Home MetroCard Goodbye to All That: The Metrocard Edition

Goodbye to All That: The Metrocard Edition

by Benjamin Kabak

The future of the Metrocard is a bit fuzzy. (Art by Lisa Scruggs. Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The future history of the Metrocard has been, for nearly a decade, maddeningly out of reach. Since 2006, the MTA has discussed, tested and discussed again plans for a contactless next-generation replacement for the Metrocard, and a certain combination of technological uncertainty and organizational inertia, the effort won’t be fully realized before 2019 when the costs to maintain the current Metrocard system start to climb. But taps, and not swipes, are on the way.

Now that the state has seemingly cleared the logjam that was the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan, the agency has started to take concrete steps to phase out the Metrocard. It began earlier this week with the release of a solicitation notice (pdf) in advance of an RFP that will be made available today. The MTA claims the RFP contains certain confidential information regarding the agency’s infrastructure, and it isn’t available to the public. But the agency has released enough detail either through the solicitation or in subsequent so that we have a general sense of what will go into the MTA’s tap-based contactless system. Adios, swipes.

First and foremost, despite what you might have read elsewhere, the Metrocard isn’t getting phased out next year or even next presidential election. We’ll have plenty of time for presidential candidates to mock their inability to swipe. Although the MTA hopes to begin phasing in the next generation fare payment system by around June of 2018, much as tokens weren’t retired until nearly nine years after the introduction of the Metrocard, the Metrocard won’t be retired immediately. When last we checked in on this project, the MTA expected to phase out Metrocards by the end of 2023, but an MTA spokesman told me on Tuesday that this is not a definite timeline at this point.

So what is this thing anyway? According to the MTA’s documents, we’ll be using some fare system “based on open bank card payment industry standards that will utilize contactless media, including contactless smart cards and mobile devices.” The MTA will likely use a proprietary card and offer a cash option for riders who don’t have bank accounts, smart cards or smart phones. “The key thing is broad support for all of our customers,” agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz told me. “We’re not leaving any customer behind in the transition.”

As part of the implementation, the MTA is going to maintain but rewire the current turnstiles. The RFP documents call for a supplier to install and maintain a TCP/IP ethernet-based communications network connecting fare collection equipment, including turnstiles, HEETs and payment vending machines. Still, the basis for the system is going to be contactless. The MTA will rely on bank cards, smart phones, or an MTA-issued card to process fares. This move will allow the MTA to lower the costs of fare collection and maintenance of a fare payment system. Only a small percentage of users will use the MTA’s own card, and the system — essentially next generation that doesn’t rely on a proprietary technology as, say, PATH’s SmartCard or London’s Oyster Card does — will be adaptable across MTA agencies.

One interesting part of the solicitation document concerns the fare future. The MTA wants its next generation fare payment technology to respond to “alternate fare structures…including fare capping and/or changes to the fare incentive structures.” In other words, the MTA wants something that could be used for fixed fares, a zone-based fare structure or even a time of day-based variable fare. The possibilities with a system that could allow for tap in and tap out are more expansive than today’s swipe in-only system. While the MTA has no plans to start exploring a variable fare structure, I have been told that the agency wants the ability to do so in the future.

So we get a few glimpses into the future and a bunch of uncertainty. The MTA’s initial contract for this new system will run for 69 months from the date of contract award, but the MTA doesn’t expect Metrocards to be phased out within six years from now. So there will be some period of overlap and some period of exploration as the MTA receives RFP responses.

Yet, the overarching questions are whether and when the MTA can pull this off. The agency’s last true systemwide technological upgrade effort was the introduction of the Metrocard two decades ago, and now they’re going to try again with something that is essentially a new technology built on industry standards and evolving technology. We’ll see how this goes, but one thing is for certain: The Metrocard — and that message urging us to please swipe again — is on borrowed time. How much borrowed time remains to be seen.

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James April 14, 2016 - 12:21 am

Capping would be fantastic.

