Home MetroCard A happy 20th birthday to the MetroCard

A happy 20th birthday to the MetroCard

by Benjamin Kabak

Twenty years ago, Rudy Giuliani was our mayor, Bill Clinton the president and Mike Gallego the Yankees’ starting short stop. Twenty years ago also marked the day the MetroCard made its New York City debut. On January 6, 1994, at two stations in Lower Manhattan, the MetroCard made its debut as riders at the IRT’s City Hall stop and the BMT’s Whitehall St. station could swipe in with the blue-and-yellow pieces of plastic.

Those first cards deducted $1.25 per swipe and MTA officials spoke of the ways in which this new payment system would change the fare structure throughout the city. “It’s a new era for our customers,” then-MTA Chairman Peter E. Stangl said. “It opens up the possibility for fare structures that over time will help us increase our ridership, which is why we’re in business.”

Three years later, in 1997, every station was equipped with MetroCard-ready turnstiles, and the MTA could begin offering unlimited ride cards thus realizing Stangl’s words. Those unlimited fare cards revolutionized transit and lead to a massive increase in ridership. The costs are higher today, but the bulk discount options remain a good deal for daily riders.

Over the years, the MetroCard has had its ups, downs and “please swipe again at this turnstile” moments. It took nearly 19 years for display screens to show the expiration dates for unlimited cards, and lately, both the fronts and backs of the cards have been for sale. I’ve always loved my unlimited MetroCard though through thick and thin.

In commemorating today’s anniversary, the MTA put out a brief release on the MetroCard’s two decades. “You can’t think of New York City without thinking of the MetroCard,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said. “After two decades, it still serves millions of bus and subway riders daily offering a great transportation value. Of course, we are well on our way to developing the next generation of fare payment, part of our effort to upgrade and modernize the City’s mass transit system.”

Echoing Bianco’s line, the MTA says the agency is “working on something even better,” but we still don’t know what that will be. The replacement project had foundered over the past six or seven years and seemed rudderless last February. But the MTA knows that the costs of maintaining the twenty-year old system are continuing to creep upward, and a replacement is on tap. (That too is the top of my March 19 Problem Solvers session.)

Today, we’ll tip our caps to that ubiquitous piece of plastic. Please, swipe again.

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SEAN January 6, 2014 - 2:52 pm


Just wondering if the future of the Metrocard could be found in Los Angeles’s Transit Access Pass TAP, Clipper in the Bay area, Chicago’s Ventra or Toronto’s Presto card.

Love your insight on this – thanks.

Peter Laws January 6, 2014 - 4:17 pm

Maybe, but remember that NYC is so far out of scale with the rest of the country that what works for one TA may not work for the *M*TA.

SEAN January 6, 2014 - 5:20 pm

Perhaps, but Los Angeles Metro is huge & it sprawls to the point that many suburban communities need to opperate overlapping services. These include Long Beach, Norwalk, Santa Monica amung others. Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus fleet rivals that of Nassau & Westchester. That shocked me when I found that out.

As for TAP, many suburban opperators don’t except it yet, but they will soon.

Chicago’s system maybe smaller, but is still huge in scope once you factor in Metra trains & suburban Pace busses. We just have…

3 seperate railroads
15 seperate bus providers
1 bi-state rapid transit system
And no common fare payment – wich is the problem.

AG January 6, 2014 - 9:51 pm

Santa Monica Big Blue is less than half the routes and ridership of the Westchester Bee-Line system.

SEAN January 7, 2014 - 10:27 am

Rutes, yes – fleet size, no. They are nearly the same. Ridership is upwards of 30-million per year wich is amazing for a city of that size.

AG January 7, 2014 - 1:21 pm

Not sure where you got that number… in 2007 when I recall it was less than half… so I’m sure how it could have doubled in 5 years. In any event – it doesn’t just serve Santa Monica – it serves parts of West LA.

