Home MetroCard Debuting a universal MetroCard that falls short

Debuting a universal MetroCard that falls short

by Benjamin Kabak

Scenes from a brochure. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

Update (1:20 p.m.): I’ve left the original post below in tact, but some of the key information regarding the universality of the new time-and-money MetroCards is wrong. For the corrected update on PATH and AirTrain functionality, please see this correction.

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When the MTA’s new fares arrive in March 3, a sneaky little surcharge will arrive with them. After years of talking about it, the MTA is finally implementing a $1 fee on all new MetroCards purchased via the system’s ubiquitous vending machines. As with many things in life, though, there’s almost an upside to this fee: The MTA will be implementing universal MetroCards that can carry both time and money. Sadly, though, the cards fall short of their promise.

Let’s start first with the good news: Beginning today, MetroCards can now hold any combination of unlimited rides and a dollar value. If you want a card with 30 days and $30 on it, now you can fulfill your MetroCard dreams. The vending machines, as the above photo collage shows, will offer up the existential choice of adding more time or adding more value to your MetroCard.

In a brochure released touting the changes, the MTA mentions the $1 surcharge as the driving force behind this change. “By refilling and reusing your current MetroCard, you will avoid this additional fee” of the surcharge, the agency says. The fee will not apply to reduced-fare MetroCards, transit benefit organization customers who get their MetroCards from employers or benefit providers, new cards purchased at out-of-system vendors, EasyPayXpress customers and those buying combination railroad/MetroCard tickets. It is designed to cut down on the $10 million the MTA spends annually on MetroCards currently.

So what’s the bad news? Well, these cards are basically just storage. There’s absolutely no flexibility in the way time and money are used, and a MetroCard holder with both time and money on his or her card must use up all of the time before the money becomes accessible. For instance, let’s say I buy a 30-day card and add $15 to the card. The first swipe on this card will start the 30-day counter, and only after the 30 days and only if there is no time refill on this card will I be able to access the $15.

Regular riders of the transit system’s legs that take cash only may be wondering about the value of such cards. Express bus riders, for instance, cannot combine an unlimited ride card and a cash card. But more importantly, these new “universal” cards don’t cut down on the need for two cards for PATH riders or those relying on the AirTrain. I can’t use a card with time and money to first get to Howard Beach and then swipe in at the AirTrain. I still have to use two separate cards for these two transactions, and the same applies to MetroCard users on PATH. It’s a shockingly inefficient limitation on a twenty-year-old piece of technology.

When I first got word of the universal MetroCard, I had high hopes for the program, but unless changes are made to the programming, it’s a rather disappointing debut. Without the flexibility of using money in money-only machines while time remains on the card, the universal MetroCard is simply good for storage. I guess I’ll have one less card to carry around in my wallet, but that’s just a consolation prize.

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Frank B February 20, 2013 - 12:56 am

Ridiculous. This would have been a tremendous boon to PATH and AirTrain Riders.

Not to mention those of us who have friends who do not have their Metrocards on them; with a Cash Metrocard, you can swipe 4 times and receive 4 transfers; if a buddy has forgotten his and that last 2 train for 20 minutes is rolling into the station, you’re screwed with an unlimited ride. (True story)

It would have been a nice option. Convient. Would that be too much to ask?

Jonathan February 20, 2013 - 8:19 am

Yes, this is exactly the problem that I see. Thanks for bringing it up, with a good example too.

Ron February 20, 2013 - 10:18 am

Yeah, but I could also see the turnstile saying “Swipe Again” but it actually read the time correctly, then the second swipe using the stored money.

John February 20, 2013 - 12:59 am

The implementation of time and value on a card is not only useful for the purposes Ben describes, but pretty much the only essential purpose of combining the two methods of fare payment. What a joke.

It brings to mind this website that someone showed me the other day: http://www.hadonejob.com.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 8:21 am

The MTA is as stupid as the epic fail pictures on that website.