At $2.75 a ride — if I don’t have a monthly card — I’m spending more than I would pay for Central London travel on a busy day in/around New York City and I don’t have the psychological relief of knowing that once I hit the Zone 1/2 cap, not only will I get free Tube rides, but also free bus rides anywhere.

Of course, I’m sure we’ll hear lots of “NYC exceptionalism” arguments for why a new fare system couldn’t be as generous…

SEAN April 14, 2016 - 11:18 am

TriMet’s new card system “hop” has these features as well http://www.trimet.com/hop.

They should also include the railroads as well since the card systems in Los Angeles & San Francisco already have such functionality built in. In addition, there needs to be compatibility with CT transit’s new card system that’s coming online this year.

Larry Littlefield April 14, 2016 - 7:20 am

What will will probably get is one of the payment processing triopoly, Amex, MasterCard and Visa, operating by one of the too big to fail banks, Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, or Bank of America. Banks whose reputation for fair dealing and meeting their fiduciary duties is what it is.

With a supposed productivity gain of no longer needing station agents, but with the reality of station agents who keep their jobs spend even more time doing nothing. And very expensive conductors on the commuter railroads.

What would be cool, however, is if a large and well financed group responded to the RFP by proposing to create a new bank and payment system, starting with the MTA. Since the Metrocard replacement would be a card every subway and bus rider, and (what should be) ever commuter rail rider as well, would carry.

The fare media vending machines would double as ATMs. The MTA station personnel would be converted to bank tellers, with the new bank (or banks — it could be more than one sharing the teller) covering the vast majority of their cost, even as the continue to occasionally give directions or open a gate.

With Costco switching from Amex to Visa, one sees the power of a guaranteed clientele to payment processing companies. The MTA does not operate nationwide, but it operates in the largest and among the most affluent metro areas in the country. A new bank could immediately have 736 locations: Subway 468. SIR 22 LIRR 124 Metro North 122.

“Millennial Bank. We don’t overpay ourselves, but its worth it to us because we get to keep our integrity.”

At the very least, the TBTF could be required to make lots of campaign contributions to prevent a new competitor from getting a foothold. The Post Office proposed a postal banking system for the less well off unbanked as a way to be more revenues to save itself in the e-mail era. Somebody probably paid lots of money to Congress to keep that from happening.

Elvis Delgado April 14, 2016 - 7:56 am

You would think that a replacement system would not have the requirement to “tap” whatever medium is employed. This is the 21st century, and the technology to sense proximity is sufficiently well developed that the time-consuming, and slightly awkward, “tapping” of the card on the reader should not be a requirement.

There are systems already in place where one need only walk by a reader (the card can even be in one’s pocket). Is the MTA requirement for a “tap” of the card just one more typically retrograde action?

Benjamin Kabak April 14, 2016 - 8:24 am

To be clear, it may not be a tap system. It’s going to be contactless one way or another. A tap is just one type of a contactless system. It could be similar to Apple Pay or some other type of proximity reader as you noted.

eo April 14, 2016 - 8:43 am

Can someone enlighten me if the problem of walking around with multiple cards has been solved? How is the system supposed to know which card to send the charge to?

John April 14, 2016 - 8:52 am

Assuming they use NFC, the card/device you use has to be super close to the reader. And even if they use something longer range (like RFID) I don’t think they would just be blindly charging any credit card/device they detect. I think you’d have to at least set up that card first, or something. Could be wrong though.

Dave April 14, 2016 - 8:54 am

This is why something like Apple Pay or Google Pay would be perfect. You have to specifically activate the payment mode before anything is charged.

Brooklynite April 14, 2016 - 11:05 pm

Here’s one reason: if the turnstile can get all your card’s information and deduct money from it when you simply walk past it, so can a scammer/hacker with some relatively unsophisticated tech. Having to tap the victim’s pocket would make the crook’s job much more difficult.

Miles Bader April 16, 2016 - 8:18 pm

“Tapping” is a simple and reliable method that ensures the card is close enough to the reader that the intention of the user is unambiguous, without being inconvenient for the user (you don’t need to remove the card from your purse/wallet before tapping).

