Home OMNY OMNY set to usher in the age of fare-capping in NYC

OMNY set to usher in the age of fare-capping in NYC

by Benjamin Kabak
The OMNY card will replace the Metrocard, though the fewer people who have one, the better. (Via the MTA)

During the pandemic, the way I’ve paid for transit trips in New York City has undergone a seismic change. I haven’t used a Metrocard since the second half of 2020 when the MTA completed the OMNY rollout in the subway and on buses near me in Brooklyn. I don’t suffer the frustration of “please swipe again” and instead tap in on every ride using my phone. Since I’m not commuting regularly, I no longer need a monthly Metrocard, and since I’m paying for each ride individually, I’m happy to use the latest and greatest in payment technology to tap in on every ride.

At some point — maybe in January when I head back to my office a few days a week — this might change, and I’ll have to revert back to Metrocards of yore. If I’m taking enough transit rides, I’ll have to think about whether an unlimited card makes sense. I’ll have to map out my planned trips to see if I’m going to make it back to 12 rides per week or 47 riders per month, the current breakeven points for a 7- or 30-day card respectively.

But what if I didn’t have to think about it? Enter OMNY and enter fare capping.

In our age of instant tech gratification, the MTA’s OMNY rollout has seemed almost glacial. The new fare payment system, in the works for the better part of a decade, was officially announced in 2017 and rollout began in 2019, around the time I interviewed Al Putre for a podcast episode on OMNY. It will still be another 20 months before the Metrocard makes its final swipe in July of 2023, and yet, by MTA standards, this project is zooming along. All subways and buses are now OMNY-equipped, and as the MTA records 25% of fares paid via the new contactless tap system, the proprietary OMNY card made its debut last month for those who don’t have or don’t want to use their own payment cards. But that’s only the beginning, and the MTA is finally starting to talk about one of the biggest benefits of OMNY: the potential to implement fare-capping.

“For the MTA,” Janno Lieber, the agency’s current acting chair and CEO, said following last month’s board meeting, “the technology behind OMNY gives us ways to imagine fare structures in ways we haven’t really thought of just yet. This is a big, big moment. Folks recall that when we changed from tokens to Metrocard, that changed everything, not just how we collected fares but it give life to the monthly and unlimited fares that ended up being a financial plus in the long run. OMNY offers us the same opportunity to rethink fares.” This will, Lieber subsequently confirmed, include fare-capping.

For the uninitiated, the concept of fare-capping is a simple one. If you take a certain number of paid rides in a given time period, once you reach the cap, every subsequent ride is free. Basically, if you hit the pay-per-ride cost equivalent of a time-based pass, you no longer get charged for additional trips during that time period. The Tube in London has implemented a daily cap reached on a rider’s fourth ride and weekly caps (which run from Monday to Sunday) generally reached on the 16th ride.

Fare-capping is intended to take the guesswork out of buying a transit pass but more importantly, it opens up transit and time-based passes for those who may not be able to afford an initial outlay of $127 each month for that 30-day card. (Transit Center has written more on how fare-capping promotes transit equity and use.) Lieber spoke with NBC New York about these benefits. “If you ride a certain number of rides, at some point the algorithm will tell you the best deal for you is to have an unlimited,” he said. “[OMNY] will give you the benefit of that.”

Fare-capping has always been one of the promises of OMNY, and in a Tweet a few weeks ago, NYC Transit let slip the future potential. Since then, politicians and advocates have come out in favor of the move. The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA spoke glowingly in a statement and urged the board to move fast: “Pairing OMNY with fare capping is the perfect match: it’s a marriage between technology and equitable fare policy. It will encourage people to get back onboard, and the more they ride, the sooner they’ll do it for free. Giving all riders the opportunity to, in essence, get a monthly or weekly transit pass without having to upfront costs will level the playing field and allow people of every income ability to take advantage of the benefits of unlimited access to the subways and buses.”

In the State Senate, Andrew Gounardes isn’t waiting around for the MTA to act on its own. He recently introduced a bill mandating that OMNY include a fare capping system, garnering praise from transit advocates. “It’s an unfortunate truth that while commuters who can afford to pay $127 a month upfront are rewarded with unlimited rides, lower-income transit riders who can’t front the cash often end up paying for more expensive single-fare rides each month,” Jaqi Cohen of Tri-State Transportation Campaign said. “Fare capping would ensure that all riders have access to the same unlimited fare option, whether they could afford to pay upfront or not.”

