Home MetroCard A rudderless project to replace the outdated MetroCard

A rudderless project to replace the outdated MetroCard

by Benjamin Kabak

Let’s think about the MetroCard not as an individualized piece of plastic you have to swipe through a turnstile for entry into the subway. Let’s instead think about it as a computer system from the early 1990s that relies upon four magnetic contact points and a flimsy piece of prickly plastic. Are you still using your Macintosh LC? What about Windows 3? Are you surprised then, as I often am, that this piece of transportation technology still works, let alone reasonably well?

Of course, the MetroCard, a closed system from 20 years ago, doesn’t work on its own. The MTA spends millions of dollars each year maintaining and attempting to upgrade this clunky system, and the MTA spends millions of dollars each year purchasing reams of new MetroCards. It is, evidently, an inefficient technology leftover from twenty years ago, and the MTA has tried to replace it.

They’ve failed spectacularly. The agency has spent nearly a decade attempting to identify a potential replacement even as other transit agencies manage to adapt smartcard-based, contactless, RFID solutions to the fare payment problem. At first, it seemed as though a credit/debit card-based solution would arrive by 2015, but by the end of January, we learned any plans to replace the MetroCards are unformed and three to five years away. With steady turnover atop the MTA and no champion, a MetroCard replacement program seems to be foundering.

So what’s the problem here? Why can’t the MTA just do what they’ve done in D.C, Boston, London and countless other cities? Well, the MTA wants to be a leader in the field while cutting down on fare-collection costs and finding a technology that will work for the next two decades and beyond, but it doesn’t know what that collection is. Time and again, we’ve seen how the MTA isn’t particularly good at technology, and although the agency has shown improvement in certain areas over the years, the MetroCard is starting to stick out like a sore thumb.

The Times today weighs in on the issue as Matt Flegenheimer tried to get to the bottom of the MetroCard mess. He doesn’t hold back:

Agency officials now concede that the MetroCard, which the authority had once hoped to phase out as early as 2012, is not going anywhere anytime soon, despite the rising cost of maintaining the system. And no one is quite sure what will replace it.

At an authority committee meeting last month, officials suggested that a single unfortunate bet had disrupted the project: While other transit agencies invested in contactless payment systems that they would construct themselves, the authority had hoped to evade the burden and cost of building its own. So the agency planned to replace MetroCards with riders’ own contactless bank cards, embedded with computer chips to facilitate fare payment without a swipe. But banks did not issue the cards widely enough in recent years, officials said, scuttling a plan to introduce a new system as early as 2012….

The authority said a new system would be put into effect within three to five years. Any further delay could prove perilous; officials have said that the current MetroCard system cannot be maintained beyond 2019. Michael DeVitto, the vice president and program executive for fare payment programs at New York City Transit, said there was “no linkage” between the estimates for the new system and the expected breakdown of the MetroCard. He said he could not “envision any scenario” in which the authority would spend more money to extend the MetroCard’s stay.

Mr. DeVitto said the authority still expected to avoid building its own system, and would rely instead on a third-party device. But it is unclear what form that might take. Options the authority has mentioned recently, besides a smart card, include a key fob or a cellphone payment system. The authority will also need to accommodate riders without access to bank cards or cellphones. “We’re still working that out,” Mr. DeVitto said.

“We’re still working it out” has been the party line through countless pilot programs, restructurings of the new fare payment technology group and numerous MTA heads. Meanwhile, even Philadelphia where SPETA could set records for its ineptitude and still uses tokens, is moving forward with a contactless system. They even have a timeline!

The bottom line is that the MTA is stuck. They’re racing against time and money but are basically starting out at the beginning. Most of us have gone through six or seven computers since Windows 3 and our Mac LCs, but the MTA has theirs powering the entire fare payment system. It’s expensive to run, expensive to maintain and obsolete. But tomorrow morning, I’ll still swipe through, hoping not to be told to please swipe again.

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D.R. Graham February 25, 2013 - 12:08 am

I completely understand the point that there has to be a way to accommodate riders who still don’t have debit or credit cards, but to me the best way to go about handling that is and has always been to rely on local neighborhood retailers and check cashing places as what is currently common place for utilities. Take you NFC smart card to a local check cashing place so replenishment can take place.

The key is not to remain stagnant when it comes to new technology but to ram it through.

al February 25, 2013 - 1:15 pm

One option is non bank debit cards. Some are issued from check cashing places.

