Home Subway History Remembering the token

Remembering the token

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s hard to believe, on one side of the coin or the other, that the MetroCard as we know it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. While the pilot launched in 1993, the first stations equipped with fare card readers opened in early 1994. Three years later, every subway station and bus were equipped with MetroCard readers, and four years later, Straphangers could take advantage of the promise of an unlimited fare card, thus ushering in a new era in booming transit ridership.

These days, we’re waiting impatiently for the end of the MetroCard era. It was not exactly a new technology when it was introduced, and the MTA has since been lapped by nearly all of its competitors when it comes to some form of contact-less fare payment. Since 2006, the agency has spun its wheels with a variety of pilot programs but has now committed to finding a replacement by 2019. We still don’t quite know what form that next-gen fare payment technology will take, and hopefully, we’ll know more after my Problem Solvers session on that topic next Wednesday. (RSPV now. Seats are going fast.)

I’ll spend some time looking forward next week. Tonight, I wanted to look back. For fifty years, the token reigned supreme, but these days it is only a memory. Many New Yorkers — those who moved to the city over the past 10 years — now the token only in the abstract. It was a thing some may remember as tourists as the keys to the subway while others hear of it only in city lore.

For me, tokens were a part of my youth. I could flash my transit pass to the token booth clerk to gain entrance to the subway, but my parents weren’t so lucky. They kept piles of ten-packs of tokens in a shoe box in our linen closet, stockpiling them right before fare hikes. Tokens required planning and attention to the number of rides one might make during a day, and their brothers in arms — the flimsy paper transit for the bus system — always come with a pesky time limit.

For all their symbolism, by the time of its death, the token was around for only half of the subway system’s life. For fifty years, so long as the fare remained the same as a Treasury Department coin, the city’s transit agencies could collect nickels and then dimes, but as soon as the fare went up to 15 cents, collecting coins become impractical. The first hints of a New York City subway token came in the early 1940s when the IRT purchased a bunch of tokens in the late 1920s in anticipation of a fare hike that never came. The company eventually ditched those plans, and the token would not emerge as a potential discussion piece until 1947.

By then, the city knew it had a financial problem on its hands. The subways were bleeding money, and the various agencies discussed a token in conjunction with a fare hike. The transit deficit at the time was $84 million — or over $850 million in today’s money — and the proposals on the table ranged from 7-10 cents. Anything requiring multiple coins would have led the debut of a token.

The Board of Transportation was not easily swayed. In an extensive July 1947 article discussing the looming transit referendum, The Times mentioned that BOT objected to tokens on that grounds that they can be “easy to counterfeit and bulky to handle.” In fact, the BOT was so concerned with slugs that many related to transit services planned to lobby the feds for an eight-cent coin in advance of the potential fare hike.

When the fare hike became a reality in 1953, the New York City Transit Authority had to turn to tokens because some turnstiles were not equipped to handle multiple coins. Nearly immediately, the TA had to deal with the issue of slugs, fake tokens that would be a thorn in the agency’s side for fifty years. Furthermore, token clerks had to deal with surly, incommunicative customers and were instructed to avoid becoming “impatient, discourteous or abusive to the passenger.” By late 1953, one Times even urged the TA to sell tokens in bulk as little packages could make great birthday presents or stocking stuffers at Christmas.

Ultimately, the token settled in for 50 years of use, abuse and redesigns. Its departure earned an obit, and New Yorkers’ pockets were lighter for it. Now we carry around a flimsy piece of plastic that one day too will become part of New York City subway history. The MetroCard may live a lifespan half that of the token, but it won’t make it to the venerable old age of 50. Few symbols in New York City do.

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Ralfff March 11, 2014 - 12:49 am

No “we’re” not waiting impatiently for the end of MetroCards. They work fine, are cheap to produce, and now that there is a fee, there is disincentive to create a torrent of litter with them. Unless there’s a matter of lots of criminals cranking out fraudulent cards that I don’t know about, the system appears to work decently, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Chris C March 11, 2014 - 10:08 am

They may work fine at the moment but the problem is that the cards are becoming more and more expensive to produce and the parts to repair the readers are becoming more and more scarce – all adding to the cost of collection – $$ that should be used for providing service.

Bgriff March 11, 2014 - 10:11 am

I tend to agree. Metrocards are apparently somewhat expensive behind the scenes (lots of cleaning and maintaining swipe apparatuses) but it’s not clear to me that a new technology will be significantly cheaper.