SEAN January 7, 2014 - 4:05 pm

The number I recall was 22-million riders a year & that was in 2005 before the run up in gas prices. So it is safe to assume that ridership numbers rose since then. In adition, a large percentage of ridership comes from the campus of UCLA wich it self has been growing. Also BBB serves an expanding development called Playa Vista between LAX & Marina Del Ray.

Most of these bus opperators overlap the MTA in coverage. You could look at it as if Newark, Jersey City or Yonkers ran local busses over the existing transit network & in some sence Newark & JC do just that, but slowly the routes are being cut or being absorbed in to NJT.

AG January 7, 2014 - 1:31 pm

http://bigbluebus.com/About-BBB/About-BBB.aspx – big blue says they do 20 million… over 51 square miles of west LA (which is more dense than Westchester County) – while Bee Line is over 35 million.

Bee Line is over 32 million riders:


SEAN January 7, 2014 - 4:11 pm

When you think about it,20-million riders plus a year in a service area of only 51-square miles is quite impressive.

Tower18 January 6, 2014 - 6:45 pm

Argh let’s please stop repeating this. Why do people keep insisting New York is so inferior to these other cities? If they’re able to figure it out, why can’t we?

SEAN January 6, 2014 - 8:04 pm

Why do people keep insisting New York is so inferior to these other cities? New York the city is not, the transit technology most certainly is.

If they’re able to figure it out, why can’t we? Because there’s…

1. NJ
2. NJT & smaller bus opperators
4. NY & suburban counties
5. MTA
6. MNR
8. NICE Bus
9. Bee-Line Bus
10. Suffolk Transit
11. CT
12. CT Transit & smaller transit providers

Everyone would need to agree to a common standard to make a regional transit card work.

Tower18 January 6, 2014 - 9:30 pm

Honestly, only MTA, PATH, and NJT matter.

SEAN January 7, 2014 - 10:11 am

Seriously? You aren’t looking at the big picture.

Tower18 January 7, 2014 - 10:43 am

Your list is overcomplicating matters. MTA includes many entities, NJT includes express bus, local bus, and train. Other organizations can come on board if they wish. If they don’t, it really doesn’t matter. We don’t need to hold the whole thing up for Suffolk Transit.

You are saying we can’t do it because it’s so complicated, but it’s only that complicated if you insist on making it so. If NYCT, LIRR, MNRR, NJT, and PATH can be ready on day 1, that’s plenty, and let’s get it up and running. Others can join in successive iterations.

SEAN January 7, 2014 - 12:59 pm

You are saying we can’t do it because it’s so complicated, but it’s only that complicated if you insist on making it so.

No it is not. The point was being as comprehensive as possible & showing all the moving parts.

If NYCT, LIRR, MNRR, NJT, and PATH can be ready on day 1, that’s plenty, and let’s get it up and running. Others can join in successive iterations.

If you want to do it that way that’s fine, but Westchhester & nassau need to be in stage one since they also use Metrocard. As a footnote, there was a plan to expand Metrocard statewide & tie state transit funding to it’s exceptance. I don’t know what happened there.

Henry January 7, 2014 - 8:07 pm

Suffolk doesn’t even accept Metrocard. If we waited till they and Connecticut got on board, we’d still be using tokens.

Quite frankly, PATH, MTA, NJT, and Bee-Line are the only ones we need to wait for. (NICE will really do anything that MTA will do, since around half their ridership uses free transfers to MTA services.)

SEAN January 8, 2014 - 2:20 pm

When the replacement for the metrocard comes, the plan is to bring on the railroads as well. Therefore it will be nessessary to bring CT along since they do fund their portion of MNR along with several transit systems that feed the train.

Also remember Clipper in the bay area is valid on Caltrain along with BART, ferries& numerous bus opperators, so why not here. There’s an easy way to get Suffolk Transit on board, and that’s with holding state support until they do so. As I said before, big picture.

D in Bushwick January 6, 2014 - 4:53 pm

Do we know for a fact that the unlimited Metro Card was a direct cause for a “massive increase” in ridership?
If anything, the unlimited card does more for adding bodies between morning and evening commuting and that’s a good thing.
The unlimited card and the single-zone fare must never change. New Yorkers deserve it.