Michael Romero February 20, 2013 - 3:13 am

I’m wondering if this is one of those things where the programming that would have been required to allow you to use the timed passes side by side with pay-per-ride money. I agree that it would be really nice if you could make that happen (especially for stuff like the AirTrain. I’m sure PATH is good too, but I carry a Smartlink card for PATH trips) but I’m betting the vintage 1994 tech that runs the Metrocard system just can’t handle that sort of processing without major changes to how cards are processed at the turnstile. Just a hunch there.

John-2 February 20, 2013 - 8:57 am

My guess is the MTA doesn’t want to have to ‘smarten up’ either the turnstiles or the stations’ Metrocard vending machines or card readers to permit the selective dual option. Something would have to be available in each station for the rider to be able to select “cash” or “time” for each particular swipe.

In the future, with smart cards and new turnstile data readers, or with fare payments via smart phone taps, there’s no reason why you should be able to mix-‘n-match an unlimited fare credit with a cash option. But with the current early 90s technology (actually late 80s at best) it’s not just the cards, its the inability of any of the in-station card readers to adjust on the fly that’s the problem, and they don’t want to spend the $$$ to do a stopgap tech update until the smart card readers arrive.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 9:34 am

That would require you to use the money until the money runs out, or the time until the time runs out. You cannot use the 30-day and the pay-per-ride modes at the same time, on the same card.

Spencer K February 20, 2013 - 6:40 am

This is a non-issue for most PATH riders, as they use the far superior SmartLink card, which has the benefit if being both proximity based “tap” system, and is cheaper per ride.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 7:42 am

Well, that’s easy to say if they’re using RFID card technology.

digamma February 20, 2013 - 7:44 am

And heaven forbid you’d be able to use it on LIRR, Metro-North, or NJ Transit.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 8:11 am

No, the LIRR/MNR/NJT system already uses a different ticketing system because they’re all commuter rail systems.

Ant6n February 20, 2013 - 10:17 am

How’s being a commuter rail a reason for not having integrated ticketing, or at least supporting the ticket medium?

Someone February 20, 2013 - 10:19 am

When RFID fare collection is implemented on the NYCS, LIRR, MNR, and NJT, this might be possible.

Alon Levy February 20, 2013 - 7:03 pm

Would you believe that there are parts of the world where they have fully integrated fares with paper tickets?

Someone February 20, 2013 - 7:31 pm

Yes. I know.

ajedrez February 25, 2013 - 1:37 pm

It would be nice if you could go up to the ticket window or TVM, select the ticket you want, and then use the MetroCard to pay for it, instead of being forced to pay in cash or credit (I assume they accept credit/debit cards)

Joshua February 20, 2013 - 7:44 am

Michael – while it is possible the older technology is the reason behind not being able to use the money portion while you have time on the card – its a lame excuse if it is one the MTA uses.

The logic to say:
IF(daily\weekly\monthly pass is no good here)
THEN use the cash portion of the card
should not be that bad.
The no pass turnstile (airtrain, pass, etc) would already reject you;
and the yes pass turnstile (subway) already knows how to read and decrement both the pass and cash portions of the card – so in theory the tech is there.

And if it is that bad, replace the turnstiles on the airtrain! Its not a huge portion of the overall system.

My guess would be that they just did not dream out of all of the different scenarios (or if they did..someone might have said it was not worth the additional spend to get an extra benefit, when the goal here is $$$ savings for the MTA)

Someone February 20, 2013 - 8:13 am

Big deal. The MTA could redesign the cards so PATH/NYCS commuters don’t need to use two cards for two subway systems. Same thing for Airtrain JFK commuters.

BrooklynBus February 20, 2013 - 9:27 am

I don’t see why someone would even want to add money to a time based card. What would be the purpose? To avoid the surcharge? If so, why do it if the money isn’t available anyway. If some will still be required to carry two cards, there needs to be a separate design front for the time based cards so riders don’t get the two mixed up.