Plus, the Metrocard was actually done a lot better than a lot of other payment technologies of its generation — no flimsy and easily demagnetized paper cards like in DC or Paris, no slow dip and return action when entering the system like in Chicago, no Soviet-style queueing for tokens at broken dispensing machines well into the mid-00s like in Boston, and unlike just about everywhere else, plenty of easy-to-use multi-function vending machines that can both dispense new cards and refill old ones, and take any payment method you have to offer.

The one disadvantage to Metrocard is that it confuses tourists and they often have to swipe a few times, but this is rarely an issue for locals, and in most cities the RFID card is primarily for locals since it usually costs $5 or so; tourists end up using some secondary system anyway.

Nathanael March 11, 2014 - 6:59 pm

–> in most cities the RFID card is primarily for locals since it usually costs $5 or so; tourists end up using some secondary system anyway.<–

This. The RFID card systems are for crap because they can never be universal systems. Swipe-cards at least can be universal.

Miles Bader March 16, 2014 - 6:58 pm

In Tokyo the surcharge (indeed about $5) for a contactless card like PASMO is a deposit; if you give them back the card, you can get your deposit back.

Nonetheless, they still maintain a parallel paper-ticket infrastructure, which adds a lot of complexity, and presumably cost, to the fare gates. Every once in a while I’m caught with only enough money to buy a ticket and am glad of it…

Phillip Roncoroni March 11, 2014 - 10:19 am

See John’s comments about the Clipper card in SF. The biggest problem with the Metrocard, outside of end of life regarding support with Cubic, is how long it takes to board buses. That’s sober thing that needs to be solved if buses are ever going to offset the load from overcrowded subway lines.

SBS is a stop ago that could easily be replaced with multi-door contact less fare payment, like Clipper. Then have roaming Eagle Teams to do spot checks for fare evaders. Last week I boarded the M79 and timed it, it took amidst six minutes from first passenger to is actually leaving the bus stop. That’s ridiculous. With a Clipper style system that would’ve been two minutes, tops.

Also, regarding Eagle Team/SBS, why do they physically stop the bus here and wait to check everyone’s receipts? When I was in Seattle, their fare enforcement team boarded the bus, let it keep traveling, and checked our tickets en route, exiting when they finished. Seems more efficient, and also randomizes the Eagle Team location to avoid warning tweets or something of that nature.

Phillip Roncoroni March 11, 2014 - 10:21 am

“That’s sober thing that needs to be solved if buses are ever going to offset the load from overcrowded subway lines”

iPhone auto correct error. Sorry.

That simple thing needs to be solved if buses are ever going to offset the load from overcrowded subway lines.

Eric March 11, 2014 - 10:41 am

Buses are never going to significantly offset the load from subway lines. A subway line carries 30000 people per hour per direction. No street has the curb space necessary to load and unload that many passengers. Not even close.

Bolwerk March 11, 2014 - 11:03 am

The street capacity issue seems rather trivial to me. Where do people go when they leave the subway? I don’t know if typical bus routes themselves can accommodate that kind of peak demand though. Probably not without multiple lanes in each direction.

johndmuller March 11, 2014 - 8:00 pm

Probably it is the number of people passing through under the street that would be problematic, rather than those entering/exiting at a particular stop. All the passengers in each train would need bus space on the street level, which in some cases could exceed the street capacity (not to mention how the streets are already packed to start with).

Phillip Roncoroni March 11, 2014 - 10:22 am

Actually there are more typos. I’m going to stop doing long replies on my phone in the future.

oinonio March 11, 2014 - 9:16 pm

Wonder if the contactless system + eagle teams could be adapted to the subway? Eliminate the turnstile altogether, and have spot checks. I believe berlin has such a system. By the way, why are they called “Eagle Teams”?

John S. March 11, 2014 - 1:38 am

Oh, I’d be happy to see RFID take hold. I was blown away by how quickly people board the bus in San Francisco due to the Clipper card. I’ve used RFID in other metro systems, but I think that was the first time I really saw a bit impact – 5 people boarded in the time it would have taken 2 in NY. Furthermore, with Clipper, you can board at any door (a la SBS).

I tried out the ‘experiment’ a few years ago – my chip card read flawlessly on the M14 and at 14th-Union Sq. That’s a pleasant change of pace from the occasionally infuriating ‘please swipe again.’

The Metrocard may get the job done, but it’s seemingly on its last legs (support-wise), and why shouldn’t we have a modern system like the rest of the world? (Being able to top up your Oyster online is quite nice.)

Billy G March 11, 2014 - 1:06 pm

Yes, the PATH people have it kind of good. You can re-up your balance online for the SmartLink RFID card. MTA: Just sign onto PATH’s payment system already, they use CUBIC too, and they’ve been running it across the board for years.