Roxie January 6, 2014 - 5:12 pm

Establishing fare zones would kill travel outside of Manhattan and further disenfranchise poor people in the outer boroughs, which is why I expect it will likely be implemented before the end of the decade.

Benjamin Kabak January 6, 2014 - 5:18 pm

I would bet honest money against fare zones any time soon. It just won’t happen for many reasons both political and economic.

SEAN January 6, 2014 - 5:43 pm

Not to sound at all sarcastic, but how much money are you willing to put on the line.

At some point zone fares maybe nessessary to generate revenue for basic upkeep, but I’m not willing to go where Roxie went in the above post.

Your thaughts Benjamin.

Michael January 6, 2014 - 9:20 pm

One aspect of the failure of congestion pricing for the roadways was the idea that a major section of Manhattan would be cordoned off (it was not just about tolls of East River Bridges), only for those paying to enter it. Folks in cars entering the zone – Manhattan from the tip to 86th Street would have to pay a toll no matter whether they used a bridge, highway or THE CITY STREETS. Electronic devices monitoring the streets and byways would ensure that folks paid those tolls. This was a plan that infuriated many borough residents.

Too many of the bought & paid for good government groups simply did not understand the revulsion at the idea of having to pay a separate tax to travel inside the core of Manhattan. It was the stark relief on a map of the glided city, putting an economic premium fortress around its precious neighborhoods, for simply traveling there. The massive negative support for this idea was just not just about the east river bridges! The idea that this would spur the use of mass transit, was never going to help an idea that was not supported by the masses.

One thing that made public transit great in NYC was the single fare – that everybody at least paid, regardless of income or distance traveled. Yes, the basic technology of a coin or a token enabled that simple idea. More than just one simple idea was enabled by the practice. That simple idea made venturing to various parts of the city affordable, as well as accessible. There was no penalty for exploring other areas of the city. Yes, plenty of folks had to pay double or triple fares (pre-Metro-Card) if they took an additional subway or bus ride (including the folks in the Rockaways). The logic behind that practice was reasonable then at that time.

There was an honest and basic simplicity to the fare structure. At one time a token cost 35 cents, and later 50 centers, and so on. How many of us transit fans would have become transit fans if it cost more & more to travel from one section of the city to another, or through one zone to another zone, simply to see or explore the different train lines?

Breaking up the city into zones for fares – brings in stark relief more of the unfairness and inequities of NYC. Breaking up NYC into zoned fares is simply not going to work. When it costs more by transit to visit the Bronx Zoo, and another zoned fare to go see the Mets, or visit Coney Island – there will be un-forseen changes in the culture of NYC.

The “One City – One Fare” plan with the Un-Limited Metro-Cards, and the transfers between the subways and buses made many kinds of trips, and plenty of trips more affordable. In addition, more trips became “do-able” – not just work trips!

Bottom Line – the basic “one fare with transfers” structure is fine – do not mess with it!


Bolwerk January 6, 2014 - 10:44 pm

Not supported by the masses? CP’s public support in opinion polls was arguably high enough to be called supermajority. Stop rewriting history.

Michael January 6, 2014 - 11:18 pm

Please do not accuse me of re-writing history. In any case, I am not debating the merits of congestion pricing, but pointing out an instance of a kind of “zoned fare for transportation” that did not go over well in NYC. I do not believe that ZONED SUBWAY FARES the topic at hand would go over well with the public.





$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Gets Nowhere
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Sheldon Silver spoke to reporters at the State Capitol in Albany about the congestion pricing plan.

Published: April 8, 2008

ALBANY — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s far-reaching plan to ease traffic in Manhattan died here on Monday in a closed conference room on the third floor of the Capitol.
Bloomberg Tactics Were Highhanded on Traffic Plan, Lawmakers Say (April 8, 2008)

Democratic members of the State Assembly held one final meeting to debate the merits of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan and found overwhelming and persistent opposition. The plan would have charged drivers $8 to enter a congestion zone in Manhattan south of 60th Street during peak hours.

