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.