Another is to piggyback on PATH Smartlink and be done with it.

Finally, send out a RFP to credit and debit card issuers along with PayPal and NFC tech companies. The best deal wins the contract.

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 5:40 pm

One option is non bank debit cards. Some are issued from check cashing places.

Yay, 10% fees for everything!

Someone February 25, 2013 - 9:37 pm

Yay, 10% fees for everything!


Oh, you’re not kidding.

al February 26, 2013 - 1:09 pm

If the MTA can get (and lock in) a deal with significantly lower fare payment overhead cost, then it is a good deal for MTA. The current $0.15 for every $1.00 is a starting point to compare options. $0.10/$1.00 is not great, but its an improvement. It can be lower as MTA guarantees billions of dollars in cash flow every year, and exposure to subway users who otherwise don’t use these non-bank cards.

And what of the other 2? What is the revenue collection cost for the Port Authority and SmartLink? IF its ~5%, then we need seriously consider it.

Alon Levy February 26, 2013 - 8:08 pm

It’s unclear what goes into the $0.15 figure, but I imagine it includes commuter rail ticket punchers, turnstile maintenance, back-end transaction costs, and other things you couldn’t unload just by privatizing it.

For reference, the vigorish charged by the MTR for the use of Octopus by outside vendors is 1%.

Ming Li July 5, 2013 - 10:42 pm

Well man the United States is really far behind in Hong Kong they have the octopus card is much better than this

Ian February 26, 2013 - 3:13 pm

Actually, the PATH Smartlink card WAS the Metrocard’s future. It was originally developed as group project intended to replace or serve alongside payment systems for all the region’s transit, similar to London’s Oyster Card.

For some reason, the MTA decided that even though they had proven technology and convinced the Port Authority to invest in the Smartlink machines, that they would go in a different direction and test Mastcard and Visa payment systems (I suspect there was actually just a well funded lobbying effort to use the private bank cards rather than the existing Smartlink system).

It was originally intended that at this point, Smartlink would be used to pay for NJTransit, MTA and Port Authority systems.

J B February 25, 2013 - 12:43 am

Their obstinacy about this just seems inexplicable to me. They haven’t managed to find a better system yet, so why not just do what works for everyone? Why is it so important that they be a leader in the field?

D.R. Graham February 25, 2013 - 1:21 am

Because being a leader in the field means the max amount of savings. It is a must that not only are savings found but a new standard is set so that millions of dollars can continue to be saved 20 years into the future.

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 5:41 am

Being a leader also means incurring all the development costs and pain yourself.

D.R. Graham February 25, 2013 - 8:21 am

If done right then there will be no concerns about development costs because a Visa or a MasterCard type of company might develop the idea themselves.

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 3:32 pm

If the MTA can’t do it right itself, why do you think it can avoid being scammed by Visa and MasterCard? “Oh, we did the development ourselves, but you should put in $80 million to retrofit the turnstiles. Oh, we said $80 million? We meant $400 million. Sorry, you know how IT projects are. And we’re going to sue you for schedule overruns too.”

J B Taipei February 25, 2013 - 7:07 am

What Alon said, and given the MTA’s record, the chances of the MTA’s success seem slim. They’ve been at it for so long with little to show, it should be time to just give up and go with what they know works rather than just keep hoping for a very unlikely breakthrough.

D.R. Graham February 25, 2013 - 1:25 am

I also failed to mention that whatever the system ends up being it has to work for Subways/Buses, Express Buses, SIR/Buses, LIRR, Metro-North and anything else rolling under the MTA umbrella. Not to mention PATH uses Metro-Cards as well as AirTrain so this needs to be something that can be seamless cross agency while still holding the standard fare and unlimited options, but replenished and purchased outside of MTA property. The concept of the MVM must die upon the introduction of the new fare payment system.

J B Taipei February 25, 2013 - 7:44 am

Why must it work for all of those? Again, why not just see what other cities do? NYC is hardly the only city in the world with bus and commuter trains as well as a subway system.
There is no point to making this a requirement if it doesn’t exist elsewhere. The MTA is definitely not in a position to invent something on its own. Saying it’s necessary won’t make it happen.