Mr. Bloomberg and his supporters, including civic, labor and environmental organizations, viewed the proposal as a bold and essential step to help manage the city’s inexorable growth.

But the mayor’s plan was strongly opposed by a broad array of politicians from Queens, Brooklyn and New York’s suburbs, who viewed the proposed congestion fee as a regressive measure that overwhelmingly benefited affluent Manhattanites.

“The congestion pricing bill did not have anywhere near a majority of the Democratic conference, and will not be on the floor of the Assembly,” Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, said after the meeting.

The plan’s collapse was a severe blow to Mr. Bloomberg’s environmental agenda and political legacy. The mayor introduced his plan a year ago as the signature proposal of a 127-item program for sustainable city growth that helped raise his national profile. Without approval from Albany, the city now stands to lose about $354 million worth of federal money that would have financed the system for collecting the fee and helped to pay for new bus routes and other traffic mitigation measures.

After Mr. Silver announced the plan’s demise, a statement was released by Mary E. Peters, the federal transportation secretary, indicating that her department would now seek to distribute those funds to traffic-fighting proposals in other cities.

New York also hoped to use revenues from congestion pricing to finance billions of dollars in subway expansion and other improvements by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, money that must now come from somewhere else.

Assemblyman Mark S. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, said that in discussing the issue with his colleagues, “the word ‘elitist’ came up a number of times.” His constituents, Mr. Weprin said, almost uniformly opposed the measure, viewing it as a tax on their ability to move around their own city.

Mr. Weprin estimated that opinion among Assembly Democrats ran four to one against the plan. No formal vote was taken at the closed meeting.

Prospects for the bill returning any time soon appear dim.

It was the latest defeat for Mr. Bloomberg from Albany, which in 2005 dashed the mayor’s dreams of building a football stadium on the West Side and bringing the 2012 Olympics to New York.

The mayor has appeared increasingly frustrated with the situation in Albany in recent days and did not appear publicly after the measure’s defeat. He released an angry statement shortly after the rejection.

“It takes a special type of cowardice for elected officials to refuse to stand up and vote their conscience on an issue that has been debated, and amended significantly to resolve many outstanding issues, for more than a year,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Every New Yorker has a right to know if the person they send to Albany was for or against better transit and cleaner air.”

But even in the Republican-controlled State Senate, the plan did not receive much consideration. Out of deference to Mr. Bloomberg, who has been an ally and financial patron of Senate Republicans, the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, pushed for a floor vote on the legislation Monday afternoon. But Senate Democrats refused to take the floor, forestalling any vote.

That move followed a year’s worth of cajoling and brinkmanship between opponents and supporters of the plan, which evolved significantly — but, it turned out, not significantly enough — from the version Mr. Bloomberg proposed last April.

Supporters ultimately agreed to shrink the zone in which the fees would apply, to the area south of 60th Street in Manhattan, instead of south of 86th Street. They also added a small charge on taxicab and limousine trips through the zone, as well as a tax credit for low-income residents.

But many issues remained unresolved. Critics also objected to the elimination of a sunset provision, which would have required the plan to win approval again after three years. City officials said that such a provision would have precluded long-term bond financing for capital improvement projects.

Mr. Silver, a frequent antagonist of Mr. Bloomberg’s who in 2005 blocked the mayor’s plan to redevelop the West Side railyards, pre-empted criticism that he was personally to blame for the plan’s defeat, saying that he favored some kind of congestion proposal but that the mayor’s plan simply lacked enough support to pass. “Let me be clear: If I were making the decision alone, I might have made a different decision,” Mr. Silver said.

Ultimately, the battle lines over the plan remained almost unchanged during the yearlong debate over the project, despite multiple rounds of public hearings, reams of studies and an aggressive lobbying campaign by Mr. Bloomberg and his allies. Indeed, many opponents said they resented the pressure and threats that they said emanated from Mr. Bloomberg’s side, including hints that the mayor would back primary candidates to run against politicians who opposed congestion pricing.

