Imagine, if you will, the computer you owned in 1993. Perhaps it was a Macintosh Quadra 660AV. For over $2000, you could get a blazin’ fast 25-MHz with 8 MB of RAM and a 230 MB hard drive. Perhaps it was a seven-pound laptop with an 80-MB hard drive or perhaps it was something else from Apple’s cutting-edge 1993 catalog. Whatever it was, that machine has long since gone to meet its maker. If you’re like most people, in fact, you’ve probably gone through four or five computers over the past 19 years.
The MTA meanwhile is still working off of that early 1990s computer. Every time we buy our Metrocards or swipe through the turnstile, we are using that computer system purchased in 1993. In reality, it’s even older, with the underlying technology dating from the 1980s. It’s end though isn’t as near as we’d like to think.
For the better part of seven years, the MTA has engaged in various pilots and initiatives to find a replacement for the Metrocard. As various transit agencies the world over have adapted smart cards, a 2006 pilot picked up again in 2010 examined a contactless system that used similar chips found in credit or debit cards. After the most recent pilot, the MTA unveiled its plans for an E-ZPass for transit in mid-2011, and Joe Lhota affirmed his commitment to the project in early 2012.
Since that statement in 2012 and really since 2011, the future of the Metrocard replacement is anything but clear, and late last week, Dana Rubinstein wondered why we’re still stuck with the antiquated, swipe-based technology. In a statement to Capital New York, the MTA remained a bit vague about the whole thing. “Yes, we are still working on it, always have been,” Adam Lisberg, said to Rubinstein. “But, no I don’t have a date for you.”
Rubinstein runs through the litany of arguments in favor of a next-gen solution: The Metrocard costs far too much to maintain; fare collection costs are through the roof; there’s no interoperability across transit systems as a new card would bring; swiping takes too long; etc., etc., etc. Meanwhile, even as the MTA’s BusTime installations allow for an open-payment system, the MTA’s progress has been slow.
Time, though, could force the agency’s hand. As Bill Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA noted, twenty years might just be too long a time for us to continue to rely on the Metrocard. “The MetroCard system is reaching the end of its useful life,” he said. “You’ve got to replace it with something.”
The problem with technology is that it all eventually becomes obsolete. Maintenance costs grow too high and compatibility declines. With the Metrocard pushing 20 in New York, its time has come, but when will something replace it? Based on the MTA’s technological adoption rates — bad for countdown clocks, good for BusTime, bad for CBTC — even if the agency had a plan in place today, we’re still a few years away from anything concrete, and no plan exists.
So much like we often do, we’ll wait. The MTA is going to spend tens of millions of dollars on an intercom system for the subway as the next-gen fare payment system inches slowly forward. One of those technologies will have a real impact on the MTA and its riders while the other will feature soothing blue lights. That seems to say it all.