Benjamin Kabak March 11, 2014 - 1:07 pm

CUBIC is more the problem than the solution though. That’s the sticking point from the MTA’s perspective.

SEAN March 11, 2014 - 3:40 pm


If Cubic is the problem as you state, then why do most US urban transit providers use them knowing the issues that exist. The only large transit networks that don’t use Cubic payment are DART in Dallas, SEPTA – but they will soon, Tri-Met in Portland & systems in greater Seattle.

Benjamin Kabak March 11, 2014 - 3:46 pm

Path of least resistance. Anyone looking to control costs and have some flexibility with the fare payment system isn’t looking to CUBIX. I’d recommend a read through this 2000 Village Voice article.

sonicboy678 March 11, 2014 - 4:26 pm

Do they have student accommodations?

For that matter, is the switch from MetroCard to whatever going to screw students over?

Benjamin Kabak March 11, 2014 - 4:27 pm

The switch from tokens to MetroCards didn’t screw students over, and the switch from MetroCards to what’s next won’t either. Red herring.

sonicboy678 March 11, 2014 - 5:41 pm

I sure hope it’s all just a bad thought and nothing more. The incentive to continue the student-oriented structure is likely waning, as shown by what happened several years ago.

Benjamin Kabak March 11, 2014 - 5:43 pm

That was a political ploy. The MTA managed to get more — but not enough — money out of their maneuverings. It’s suicide for the MTA to straight-up cut student fares.

Michael March 11, 2014 - 4:11 am

While the Metro-Card in its Unlimited and Pay-Per-Ride editions have brought many advantages and benefits, there were a few benefits to the token, a one-time symbol of the subway. Unlike Metro-Cards or RFID cards, tokens had a kind of simple logic – one was needed for each ride.

At the end of each week, to prepare for the next week it was simple to buy a 20-pack of tokens. It was easy to keep an extra token or two in your wallet for emergencies. One did not need a machine readable device to know just how many rides one had available, a simple counting of your tokens as all that was needed. Plus tokens could be used as currency when times were tough, or traded in for cash at the token booth. (Something that can not be done with a Metro-Card.)

Another benefit of tokens was the process of getting to know the people inside the token booth, you saw and interacted with them almost every week. You knew when your regular “token booth clerk” was away, or who worked the night time hours, etc. Watching a token booth clerk in action was very interesting, using their fingers to count the tokens, the change and cash, passing it out to you – and then ready for the next customer in a matter of seconds.

Plus the whole process of whole of entering the subways was smoother – no grabbing for the wallet or the purse, fumbling to insert the card the right way. Before entering the subway station your token was in your hand, and dropping the token in the bus fare-box was child’s play. When you grew up tall enough, putting the token in the bus fare-box become your job – often well before you had a clue to what a subway or bus pass was. (A subway or bus pass represented a new kind of freedom, but for a few weeks or months of the year, students still had to use tokens to get around. Not losing your tokens became of the responsibilities of growing up.)

Lending a friend a token was easy, but also a solemn act. Usually such an act required payback among friends. These days, with an Unlimited-Card, giving someone a swipe can become problematic, especially if one needs to take the train at the same time. Everybody knew what it meant when you said, “Hey, this is my last token!”

In the morning it was simple, all you needed were your house keys, money for the newspaper, and your token – and you were set to go. Being able to tell the difference by just the touch between tokens and the other coins in your pockets was often simple enough.

Yes, both the Metro-Card over the last 20-years have brought about many benefits, and some very useful changes to transit. The simple token also had its benefits, even though its day has passed.


VLM March 11, 2014 - 9:26 am

Not a single one of the things you listed in this long-winded comment represents a benefit or an advantage. It’s just some fake call to nostalgia. Come on.

Michael March 11, 2014 - 2:17 pm

“Some fake call to nostalgia?”

Let’s see with a token:

a) One never had to stand at the front of the bus reading Metro-Card after Metro-Card to figure out which ones had enough cash on them to use! The idea of “not having enough cash on your token” simply did not exist!

b) There were never ever any piles of “used tokens” on the floor near the booths or turn-styles at any of the stations.

c) One’s money spent on transit was never locked into a financial operation where a refund to actual cash was impossible. Just try handing your Metro-Card to the booth clerk and ask for the cash back!

d) For tourists – tokens were easy! One did not have to teach anyone the fine art of how to slide your Metro-Card through the turn-style readers, or which way to hold it to get on the bus. All things which can take precious time.

e) For me, when I had the kids for the weekend, a simple bag of 20 tokens was all that was needed for the trips to the movies, the mall, and back home. I did not have worry about having enough cash on the Metro-Card, confusing the which Metro-Card was a Pay-Per-Ride card or the Unlimited Card, or having one of the kids lose that card, etc. Certain kinds of operations were much simpler when it came to groups of people.

f) Losing your token, never ever meant losing an entire week’s worth, or a month’s worth of transit! That simply never happened!