A “just charge whatever you see within 1m” system would be a disaster, both because of the security problems and simply because in a very crowded environment (like the subway!), there’s tons of opportunity for ambiguity (just standing by the faregate looking for your friend? Whoops!).

[A system like somebody suggested below which would require the user to use a phone and to “specifically activate the payment mode” would be far more inconvenient than just tapping.]

Dave April 14, 2016 - 8:25 am

I’d like it if the new fare payment system utilized Apple Pay in some way.

David April 14, 2016 - 10:33 am

It couldn’t be a single proprietary pay technology like Apple Pay or Android Pay to feasibly work for most transit users — the smartphone market in NYC is almost evenly divided between the 2 Operating systems.

Christopher April 14, 2016 - 12:48 pm

While Apple and Google Pay are proprietary processing systems, the technology that makes them work is not which is why the same terminal that reads Apple or Google pay can also read contactless bank cards.

My concern with smartphone pay systems is they are not as quick as a tap of a card. I hope what we’ll see is something along the lines of what DC’s SmartTrip card, SF’s Clipper Card or the MasterCard branded card in Chicago work. Tap and go through. Very quick. Especially on buses.

DC now requires you to use a card, and I think in the long run, we’ll need or see the same thing happen here. WMATA has had a contactless pay system for 20 years or more, they had time to phase out cash.

Lincoln April 14, 2016 - 3:19 pm

Slight nitpick: WMATA’s contactless system is 16 years old, and was not that widespread when it first rolled out.

adirondacker12800 April 14, 2016 - 3:26 pm

They never had cash, You had to buy a card so you could swipe in and swipe out.

Duke April 14, 2016 - 7:31 pm

My concern with smartphone pay systems is their ability to become a magnet for thieves. It’s extremely contradictory for an agency that goes around saying “do not display cell phones or other electronic devices” to then set up a system where large numbers of people will be encouraged to do just that at highly predictable locations in a highly predictable manner.

Miles Bader April 16, 2016 - 8:37 pm

Anything that requires a phone for normal use is a complete non-starter, full stop.

Allowing phones to be used as a fare instrument would be a fine convenience for some people, but it cannot be the primary mechanism.

Note that this would be true even if 100% of people in NYC had smartphones. A required phone would be a fragile and easily lost (or stolen) single point of failure which is too expensive to replace quickly on a temporary basis, and that’s unacceptable for a transportation system. With a well-designed system contactless cards are cheap (so you can have an extra or two sitting in your wallet and bag for emergencies), easy to obtain, and can be completely anonymous.

eo April 14, 2016 - 8:54 am

I am still of the opinion that a less ambitious system would be better, easier and faster to implement. Specifically I would expect something along the lines of the PATH cards with a provision that the card readers can be replaced in the future with more advanced ones. Leaving all the crap about paying directly with a contactless credit card or phone makes the system much simpler to implement now because such systems have been in, use for many years, probably decades now. What they are asking for in terms of ability to cap charges to a specific credit card does not exist now. The thing with paying with phones while gaining in popularity is not mainstream yet. Why pay for technology that has not been invented or matured yet? So that we can brag about it? Not worth it.

Implement a PATH style card now placing all the wiring to get to each turnstile and vending machine. In 10 years change the readers to allow the additional payment options as their technology matures enough to be mainstream. By then the card processors and the banking industry would have figured out the capping of the charges and anything else that would have been invented then.

Larry Littlefield April 14, 2016 - 9:20 am

I’m pretty sure everything they are asking for exists now. It’s what we get for waiting. The real challenges are having criminals raid the network, and providing backward compatibility for us fogies.

My credit cards will deny charges routinely if I do something out of the ordinary, and require a phone call. You call to tell them you are going on vacation. Payment by phone is common in Europe, because competition has forced payment systems to innovate there.

They are shifting to chip cards in millions of stores. How hard is redoing the MTA compared with that?

Brooklynite April 14, 2016 - 11:07 pm

Forget inventing a PATH style card. Why not just expand Smartlink to the subway? The tech is literally already there, and in use, and compatible with Metrocard.