The mayor’s allies recently formed a political action committee to finance those campaigns.

Those efforts, supporters and opponents agreed, illustrated the gulf between Mr. Bloomberg and lawmakers in Albany, where the mayor sometimes seemed to miscalculate how far his power and prestige could carry him.

Many Democrats in the Legislature felt that the mayor’s demeanor in private meetings was condescending. Some opponents wondered at Mr. Bloomberg’s political strategy, noting that they hardly expected to be punished by their constituents for siding with them.

“I’d be very happy running for re-election letting everybody know that I was an advocate against congestion pricing,” said Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat.

Ultimately, some supporters said privately, the same qualities that liberated Mr. Bloomberg to propose such a far-reaching plan — his independence from established power-brokers and detachment from traditional politicking — are what doomed the plan to failure.

“It doesn’t really work up here, and it didn’t help it at all,” said Assemblyman William F. Boyland, Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat who opposed the plan.

Some Assembly Democrats said that by Monday, even many of the supporters of the plan had significant reservations about it. Debate had veered from the issues of traffic and pollution, they said, to advocates emphasizing the need to finance badly needed mass transit projects. That further alienated suburban officials, whose constituents would have borne much of the cost of the fees but reaped little benefit from those projects.

Reporting was contributed by Diane Cardwell, Danny Hakim, Trymaine Lee and Jeremy W. Peters.

Benjamin Kabak January 6, 2014 - 11:21 pm

There is no need to copy and paste entire Times articles here. It raises questions of copyright law and is hard to read in a small column. A link to the piece in question would suffice.

Michael January 7, 2014 - 8:03 am

I’m sorry, I did not realize that the hypertext link would appear without a problem. Noted for future reference. Mike

Bolwerk January 7, 2014 - 10:34 am

CP went over fine for the most part, with support from the public, city council, mayor, governor, and state Senate. The only body where it didn’t do over well was the state assembly, which managed to scuttle it without a vote.

For posting inline links, try using the HTML tag:

<a href=”http://www.google.com”>Link</a>

Which becomes


AG January 7, 2014 - 12:56 pm

Yes – I recall that. Funny enough it was just announced that London is RAISING its congestion pricing fees this year. Ahhhh… NYC can’t build a full length SAS while London is busy with Crossrail. I guess it shows priorities.

Henry January 7, 2014 - 8:10 pm

Zonal fares unfairly punish outer commuters at the expense of tourists taking the train from Herald to Times Square.

If anything, the fare system should penalize people using it for short trips, since there is no space in the core but plenty of space on the outermost segments.

Charging zonal fare with buses crossing zones would then present another headache, because either you start encouraging people to pile onto expensive express buses, or you somehow start charging zonal fares on buses, which is impractical unless you require exit taps (and if you think buses are full of farebeaters now…)

Eric Brasure January 7, 2014 - 12:20 pm

“Adding bodies” is the very definition of increasing ridership…

Edward January 6, 2014 - 5:55 pm

I remember when they tested MetroCards on the Victory Blvd buses on Staten Island around 1995-96. They were the first buses in the city to use the cards, and many Staten Islanders would use them again (paying a second fare, no transfer) at the BMT Whitehall Street station. If you took the IRT at South Ferry or Bowling Green, you still needed to use tokens. At one point I would carry tokens AND a MetroCard, which was a bit confusing! Was very happy to see all the downtown subway stations accept MetroCards, and my commuting costs were halved when the free transfers (SI bus>Manhattan subway) were introduced in 1997.

BrooklynBus January 6, 2014 - 7:24 pm

A few points you didn’t mention. The debut of MetroCard was about ten years late, originally projected to start in the mid-1980s. Also, the MTA equipped all city fareboxes on its with swipers in anticipation of MetroCard, and changed its mind at the last minute, necessitating the tops of all fare boxes to be changed out. I never did learn why a swipe works on the subway, but they needed a dip for the bus.