Jim D. February 20, 2013 - 9:27 am

The simple solution would seem to be to modify the PATH and AirTrain readers to default to the money option. I have no problem with the MTA requiring that a valid unlimited option on a card be used first on the subway and buses. I really don’t think we want passengers wasting precious seconds at the turnstile taking one extra step to swipe into the system.

Sajh February 20, 2013 - 9:36 am

So basically what the MTA is saying is, if you see a discarded Metrocard anywhere. Pick it up and store them b/c you never know when you will need a replacement card. And yes, you will need to carry two cards. One for cash and one for unlimited in the event of AirTran, Expressbus or Path usage.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 9:49 am

Actually, what the MTA is saying is that:
-you CANNOT pick up discarded cards (they will still expire)
-all new cards will have a $1 deposit fee
-all new cards will be able to carry time and money.
-these cards are not valid for PATH, Airtrain, or express bus.

Benjamin Kabak February 20, 2013 - 10:01 am

Actually, what the MTA is saying is that:
-you CANNOT pick up discarded cards (they will still expire)

Completely disagree here. If the MTA is charging $1 for every new card, you should definitely pick up non-expired discarded cards and refill them.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 10:17 am

I meant discarded cards that have been discarded because they have now expired; not the ones that have been accidentally discarded but still have value in them. What are the chances that someone will throw away a card that’s not expired?

Benjamin Kabak February 20, 2013 - 10:21 am

People discard empty, non-expired cards literally all the time.

Anthony February 20, 2013 - 11:02 am

Wait, I thought the MTA was waiving the $1 fee if you already have a damaged or expired card. What would it matter if the card is expired or not?

hal p February 20, 2013 - 10:13 am

“reduced-fair” is a good way of describing the entire panoply of fare hikes this time around. nice freudian slip.

rlb February 20, 2013 - 10:18 am

This seems like it may be a stepping stone towards peak rates. You will get the unlimited for most of the time, but between the hours of 7-9 am and 4-6 pm their going to require another 50 cents. If that’s the case, it’s a pretty clever solution.

MRB February 20, 2013 - 11:00 am

I agree – having both on one card is in a practical sense, useless – you can’t keep cash on your daily unlimited card and then give extra swipes to guests.

What you CAN do, however, is swipe and pay cash after your monthly has expired, instead of getting “insufficient fare”, mosey-ing over to the TVM and re-upping your monthly card. Basically you pay for the one ride, feel like an idiot, and then buy your monthly pass 30 minutes later. It’s a bit of a scam, since I don’t see any other situation whereby you would need both on card if you can’t select which funding source you want to use.

Theorem Ox February 20, 2013 - 12:12 pm

No thanks. After 14 years of using the Metrocard as a method of payment, this long-time passenger believes that the Metrocard is a thoroughly unrealiable piece of sh*t!

In 2012, I’ve lost a grand total of $15.75 in stored cash value over the calendar year due to Metrocard read errors on the bus and subway. In one incident, I found out that I ended up paying $11.25 for one subway ride! It was the dreaded “Swipe Card Again At This Turnstile” message. Didn’t think it was possible to deduct more than $9 at a time (the 4 PPR swipes limit).

Thought I had a good case, since I still had my receipt from refilling my card just before heading home on the previous day. Nope – MTA Customer Service replied in a little over a month saying that my claims were “unsubstantiated.”

Frankly, I’m not holding my breath on their response to my reply (send me the transaction list for the card). They’ve effectively deprived me of about two hours worth of pre-tax minimum wage from me.

I also share commenter Ron’s skepticism of potential read errors for those who maintain both a pass and cash value on the card. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if somebody ends up claiming that their cash value was mistakenly deducted while a valid pass was in place. Of course the MTA would respond that the customer’s claims are “unsubstantiated.”

Clarke February 20, 2013 - 2:07 pm

Here, I would recommending getting the Easy Pay Xpress card. You always have access to your transactions on the card. It does not, however, work for PATH or AirTrain (system reads it as unlimited, I believe).

