take the bar, the more confidence gets thrown out of your swipe for a long time.

I used to be so good even in the bar reader era I could swipe once at a turnstile that was so dirty it had long lines of riders all taking multiple swipes until finally reading. I used to be so good I could do the running swipe when attempting to catch the in station train. The long reach and sure swipe all while in full stride jog/run. I’m older and heavier now and those days are long gone for the more patient me. But man were they fun, but those bars to the hip were killers! They shook me up so much that I developed the defensive stop. If I swiped and was in full walk stride and didn’t feel the turnstile click I would go full brakes almost leaning over the bar just to avoid the hip check. Still catch myself doing that today during some mornings.

But a more dangerous message? The Insufficient Fare message. The priceless look of people who understand perfect English but seemingly don’t know the meaning of the two words swiping repeatedly. Never understood that at all. I almost always wanted the machine to throw in big type letters filling the screen: “Refill the Card *****!” That message is most dangerous to us Unlimited Monthly card users who don’t keep track of when the expiration date is coming all while running for that train on the morning after the card expired. Hip check!!!!

Roxie August 10, 2012 - 12:57 pm

Can’t wait for The Future(tm) where I can just tap my wallet, or my iPhone 9 or my SuperNexus 5G or whatever and pay for a ride. Definitely won’t miss that old message.

Doctor Memory August 16, 2012 - 1:23 am

Don’t worry. The proximity-based card reading systems of The Future (such as) have replaced the dreaded old “please swipe again” message with the all-new and shiny “please tag again” and the even more exciting “please see agent” message.

(I could go on at some length about the hilarious ongoing failures of SF’s Clippercard system… oh wait, I have. Beware of what you wish for.)

DF August 10, 2012 - 1:17 pm

Is there any logic to having a system which, by design, will charge you whenever X happens but will only let you through if both X and Y happen? It seems like something that is not only obviously wrong, but something you have to really make an effort to design that badly, but maybe this is just my ignorance speaking. Do other card-reader systems have the same issue?

Michael K August 10, 2012 - 5:17 pm

When you swipe your cash value Metrocard, the system does three things before unlocking the turnstile.

1) Read the balance from your card.
2) Write the new balance onto your card.
3) Re-read the new balance to verify it’s written correctly.

If 1 and 2 succeed but 3 fails, you get “Please swipe again at this turnstile.” It’s either that or take the risk that the write failed, which could leave you with an unusable card.

Bart August 10, 2012 - 1:20 pm

My biggest pet peeve is that the sound that’s played with a successful swipe is the same sound that’s played with an unsuccessful swipe. So someone will see a person in front of them go through and hear that ding, then they have a bad swipe and keep going because they hear the same ding. If they have computers that can show a different message if someone has a bad swipe, they should be able to play a different sound.

I work by the Canal Street E station and I try to avoid it because at my entrance there is one turnstile and always a line of tourists who keep trying to go through after bad swipes. Always.

Al D August 10, 2012 - 2:41 pm

INSUFFICIENT FARE. That message is my personal favorite as it applies to all who try to enter the system by standing, that is blocking, a turnstile while they swipe upwards of 5 cards, fumbling between and betwixt them, wondering if they will hit the turnstile jackpot. Yes, that’s it, those one-swipe bandits!

Alex August 10, 2012 - 2:47 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the even more dreaded “Just Used” message. In my earlier days in New York (early-mid 2000s) that was a common occurrence. The first “Please swipe again” was no big deal. The second made me nervous. On the 3rd swipe, the addition of “…at this turnstile” almost always foretold the coming of that horrible message that would force me to trod shamefully to the token booth to ask to be let in through the gate. I haven’t gotten that message in a long time. And thank God, what with so few entrances having a live person staffed at them anymore.

bill b August 10, 2012 - 7:42 pm

I always have problems with the metro card, I get nervous when I swipe the card , will it take ,will it display a bad message. I never had problems with the old tokens.
Some stations never clean the metro card turnstile like the flushing ave station in bklyn I think the token clerk is afraid to come out of his booth.
The display is too small when you get old your eyesight cannot read that small display.
The new New Yorkers at my job sometimes show me the right way to swipe , but I guess never get the hang of it.
I am just a token guy,

doug m August 14, 2012 - 3:07 pm

Very helpful article. I am one of those who is classed as a bridge and tunnel crowd, but am still officially an out of towner. I use the metrocard that I have several unlimited ride cards, frequently for multiple fares when I have guests. I have always felt like a pure tourist when I got the dreaded “please swipe again” This article make me one of the 20%ers. Don’t feel so bad anymore, thanks.

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