Years ago signs on the subways suggested that it would be a benefit to use your credit card to buy your transit. In the days of tokens – no one ever really needed to use a credit card to buy their subway or bus transit.

g) During blizzards or other service outages, the TA never ever said, “Well the tokens you bought while the service was out are no longer any good!” Which is what happened during Hurricane Sandy (and I believe 1 or 2 other events), where the MTA basically said “tough luck” to all those persons with Unlimited Cards who lost a day (or days) of transit.

h) In the days of tokens, the “Computer Is Down” was never a reason to be unable to buy a token, or to use the subways or buses. Every day, every month, every year – somewhere in NYC there is a Metro-Card Vending Machine that is either unable to accept cash or dispense cards, unable to function. In the days of tokens, all one had to do was to wake up the token booth clerk!

— Now again, yes Metro-Cards (both Pay-Per-Ride and Unlimited) have brought about many benefits. Each method, tokens or Metro-Cards are products of their time, and one day will be supplanted by something else. Nowadays, nobody rides a chariot to work, or uses a rifle to hunt their daily dinner in the woods, etc.

It is not “fake nostalgia” to walk down memory lane, to think about the events of your life before there were I-Pads, Cell Phones and other modern stuff. Taking that journey does not have to mean a rejection of the present, but simply a reflection of how far we’ve come to get to where we are today.


Benjamin Kabak March 11, 2014 - 2:53 pm

I don’t agree with many of your points here, but I do appreciate your enthusiasm for the token and times gone by.

Nathanael March 11, 2014 - 7:04 pm

The tourist situation is getting worse and worse. I realize that “soak the visitors” is the common habit these days. But it’s a bad idea.

Already, the Metrocard vending machines have eliminated most of the options which tourists would want, and have made it unclear how to do anything other than buy a single ride.

And then there’s the extra “soak the visitors” fee which got added recently.

The places which have switched to RFID cards are even worse off. London does OK (with its “refundable deposit”, and with the cards buyable pretty nearly everywhere).

But Chicago? Tourists simply don’t use the RFID cards. It’s cash on the buses and paper tickets on the trains, and the paper tickets are priced to gouge-the-tourists.

It’s a nasty business model. Don’t do it.

tacony March 11, 2014 - 4:08 pm

I didn’t live in New York during the token era but go to Philly, where they still use tokens, and ask people about these supposed positives, and you’ll get an earful. Who enjoys having to remember to stock up on tokens? Who enjoys interacting with token booth clerks!? You’re looking at the past through some very thick rose-colored glasses. You’re glamorizing the annoyances that Metrocards were designed to mitigate.

sonicboy678 March 11, 2014 - 4:29 pm

In fact, there are still some “token” booth clerks available. They’re nowhere near as numerous, but they exist.

Bolwerk March 11, 2014 - 6:51 pm

Pretty sure it was Walder who finally got rid of having several of them at some minor stations (e.g., Myrtle-Wyckoff still had one for the L and one for the M as late as 2007 or 2008).

Jonathan March 11, 2014 - 8:21 am

I still find bus transfers I used as bookmarks in my books; the metrocard is not good for this use as you always need it again.

sonicboy678 March 12, 2014 - 2:07 am

Great! Why would you ever think using a valid MetroCard as a bookmark is a good idea?

Marsha March 11, 2014 - 8:41 am

Hoarding tokens rocked!

SEAN March 11, 2014 - 10:33 am

SEPTA still uses tokens, but is going the RFID card route shortly.

Nathanael March 11, 2014 - 7:06 pm

I look forward to the next generation payment system. That is — the one AFTER the crappy RFID cards.

Maybe they’ll go back to proof-of-purchase. Works for every German system.

sonicboy678 March 12, 2014 - 8:17 pm

Proof-of-purchase? I sure hope it’s not implemented in a shoddy manner if it ever happens!

Jerrold March 11, 2014 - 1:52 pm

Are you sure, Ben, that the rate of inflation has been ALMOST 100 TIMES? I mean, THAT is what you seem to be saying when you compare 84 million then to over 8 billion now.

Benjamin Kabak March 11, 2014 - 1:55 pm

I’ve fixed it. I was off by an order of ten.


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