Miles Bader April 16, 2016 - 9:56 pm

… because that would eliminate the opportunity to spend vast quantities of (public) money and time choosing an incompetent and corrupt vendor who’s peddling something that doesn’t actually work.

MTA, remember. “If it doesn’t cost 10 times as much and fail to function, we haven’t done our job!”

Miles Bader April 16, 2016 - 9:07 pm

The thing with paying with phones while gaining in popularity is not mainstream yet. Why pay for technology that has not been invented or matured yet? So that we can brag about it? Not worth it.

There’s plenty of mature and widely used technology, e.g. osaifu-keitai has been been widely supported (e.g. pretty much all public transport and all non-Apple phones) in Japan for at least a decade.

The main issue as far as I can see it that the big phone manufacturers (not least Apple) are trying to use their market share to push their own proprietary systems, and they’re not done fighting yet…. ><

[No doubt the MTA will choose an incompetent vendor and make things even worse though.]

Larry Greenfield April 14, 2016 - 9:15 am

This article describing the status of the New Fare Payment System could have been written five years ago. The delay in releasing the RFP is the real story. Was it because of the change in the MTA chairmanship, the lack of capital funding or something else?

Larry Littlefield April 14, 2016 - 9:22 am

I received a new credit card with a chip, rather than just a magnetic stripe, a few weeks ago. And then the RFP came.

Benjamin Kabak April 14, 2016 - 9:56 am

You mean, someone should write the story I published in October and linked to in today’s post? 🙂

Jacob Morgan April 14, 2016 - 9:41 am

This proposed system sounds a lot like the Ventra system that Chicago’s CTA adopted a few years ago. It uses a credit card that’s issued by the TVMs and is able to be used as a preloadable cash debit card as well as a transit payment card. It has RFID technology, but their implementation of that backfired in the first several months and resulted in multiple charges/debits to the transit funds as riders walked through turnstiles. They had to dial back to tap payment to solve that problem. NYC and the rest of us need to remember to look around us because many other agencies are far ahead of us in trying this new tech and working it out.

JJJJ April 14, 2016 - 10:17 am

“look around us because many other agencies are far ahead of us in trying this new tech and working it out.”

Many agencies?

How about all of them?

Ok to be fair I dont know how Cleveland collects fares, but every serious transit system has already moved to contactless or PoP.

Even Miami has one unified contactless card.


SEAN April 14, 2016 - 11:37 am

Yes & no. Trirail & Metro Dade Transit use the same card, but Palm Tran & Broward County Transit haven’t joined yet. However, the latter two systems may join in the near future.

Also Trirail is constructing a new rail route over the Florida East Coast row to bring train service to the central areas of the cities in the tri-county area.

sam April 14, 2016 - 3:08 pm

I’m no MTA apologist, but the system they’re looking to implement is more than just using a contactless card issued by the transit agency, which has been in use in many transit agencies already a you point out. Based in the documents the MTA has put out recently, the MTA is looking to put in a system that accepts contactless devices at the point of entry that are issued by someone else, like mobile phones and contactless chip credit/debit and GPR cards. They’re also planning to make some agency-issued cards available in later stages of transition for those that don’t want to use phones, credit/debit, etc. The only transit systems that are designed for that currently are Chicago (almost as Ventra is still issued by CTA) and TfL in London. Even HK is not like what MTA wants to do. But everyone else is moving in that direction, like Philly and Washington.

Miles Bader April 16, 2016 - 10:25 pm

Ugh… only in ‘murika could relying on credit-card companies be considered an advantage… ><

Duke April 14, 2016 - 7:37 pm

Cleveland has a system similar to what HBLR/Newark have: you buy a paper ticket and then validate it at the machine on the platform before boarding. Not the most advanced technology but it is a PoP system – no turnstiles.

Aaron M. Renn April 14, 2016 - 10:55 am

Sounds exactly like the CTA’s Ventra system. It had a lot of deployment bugs but ultimately worked ok. A few limits to it:

– Ventra (last I used it) has a small but noticeable delay in reading the card. It’s slower to use Ventra than MetroCard or the old CTA proprietary card system. I can’t see any slowdown in processing over the nearly instantaneous MetroCard being acceptable in a high volume city like NYC. (The CTA’s old system actually started with a dip card – also slower than Metro Card)

– The debit fees are very high and seem to be a ripoff.