D.R. Graham February 25, 2013 - 8:26 am

I didn’t say the the necessity makes it happen but this is the concept Jay Walder was going for before he departed. He was right. The fact of the matter is that the MTA has involvement with all of the branches mentioned. Even the PA since Metro-Cards are used on both PATH and AirTrain. Everything else falls under the umbrella of the MTA so it is imperative to look beyond doing what other cities are doing and move to a standard that is going to save billions of dollars into the future. The authority needs to get out of the business of selling fare card and moves that stuff over to newsstands, delis, corner stores, check cashing places and other outside vendors.

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 3:33 pm

“It is imperative to look beyond what other cities are doing” is the same kind of thinking that’s made New Yorkers accept $1.7 billion per km subways.

J B Taipei February 25, 2013 - 10:33 pm

Why is it imperative? How can we talk about looking beyond other cities when we can’t even simply catch up to them? And more importantly, how can we even be sure there is a standard that will save billions and if there is that the MTA is capable of setting it, given the MTA’s overall incompetence?
Getting out of the business of selling fare cards just seems like a poor idea to me. It’s more convenient to buy in the station, and whatever savings are gained from not selling cards may well be outweighed by that inconvenience.

Miles Bader February 25, 2013 - 8:44 am

But other cities do have cross-agency/cross-mode smart cards…

MTA doesn’t have to invent anything, all they have to do is choose who to copy. No innovation required.

[Dunno what’s up with the GP poster saying “The MVM must die.” You can sell cards in lots of places, vending machines being a rather convenient one for many people…]

R.Steven February 25, 2013 - 10:23 am

The PATH actually has its own system (they just also accept metro-cards), SMARTLINK. I’m pretty sure its RFID, and it has a pretty good discount for using it, $.55 less per ride ~25% off. It does have the option to auto refill so i haven’t actually filled it up at a machine or even taken it out of my wallet in a few years

Sic Transit Philadelphia February 25, 2013 - 12:56 am

Not only is SEPTA rolling out a contactless system (there are even fuzzy phonecam pictures floating around of bus fareboxes modified for the closed alpha testing, already in service), it’s an open system. It’s meant to work with farecards, NFC phones, and bank cards, all right out of the box on Day 1. And if MTA can get over its “not invented here” mentality, it can let SEPTA work out the bugs over the next year and a half, then adopt the system wholesale.

Roxie Mika February 25, 2013 - 1:54 am

Well, here’s hoping. I think in a few years the prevalence of phones with NFC as well as the cheapening price of the technology (meaning making it cheaper to sell simple branded prepaid cards with an NFC chip in them) will mean the MTA will be willing to adopt an already-done system like SEPTA’s. I can imagine it now: the Northeast TransitPass. Works on NYCT, MNR, LIRR, NJT, SEPTA, PATH, NICE Bus… haha, who am I kidding. what a pipe dream

Someone February 25, 2013 - 7:51 am

What the hell is that red thing?

Anyway, even if one could pay a fare using NFC phones, one of the most popular brands of phones (the iPhone) will not work.

And even if it did work- actually, it wouldn’t work because people would be basically virtually jumping NYC Subway turnstiles using their phones.

D.R. Graham February 25, 2013 - 8:30 am

Yet just because the iPhone does not carry NFC chips doesn’t mean million of other phones don’t like Nokia, Windows Phone 8, the new Blackberry phones and of course the ones carry most of the chips now, Android phones. All of those different brand of phones together outnumber all iPhones rolling around out there.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2013 - 8:33 am

Doesn’t matter. MTA is clearly not going to pick a solution that isn’t universal or close to it. The trick is to avoid providing any sort of MTA-driven fare media.

Alex B. February 25, 2013 - 9:26 am

But they can’t be bothered to set up some sort of system that can transition to an open system?

Set up their own RFID card now, ensure the readers in the turnstiles are able to shift to accept other methods of NFC later on, and begin the transition now.

Seems like a huge case of not-invented-here, combined with a dose of letting perfect be the enemy of good.

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 3:39 pm

Okay, I’ve changed my mind – if it locks out the iPhone, I’m for it.

Someone February 25, 2013 - 8:47 am

What Ben said, and also because the MTA wants the technology to be as inclusive as possible, not relegated to Blackberries or Androids.