Theorem Ox February 20, 2013 - 3:52 pm

I did consider, but was not thrilled with the idea of the MTA having such a high initial load requirement and didn’t have much confidence with MTA’s customer service should the card be stolen or otherwise malfunctions. My comfort threshold for cash value in fare media was around $20… (of course, not anymore).

As for the Unlimited Ride version, I’d rather not go through the hassle of calling the MTA every time I go on an extended trip out of state.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 2:12 pm

I’d recommend using the 7-day or 30-day unlimited, then.

Theorem Ox February 20, 2013 - 3:35 pm

Good recommendation.

I usually use a 30 day unlimited most of the year. I only revert to PPR only when the timing is awkward to start using a new pass (e.g.: 30 day pass expires three days before I’m heading out of state).

Lesson learned from last year: I’ll forego the damn bonus and minimize the cash value maintained on the card. Maybe keep enough for a round trip or something.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 2:13 pm

Also, when the MTA gets smartcard technology, they will not be able to charge you $11.25 to enter the subway. The fare will be deducted when you exit.

Theorem Ox February 20, 2013 - 3:45 pm

Unless the MTA fundamentally changes its fare structure after introduction of the new system, I’m not too sure about that.

At home, I currently have a Smartlink (for use with PATH), CharlieCard (for use with MBTA in the Boston area) and Clipper (for use with various agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area).

Except for Clipper where some agencies (BART and Caltrain) do make the final deduction upon system exit, I believe all agencies of the deduct cash balance first.

So far, I’ve never had any problems with extra deductions with those type of cards. (Particularly impressed with Clipper which handled the passes and cash value like a champ).

I’m willing to give the MTA another chance once they follow suit, but my patience has wore thin with the magnetic Metrocards.

Charles February 20, 2013 - 3:58 pm

Why would the fare be deducted upon exiting the system rather than entering? I’m confused.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 4:02 pm

When you enter, the system keeps track of where you entered. Then when you exit, you pay the appropriate fare depending on how far you have traveled. This technology is used in many metro systems like the London Underground and Tokyo Metro/Toei Subway.

Charles February 20, 2013 - 4:10 pm

OK. So it’s not really “when the MTA gets smartcard technology” but rather “when the MTA implements zone-based fares.” They’re not the same. You can have smartcard technology without zone-based fares.

Has the MTA given any indication of changing their fare structure? That’s a pretty big leap.

Someone February 20, 2013 - 4:54 pm

The two usually come in hand-in-hand.

Alon Levy February 21, 2013 - 7:31 pm

That’s not really true. Zonal or distance-based pricing exists almost universally in metro areas with integrated ticketing, regardless of the form of fare payment. A flat-fare center-city subway can also exist independently of the form of fare payment – for example, the Paris Metro has flat fares with a choice between paper tickets and smartcards, and Los Angeles has a smartcard with flat fare.

someone February 21, 2013 - 9:49 pm

Oh, OK. Got it.

Bolwerk February 24, 2013 - 2:05 pm

No. Zones are one of those inexplicable objects of masturbation* with some transit advocates in NYC. No matter the technical/political impracticalities, some people just think we need zones and evidence or reason won’t convince them it’s wasted effort at best.

* cf., BRT, bike lanes fix everything, connect the dots games with the subway map, monorails.

Gary Reilly February 20, 2013 - 12:52 pm

I’m really struggling to think of a situation where this would be useful to me.

SEAN February 20, 2013 - 1:49 pm

I don’t see the problem as Smartrip cards function the exact same way. Now if you make the arguement that fare cards should be able to be programed to opperate in a duel mode i,e cash at the right time & a pass when it is called for, then I see the issue. but as it is, most cards function in one mode at a time.

Veronica July 2, 2013 - 8:10 am

If you tell anyone in the 5 boroughs that they’ll have to hold on to their MetroCard and swipe again upon exiting, all hell will break loose. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I hate traveling in the DC metro system for that reason.


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