– The cards are all for named users pretty much, so you are being individually tracked with that information known to the private vendor. I’d be shocked if they aren’t using it for commercial purposes.

– Part of the CTA’s goal was to not only get a vendor to give them a free system, but also to pay them a cash fee up front. IIRC, they got one. This made their system really a form of structured finance.

SEAN April 14, 2016 - 11:55 am

You just reminded me of a youTube video I once saw when Ventra was first implemented. In a nutshell it was that Ventra & cards like it are part of the NWO agenda & I’m like… beside myself in total disbelief. As Fruid once said, sometimes a farecard is just a farecard.

Dk April 14, 2016 - 11:39 am

Remarkable how a train system that still uses analog control in most of its network, buys retired second hand equipment and as a result suffers unbelievable delays on a daily basis, is even considering this upgrade as a priority!!!! There are so many crucial upgrades that need to be done and believe me, metro cards are not one of them!!!

Larry Littlefield April 14, 2016 - 12:02 pm

The subways could go back to the token. But this could be a big deal for buses, if it reduces their dwell time.

Basically it would make every line an SBS line.

SEAN April 14, 2016 - 12:12 pm


We’re not going back to tokens. In fact, SEPTA & TTC are discontinuing token sales shortly – the two last large systems to still use them. http://www.prestocard.ca.

tacony April 14, 2016 - 1:44 pm

A casual user of SEPTA can currently still only use tokens ($1.80) or exact change ($2.25) to get on the subway or bus, and that’s not changing so “shortly.”

SEPTA’s next gen payment system is now estimated to begin its slow roll out in June at the earliest, and I’d expect they’ll miss their deadlines again. Even then, the new system will only be activated first for people who use monthly/weekly passes, so these aren’t replacing tokens anyway. And schools and other social service agencies that are used to the ~50-year old tradition of distributing tokens to their students/clients/etc demanded that SEPTA include a physical item they could continue to hand out once the tokens are finally retired, so they will actually be replaced by disposable cards– essentially Philly’s version of the Single-ride ticket Metrocards that litter NYC subway stations. With no incentive in place to get things done quickly, change is glacial, as it will be with the MTA.

SEAN April 14, 2016 - 12:03 pm

Not sure if I totally buy it. Yes the MTA has huge issues in other areas, but the method of payment is often ones first contact with any transit system. The MTA is finally realizing that fact & is trying to correct an issue that is looming not to far off for once.

JJJJ April 14, 2016 - 12:59 pm

You think fare collection shouldnt be a priority?

I mean, Im all for free transit, but under the current political scene, thats not happening.

So facilitating payment is pretty damn important.

Imagine if store 1 allowed you to pay any way you wanted, included mobile payments.

Imagine if store 2 only took carbon copy credit card payment.

Youd get pretty damn sick of store 2 very quickly and stop shopping with them.

Transit riders are customers. They need to be treated as such

22rrr April 14, 2016 - 1:56 pm

As much as I love HK’s Octopus Card (i.e. how easy it is to tap, how I can use it to buy food at many stores) and as much as I welcome a future of being able to do everything from my phone…

I feel like replacing the Metrocard should be pretty low on MTA’s list of priorities. The Metrocard works reliably, whereas the trains don’t run reliably and the stations are disgusting. And there’s no plan in place to address those basic fundamental failures (…the occasional bandaids MTA implements by fixing stuff are nothing but bandaids).

R.V. April 14, 2016 - 3:26 pm

The replacement of the MetroCard should actually be high on their lists of need. Right now just maintaining the current fare infrastructure is extremely expensive and upgrading to a newer cheaper easier to maintain system will result in large maintenance savings that could be used for other things such as rehabilitating stations.

22rrr April 14, 2016 - 6:11 pm

That makes sense – if the investment actually reduces future costs.