John-2 February 25, 2013 - 8:42 am

I’m sure the nature of the MTA’s system and its 24/7/365 service adds to the problem (i.e. – it’s 2 a.m. and you’re a person without a credit/debt card and you’re at Wilson Avenue on the L or Bay Parkway on the F. How do you legally get on the train?). You can say “They don’t. Jump the turnstile or walk to the next station“, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a lawsuit or 10 in the works if the MTA decided any or all of their stations will no longer accept cash as legal tender either within or directly adjacent to the station on a 24/7/365 basis.

It may end up that the agency will have to come up some sort of EFT option that still leaves room for some type of privatized single-fare entry system at each station, where an outside operator would handle the system and be in charge of dealing with the cash and transferring the funds over to the MTA.

BBnet3000 February 25, 2013 - 9:13 am

Why is the MTA so desperate to get rid of any fare machines in the stations? Is this done anywhere else? I would have thought that significantly reducing their use would be enough, and having one card machine would still be fine.

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 10:00 am

Are you surprised then, as I often am, that this piece of transportation technology still works, let alone reasonably well?

Not at all. It’s only consumer PC implementations that are not built to not last. The focus is on raw computing power for applications and gaming, and reliability is secondary. Industrial equipment damn well better be designed to work well and last; as such, it’s the oldest technologies that are proven. The tricky part with POS/ATM/TVM implementations isn’t so much getting good software, it’s getting hardware that won’t break and might have to live with a lot of environmental and user abuse – again, something that’s been doing it for 20 years is often a safe bet if you just need to do transactions. The time to get rid of them is when parts get hard to find.

FWIW, even consumer operating systems of that era were already pretty capable, at least DOS and Mac OS 7.x (not so much Windows 3) for what they were. Besides UNIX (and later OS/2 and Windows NT), probably nothing back then was a good multitasker, but they could do one thing at a time really well. And, needless to say, DOS and OS/2 installations from that time period are actually all over the place, especially in things like POS devices and ATMs. Mac OS 7.x only left the scene so completely because it was a exclusively a consumer OS that didn’t even make sense for industrial use. DOS arguably was industrial to begin with, hence the addition of Windows 2.x/3.x (and, uh, 4.x, or Windows 95 to Me) to make it consumer-friendly*; notably, we don’t have these around much anymore either, but DOS is still chugging away behind the scenes. Meanwhile, NT† tried to be industrial, but took a decade to mature enough. Linux and the BSDs were in their infancy.‡

* The upside to not having a GUI is there is less that can break. M$ seems to have caught onto this again, and started releasing server OSes with the option not to have a GUI – well, sorta anyway.

† In fact, isn’t the MTA using NT or Windows 2000? M$ is retiring all support for 2000 this year, I think. :-\

‡ They ended up working so well that Apple dumped MacOS 7/8/9 and adopted BSD as the base for Mac OS X. Perhaps they would have gone with Linux, but they didn’t seem to like its license terms.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2013 - 10:08 am

To be honest, my framing isn’t the best. Consumer-facing technologies aren’t built to last. But there are a good number of components involved in the MetroCard system that rely on consumer as opposed to infrastructure computer pieces.

And the fact remains that fare collection is unnecessarily expensive and will continue to get more so over the next half a decade.

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 12:06 pm

If there are, it’s either because they’re the same components or because they were/are being cheap. Besides, there may not be anything very wrong with that either. The environment is probably not that hostile, so they really just need reliability.

I don’t know too much about industrial implementations myself, but a good portion of the extra expense in the production equipment I do work with is fault testing memory (RAM, HDDs). But, when I procure a server or something, I tend to buy near the cutting edge in the hope it will last 5 years or so. MTA can buy older, proven components, but needs them to last a decade or more.

I think the major technical problem with MTA fare collection, as currently implemented, is the front end, not the back end. Between somewhat pricy reams of plastic and readers wearing out, I’m sure it’s maintenance-intensive. There are at least five readers involved in MC sales and use, and at least two of them are mechanical (reading an old card and reading cash – maybe reading change as well). The ones that maybe aren’t mechanical, swiping and credit card readers, are doubtlessly still prone to wear.

AMM February 25, 2013 - 10:10 am

Let’s instead think about [MetroCard] as a computer system from the early 1990s that relies upon four magnetic contact points and a flimsy piece of prickly plastic. Are you still using your Macintosh LC? What about Windows 3?

While I agree that MetroCard is crappy, I don’t agree with the comparison with PCs.