Also, bus riders resisted in mass from switching from cash and tokens on the buses after MetroCard was introduced on them around 1995. I remember only about five percent of the passengers using MetroCards. That didn’t change until MetroCard Gold was introduced in mid1997 when bus passengers realized that only way they can get a free transfer to the subway was by using a MetroCard. They rapidly switched from cash or token to the Card.

SEAN January 6, 2014 - 8:17 pm

You forgot one more thing – when Cubic sold the MTA the Metrocard equipment, they were told NOT to buy this particular system & they didn’t listen. And it was Cubic that warned them. I mentioned this several times before on here, since I remember reading this on Cubics own site & I thaught it was kind of weird. As far as I know only NYC & Las Vegas are the only transit systems that still use slide cards from Cubic today, everyone else now uses tap cards.

pete January 7, 2014 - 2:57 am

ChicagoCard is identical to MetroCard. Both are Cubic. DC Metro and BART use the same paper farecards, an older system by Cubic.

SEAN January 7, 2014 - 10:42 am

Chicago card was an early form of the tap card similar to Smartrip in DC & both of them came with ticket formats for infrequent riders.

Tower18 January 7, 2014 - 5:47 pm

I think you’re thinking of the TransitCard, which was almost exactly the same as MetroCard, except you dipped it, instead of the swiping here in NY. TransitCard came around the same time as MetroCard, but the ChicagoCard then came in almost 10 years ago, before eventually being replaced itself by Ventra.

SEAN January 7, 2014 - 6:53 pm

If I confused the two, then I stand corrected.


It’s interesting to see the number of global transit agencies that use Cubic equipment. There transit existance dates back to 1971 & the first farecard system dates to 1979 in Pittsburgh as their site notes.

Moshe Feder January 6, 2014 - 8:59 pm

On the whole, MetroCard has been a great success for our transit system and therefore for the city as a whole. Elimination of two-fare zones for those of us outside Manhattan was a long overdue redress of a legitimate outer-borough grievance.

What I have never understood is why those who pay the full fare in cash when boarding a bus are only given a free transfer to another bus but not to the subway. That might have made a little sense in the early days, when the MTA was trying to encourage riders to switch to the card, but at this late date it’s just gross discrimination against those who can’t afford to tie up cash in a MetroCard or who are unlucky enough to discover upon boarding that their card is empty.

Stephen Smith January 6, 2014 - 11:52 pm

Reminds me: when George Haikalis was at the NYCTA doing the planning for what eventually became MetroCard, he said he pushed for proof-of-payment fares in the subway! Probably not a great idea given the NYC subway’s volume (I know [some?] German subways, as well as Budapest’s, do it, but they’re nowhere near as big), but it’s a shame it never happened for the buses or commuter rail lines.

RIch January 7, 2014 - 10:04 am

Or, if you are the Downtown/Brooklyn entrance of the 23rd Street F station last night: “Please swipe again. And again. And again” (about 15 times per customer, with crowds of at least 150 waiting for 5 turnstiles until somebody opened the emergency door and everybody traipsed through without swiping &/or ducked under the barriers in resignation and disgust).

Whilst it is good to have unlimited metrocard, as a newcomer here (i have been in NYC/USA almost exactly a year), I am amazed at how primitive and prone to failure the cards are: The number of times i either personally have to re-swipe – and yes, i have changed and used several metrocards, not just the same one) – or see it happen to other people is at least daily, and many are system fails, not simple lack of cash balance.. Then, at least once a month or so after several attempts and re-swiping, i then get the message that my card has recently been used, and thus have to wait 10mins to attempt again to gain access. I have had more problems with NYC metrocards in 1 year than all other public transport payments types all over the world in last 15 years combined (and i am a very regular traveler, have used hundreds of different systems and am a daily public transport user)

yojimbot January 7, 2014 - 12:16 pm

Here’s a pic of some early Metrocards as well as CTA and MUNI. Happy Birthday Metrocard!!!


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