22rrr April 14, 2016 - 3:40 pm

I’m sure this issue has been rehashed occasionally here and in other transit blogs, but think about how much money spent and space used for the simple act of fare collection and turnstiles. It doesn’t have to be this way — i.e. German U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems are very effective without any turnstiles whatsoever. Are we really going to make the argument that Americans are more likely to be fare-evaders than Germans?

Larry Littlefield April 14, 2016 - 5:50 pm

Are you kidding?

The penalties if they catch you evading the fare are draconian there. That would never fly here.

22rrr April 14, 2016 - 6:10 pm

Huh? In Germany if they catch you “schwarzfahren”, you just have to pay a fine of about 60 Euros. In NYC it’s a $100 fine– though a friend of mine said he had to spend a night in jail when he got caught (not sure if he’s telling the truth…)

Bronx Resident April 14, 2016 - 7:34 pm

MTA should work with NJ Transit/Path and local ferry providers. Make this regional.

SEAN April 14, 2016 - 8:14 pm

Shit! I’ve been saying this every time this topic is mentioned here. It is essential not an option to make the fare system regional & not require separate fare payment & media. One should be able to travel from Connecticut to Long Island or New Jersey with the same card even if there are variable fares since tap cards have such functionality in use. See http://www.taptogo.com or http://www.prestocard.ca as examples.

bigbellymon4 April 14, 2016 - 11:08 pm

All right, we cannot deny the fact that the MTA needs to update the fare payment system from the Metrocard sooner than later, but the challenge is that they are doing TOO MUCH AT ONCE. When the MTA decided to roll out ATS on the A Division, how long did it take? TOO LONG. And the kicker is that it WILL NOT BE ABLE TO WORK WITH CBTC. They will need to remove most of the equipment for ATS when they install CBTC. Now they moved on to roll out ISIM on the B Division, which is a watered down version of ATS. First it started as a way to provide countdown clocks. Then Sandy came, and they expanded it to look more like ATS. And then that project has been delayed multiple times because it was too ambitious. And now they are doing they same thing with the Metrocard. Why can’t they just start small (replace the metrocard), then expand it after the replacement to include smartphones, credit cards and all that other NFC and RFID good stuff? Start small, then grow and expand the scope of the project as different parts roll out. Making it incremental will help them, and help speed the replacement of the Metrocard. Granted doing all at once may help (may count down on rollout costs), it is not helping the customers and the MTA with the cost maintaing of the Metrocard rising.

GojiMet86 April 26, 2016 - 1:14 pm

Thought you might be interested in this. According to user East New York of the New York City Transit Forums:


“MTA has officially acellerated the sytematic merger. Originally, MTA made plans to have the new Bus Command Center and radio system in place before introduction of a unified farebox system for NYCT and MTAB.

New plans call for introduction of mobile ticketing that we can use on our smartphones in June of next year when the summer pick begins. Plans call for tickets to be able to be purchased prior to boarding and New York City Bus or Subway. It is said to be very similar to and called (MTA) eTix thats is in it’s pilot phase on select MTA Railroad lines. More details will be available in the coming months.

The new “tap” contactless payment system will now be pushed forward from 2020, to June 2018. With this new system we will be able to use our phones, debit/credit cars with chips, or the new MTA SmartCard.

Effective immediately, (MTA) New York City Bus will be the branding for all of surface transit in the future. Buses will no longer wear titles however, and will only feature the MTA logo. For legal purposes the official names the divisions will remain and fall under MTA Bus Operations, which will comprise of Department of Buses TA/OA, and Bus Company. BC will offcially become the new OA for all general purposes. Bus Company HQ will be relocated to East New York Depot

All New York City Subway and Bus (NYCT/BusCo) personnel will receive new MTA SmartIDCards.

This will now directly line up with the introduction of the new dispatch, command, and radio projects.”

Stephen Carl Murphy May 17, 2016 - 4:20 pm

business contact

Curtis April 24, 2019 - 1:46 pm

People of 2016 don’t worry, it is now 2019 and almost nothing has been done to phase out metro cards.


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