The quality and efficiency of PC hardware and software is abysmal. A lot of the “evolution” of PCs is a process of getting people to buy new hardware and software in the hopes that it won’t be as crappy as the old. But of course, it never is, because it’s not in the interests of the industry for PCs to ever work well — if they did, then people wouldn’t replace them every year or so.

There’s nothing wrong with sticking with 1990’s technology (or 1890’s technology), if it does the job. The problem with MetroCard is that it doesn’t really do the job and never did.

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 12:36 pm

That’s not necessarily true. PC components can be as reliable as anything, and the MTA seems to be using them effectively enough. The major problem with PCs is the major manufacturers all use the shittiest components to keep prices low. Maybe one of the few things actually clever about Apple is that they mastered admitting to their built-in obsolescence. Sure, the traditional PC industry just never really needed its products to last long. But obsolescence usually came before system failure. Maybe what is different nowadays is that obsolescence is taking longer. A 5-year-old PC is perfectly functional useful outside of games and really intense media work.

And I don’t really see PC software as so abysmal these days either, at least based on objective criteria. Despite its flaws, mainly in security, XP worked so well that it was only dethroned as the most widely used PC OS last year – probably mostly because of attrition, rather than any improvement Windows 7 offers. Vista was stable but quirky. Needless to say, *BSD or Linux on a PC can probably be every bit the workhorse that something like Solaris is. Beneath the clunky GUI, Mac OS X is a BSD variant. And even M$ seems to be at a point where reboots only need to happen every few months. :-p

Someone February 25, 2013 - 1:04 pm

Windows and Linux are well-built in that their respective OSs only need major updates every few years. Mac OSX needs constant updates.

For comparison, I have had a Windows XP computer and a MacBook running OSX, both for 6 years. I haven’t had to update the XP computer yet, but I’ve had to update the MacBook more than 3 times.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2013 - 1:09 pm

There’s a difference between “need to” and “had to.”

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 2:59 pm

Huh? They all need constant updates. Besides new features, new hardware is constantly coming out, new bugs are constantly being found, and especially important newly found security holes are being closed. People may overplay MacOS’s resilience, but its certainly not worse than Windows in that respect.

(Mind you, Windows 8 isn’t a particularly major update. It’s a major cosmetic change.)

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 8:30 pm

That’s a separate issue though. I got an extra GB of memory a few years ago without replacing anything else. With the extra memory, Starcraft 2 can run on my computer for a full hour before crashing.

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 11:11 pm

I ragequit SC in 1999 or so. But it sounds like Blizzard hasn’t changed much.

AMM February 26, 2013 - 6:55 am

The big problem with “obsolescence” in PCs is that the cycle is too fast to get stuff to actually work reliably and usefully. Nobody actually gets the bugs out of the old models because long before they would be able to find all the bugs (let alone fix them), they’ve stopped supporting it and brought out a newer models with new bugs.

And “obsolescence” isn’t driven by the need to get something that works. It’s driven mainly by social pressure (who wants to be seen in a 1990’s car? who wants to admit to having a 5-year-old PC?) and by the vendors’ refusal to support anything but the latest model, so you can’t get parts for 5-year-old PCs or bug fixes for Windows NT. (Yes, I know, newer PCs can do tasks that older ones wouldn’t, but if those tasks are the reason you buy a PC, you wouldn’t have had the old one in the first place.)

One thing I’ve noticed with “progress” in PCs is that, because of software bloat and featuritis, the newer ones actually take longer to do basic tasks than the old MS-DOS machines. (My company once sent me to a programming course where the teacher imparted the received wisdom that we shouldn’t worry about efficiency because modern computers were so fast.)

Again, I’m not saying that the MetroCard system doesn’t need to be replaced. But it should be replaced because (a) it isn’t doing the job that it’s supposed to do or (b) there are other systems on the market that do the same job, but more cheaply and reliably, not because the hardware uses technology that the tech press likes to call “obsolete.”

Bolwerk February 26, 2013 - 11:31 am

As I said before, I think the nature of “obsolescence” has changed somewhat.

There may be vendor-specific problems, but those are not problems inherent to PCs. Windows NT, of course, had its last major release in 1996 or 1997, so I think it’s reasonable that consumers can’t get bug fixes anymore. M$ keeps support alive for ten years,* per official policy; I think that’s reasonable for end users and most enterprises.

I can see support being a problem for hardware. Different vendors may have different hardware warranties, but they rarely seem to support them more than a year or two; Apple seems to support the hardware/software bundle for a few years. If you want better, you pretty much need to pay for a “workstation” (using the term loosely) with tested/vetted parts.

All that said, how common are vendor hardware bugs these days? I hear about specific problems with, say, laptop batteries or occasionally cutting edge graphics cards, but by and large PC hardware itself seem fairly mature nowadays.

I agree with you about the MetroCard system. It actually appears quite reliable to me, for what it is. Of course, it runs on very old, proven PC technology. :-p

* NT 4.x and lower is a special case where the OS was so inherently flawed it shouldn’t have been allowed to keep support. M$ was rather tyrannical about this, as I recall, but they weren’t kidding that NT was beyond salvaging. 2000 quietly died after 10 years, and I guess 2003 Server is up this year.

(Yes, I know, newer PCs can do tasks that older ones wouldn’t, but if those tasks are the reason you buy a PC, you wouldn’t have had the old one in the first place.)

Not sure I agree with that line of reasoning. People often want to extend the features they have available, rather than merely give up old features.

Phantom February 25, 2013 - 10:29 am

I think that the MetroCard was a quantum leap over what came before. It still works fine.

It is still simpler and better than the fancy-pants Oyster Card .

This sounds like a manufactured crisis.

I’m very open to new technologies, so long as they are simple.

And a big NO to any pay by cellphone system!

Phil February 25, 2013 - 12:54 pm

Take it from a native New Yorker who now lives in London, Oyster is incredible in the sheer volume of information it can process, from being able to combine unlimited (Travelcard) and pay-as-you-go within the same trip to differentiating between TfL and National Rail fares to determining the shortest and least-expensive trip possible.

While the New York area doesn’t have the same complexities as London, it is appalling that we can’t have at least an RFID system. I don’t want to pay with a credit card or mobile phone at the time of entry into the system, but would like a smart card that works on the subway, PATH, buses and commuter rail.

Someone February 25, 2013 - 1:34 pm

Take it from a New Yorker who frequently travels to London, Oyster Card sucks because all the fare zones require you to tap your card twice- once to enter and once to exit the system. This sucks especially for commuters on the Metropolitan Line traveling all the way from Amersham.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2013 - 1:35 pm

So the fare zone system sucks, not the Oyster card. You’re conflating two things here.

Someone February 25, 2013 - 3:02 pm

Correction: fare zones suck.

Chris C February 25, 2013 - 2:17 pm

It’s hardly a major hardship to ‘touch in and touch out’ especially as doing so means you are charged the correct fare!

Someone February 25, 2013 - 3:03 pm

And many New Yorkers don’t like to be charged when they “touch out”!

Chris C February 25, 2013 - 4:38 pm

Well if you don’t touch out you get charged a standard fare – which will be more than the actual fare if you have touched out.

I know I prefer to be charged the lowest possible fare but if you don’t TFL will thank you for the extra income.

Someone February 25, 2013 - 7:26 pm

I know. Anyway, so what is this “standard fare”? I’ve never only “touched in”, so I don’t know what that standard fare is like.

Chris C February 26, 2013 - 8:37 am

Sorry it’s a ‘maximum’ fare not a standard fare and it it as high as £ 8.30 per single journey if you touch in but don’t touch out.

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 4:37 pm

I don’t see a way around that “problem” if you have more than two zones, at least not without partially negating the reason for the zones.

Also, zones make perfect sense. They may not work in New York, but they are a good idea in principle.

Phantom February 25, 2013 - 2:43 pm

It is not possible to contemplate ” least expensive trip ” and London Underground in the same conversation. The base fare is about $7 for a journey of one stop! Oyster mitigates this to a lesser gouge but a gouge it remains.

Chris C February 25, 2013 - 4:47 pm

That is only if you pay cash.

Cash fare for zone 1 = £ 4.50
Oyster PAYGO = £ 2.10

Anyone who uses the tube in central London to only go one stop needs their head examining as it’s usually quicker to walk!

Someone February 25, 2013 - 7:28 pm

I do that in London all the time. It’s pointless, but fun.

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 4:54 pm

That’s a feature of the Underground, not of smartcards. Paris also has a smartcard with flat Metro fare that’s lower than the NYCT fare in every category (single-ride, pay-per-ride, monthly pass).

Larry Littlefield February 25, 2013 - 11:21 am

The worst case scenario is for the MTA to hire a contractor to build it’s own, unique, MTA-only system. We’re talking about 10 years, $5 billion, no result.

The MTA needs to wait until there is something out there it can just buy.

When the new system arrives, it ought to allow fare control on commuter rail systems, cutting conductor costs, and quick entry into buses. These would be quantum leaps. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Meanwhile, I’ve never had a problem with the Metrocard.

George February 25, 2013 - 11:26 am

Lousy journalism by NYT as always. What is it about the year 2019 that beyond it the Metrocard “cannot be maintained?” Why did not one of these so-called “journalists” ask a follow-up question. And shame on Ben for not pointing this out or explaining it.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2013 - 11:28 am

It is, by and large, explained in this post from late January which I linked to above. The short answer is that by 2019, the cost of maintaining the Metrocard system (including buying replacement parts and paying services fees) will be far too high.

George February 25, 2013 - 3:12 pm

That doesn’t really answer the question. Why 2019 and why “too high”? What happens if by 2019 there is no replacement? Do they go back to tokens or just keep soldiering on with the Metrocard? Surely the Metrocard machines will continue to work into 2020 if need be? Or am I missing something?

Alon Levy February 25, 2013 - 5:06 pm

Sorry, but no cigar. What is the cost of maintaining the system today, what will it be in 2019, and what will it be in (say) 2022? New Yorkers need to be informed about tradeoffs, not scared about arbitrary benchmarks and deadlines.

Bolwerk February 25, 2013 - 7:55 pm

I didn’t know what Ben was talking about, but now I’m curious. Playing off Alon’s comment: what happens in (or by) 2019? Is some critical component expected to be discontinued?

Someone February 25, 2013 - 12:46 pm

Rising costs and the rarity of parts for the MetroCard will make the card too high to maintain by 2019.

Matt February 25, 2013 - 12:39 pm

They are moving at a slow pace to replace the MetroCard, while the technology is moving at a lightning pace.

Seems about par for the course for the MTA.

Someone February 25, 2013 - 12:48 pm

Also seems fitting that the MetroCard was implemented only 20 years after it was supposed to come out (in the early 1980s).

Someone February 25, 2013 - 12:43 pm

Why can’t the MTA just do what they’ve done in D.C, Boston, London and countless other cities?…

The authority said a new system would be put into effect within three to five years. Any further delay could prove perilous; officials have said that the current MetroCard system cannot be maintained beyond 2019. Michael DeVitto, the vice president and program executive for fare payment programs at New York City Transit, said there was “no linkage” between the estimates for the new system and the expected breakdown of the MetroCard. He said he could not “envision any scenario” in which the authority would spend more money to extend the MetroCard’s stay.

Amazing. The MTA decides to do a pilot project, succeeds, and then decides to delay it for 10 years because they just aren’t competent enough.

If someone in the MTA had even half a brain, they could install the RFID/NFC card readers while simultaneously keeping the MetroCard readers.

Matt February 25, 2013 - 1:02 pm

Credit card or gift card looking pass that you can load via the internet and never expires. Tap at stations and go through turnstyle, done.

SEAN February 25, 2013 - 3:05 pm

Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, DC, Boston, Chicago, Twin Cities, Seattle, Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Toronto, Montreal have smartcard payment systems & the largest combined transit system in north America has… something that’s been outdated for a decade or more.

Christopher February 25, 2013 - 5:59 pm

I thought SF was bad! They had at least 3 pilot programs for RFID cards before the final one was released. But those tests go all the way back into the 1990s. It still took 13-14 years or so. But like the system in DC, the idea was to create a single payment system for many different agencies — BART, SFMuni, Golden Gate Transit, AC Transit, Samtrans, etc. Linking buses, commuter rail and light rail into one program. There was disagreement too about who would lead the project and which technology they would use.

But they got it done.

This really can’t be that difficult. Or shouldn’t be. Chicago rolled out there’s relatively quickly. And DC took there’s into the suburban bus network fairly quickly as well.

NYC with a large population of immigrants, can’t be counted on to have everyone have a bank account. My own bank, Citi, makes it quite a hurdle to get RFID card. Anytime I’ve had to have mine replace because of a security breach, I have to go through a multistep process which includes first getting the regular ATM card. And then getting the RFID card. That won’t work if it is my subway card too.

Andrew Smith February 25, 2013 - 6:05 pm

I can’t quite fathom how the MTA ever thought it could build a system that relied entirely on credit cards and had no specialized MTA card.

No matter how prevalent such things became, you could never rely on everyone having such a thing. The same will always be true of smart phones.

SEAN February 25, 2013 - 8:00 pm

Trimet is in the process of moble payment by smartphone, but may also join ORCA at some point as they don’t want to continue to waist money on printed tickets.

Larry Greenfield January 7, 2014 - 11:14 am

The MTA never had that thought. Quite the contrary, its plans include non-banked customers.

Art V February 25, 2013 - 9:50 pm

Ben, you have to ask the right questions of the MTA. I worked with the MTA on their pilot with PATH in 2010, before Walder came in and co-opted the program, put his own “expert” in place to lead the effort, and proceeded to get nothing done. His expert, Amy Linden, had no relevant experience and the MTA lost 3 years. Lhota took Linden out and gave the project back to Transit just before he left. They’re now picking up the pieces and moving forward in a smart way. Oh sure, MTA can put in place a system like London or Washington, but it would cost them about $1 billion and those cities are getting rid of those systems and moving to what the MTA is now trying to do. Dig a little deeper Ben.

Rational Plan February 26, 2013 - 5:36 am

London is finding the movement away from Oyster hard. TFL wants lower transaction costs, but it turns out that the bank systems are just a little bit slower than Oyster. Also it’s harder to deal with low bank balances in a system with distance based fares.

From the consumer end, there is the preference of keeping a separate card with a positive balance on it, so they can pay to get to work. Compared to the realities of peoples bank accounts. Then there are people only entitled to only basic banking facilities because they are not credit worthy.

At the moment TFL seem to be marketing the new system towards the occasional bus user. While I’m sure they’ll work out some of the problems, I doubt there visions of cutting their fare collection costs bt 80% will materialise. People like the Oyster card too much.

Art V February 26, 2013 - 8:31 am

Right, that’s why the MTA is now going with more of a hybrid system, building a system that will allow riders to pay with a smartcard or smartphone if they want, but still offering other ways for riders to pay that don’t rely on a banking arrangement — makes some sense. The MTA gets to off-load some costs related to MetroCard production and distribution, including those related to all those vending machines, and lays foundation for coming wave of EMV cards, NFC phones, and other devices. I use my phone to pay for lots of things because it’s convenient for me, why not my subway fare?

Alon Levy February 26, 2013 - 8:11 pm

That’s the worst of both worlds, really. Stations still need TVMs, maintenance is still needed, etc. There are ways to reduce the number of TVMs required per stations, like large unlimited monthly discounts, but those were invented not in New York, so the MTA won’t implement them.

Art V February 27, 2013 - 3:42 pm

I agree that the number of TVMs required should be able to go down, along with related costs. They certainly wouldn’t need as many as they have now if enough people moved to paying with their phones or contactless bankcards. Large unlimited monthly discounts ARE part of MTA’s fare policy. I buy one every month, but instead of going to a TVM, I would love to sign up for it on my phone and have it topped up each month automatically, just like my EZ Pass.

Alon Levy February 28, 2013 - 9:47 pm

The breakeven point for an unlimited monthly is about to go up to 48 rides a month with the upcoming fare hike. In Berlin the figure is ~36. In Tokyo, where season passes are station-to-station rather than zonal, it’s 30.

Pathfinder March 5, 2013 - 10:08 am

I lived in Seoul for a bit and they have a system called T Money. Seoul has a similar subway system to DC’s Metro where fares are based on the distance traveled. Anyway, their system, in my opinion is flawless. You can use T Money everywhere including all mass transit, taxis, and even in convenience stores like 7-11. You can recharge the card in subway stations or convenience stores. It’s amazing how far a T Money card can get you.

Buses are where it’s best used. I’ve sat on a bus counting the seconds it takes for each passenger to dip their MetroCard. In Seoul, you just tap your card when you get on and then tap it again as you exit and takes less than half a second (you can also tap the card before the next stop so you don’t waste time).

Also, I say T Money card but they come in many different forms. You can get it as a cell phone charm so you don’t have to keep taking the card out of your wallet.

Anyway, I’m not sure which technology they use but the MTA should also look at Seoul. To me, it seems to work and given that the NYC subway and bus doesn’t charge on a distance basis, it could be even easier to implement than Seoul’s system. It sure would be nice if we could use it in cabs too…


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