Of course this doesn’t mean fare-capping is coming to NYC tomorrow or next month, but the promise is there. The MTA Board is going to work with Transit staffers to understand how the system could be implemented and come up with a proposal that works for the agency and its bottom line and the riders. The questions to be answered include assessments of the time period, whether rolling or fixed to the calendar, and the dollar value of the cap.

“Anything we do,” Lieber said, “involves reprogramming all those vending machines in the stations and working on the software and all of that, and we have not made a final decision exactly how this will work. And the board gets to decide. I don’t want to create expectations. We’re still studying this. We’re going to have to figure it out.”

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Jack Fuller November 11, 2021 - 2:22 pm

Any fare-capping means reduced revenue for MTA, and subsequent struggles with the Legislature for funding.

Bill November 11, 2021 - 11:18 pm

Not necessarily, if it means more riders use the system.

David Rose November 11, 2021 - 2:29 pm

Weekly fare-capping instead of monthly is a hidden fare hike. That might allow the MTA to move forward with it.

Bobbo November 11, 2021 - 7:14 pm

I love this. I wonder if there’ll be a way to still pay “pre-tax.” It’s great just having the cost of the monthly taken out of my check without thinking about it and without paying tax on it.

Avi November 11, 2021 - 9:19 pm

I pay pre-tax and get a credit card. I used to use the credit card to buy a metro card, but now my pre-tax card is NFC enabled so I just tap and go with it. If/when they add fare capping, it would work with my current pre-tax credit card with no further changes.

Bill November 11, 2021 - 11:19 pm

I see no reason why the card shouldn’t (if it is programmed by the MTA to do so) allow you to preload the card with any amount you want.

dear boss November 12, 2021 - 4:54 am

I’ve been wanting to get my NYC issued credit card for transit connected to my phone so that I could use this OMNY. Guess what…

Billy G November 11, 2021 - 9:02 pm

Donut hole. 30% over 14x rides per week and it goes back to per ride fare.
This discourages:
Giving strangers free rides
“Bicycle” messengers abusing the subway.

Doctor Memory November 11, 2021 - 10:29 pm

Are you serious? Anyone with a full time job (10 rides/week, minimum) who stops at the gym en route to or from work (now you’re at 15) and who leaves the house ever on the evenings or weekends to, you know, shop or eat will hit an 18 ride cap regularly.

Unlimited fare cards are free money for transit systems: riders might or might not exercise the full value on any given month, but the transit system books the full value in cash in advance, makes money on the float, and keeps any “unused” value. They also encourage transit ridership, which is a boon to the city with the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Killing all of that in order to solve the non-problem of swiping in strangers at the end of a ride would be losing millions to save pennies.

Billy G November 12, 2021 - 2:39 pm

Users already got a massive subsidy by having one fare regardless of trip length or destination. My answer to you is: WAAH. Cry me a river. MTA has bills to pay.

BIll November 12, 2021 - 3:21 pm

Yes, the MTA has bills to pay but and if riders don’t use the system because it’s too expensive for them, the MTA looses out. But what is the purpose of the MTA anyway? Is it to cover all expenses regardless of what service they provide or is it to reduce congestion and provide a useful transportation service to the city?

Doctor Memory November 12, 2021 - 9:46 pm

If the MTA needs to balance its books by raising fare recovery, there’s a simple way to do that: raise fares, both for single rides and weekly/monthly cards. What you’re proposing is that a weekly pass be, essentially, a 10% discount on the first 18 rides a person takes a week, which is a great way of convincing people that it’s not worth the hassle of buying a weekly pass, which is the exact opposite of what you want to do if getting more money for the MTA is your goal, and it’s a burn-the-village-to-save-it-bad idea if your real goal is just to discourage people from bringing bikes on the subway and occasionally swiping other people in.

The idea that there is some pot of gold to be recovered by curtailing weekly/monthly passes is 100% Larry Schwartz’s invention. Nobody should take it seriously.

Billy G November 12, 2021 - 2:43 pm

Oh, and all of those things you describe could happen within walking distance from home or work in such a wonderfully dense city. Make your decisions accordingly instead of telling the world to bend to you.

Doctor Memory November 12, 2021 - 9:49 pm

“Come to NYC, enjoy all we have to offer… but please use the subway less” is… certainly a take.

Doctor Memory November 11, 2021 - 9:04 pm

Meanwhile, when I asked my company’s FSA provider (Optum Financial, who are one of the larger ones) when they expect to be able to support transitchek programs on OMNY, they said, verbatim, “what’s OMNY?”

I would be unsurprised if the MTA ends up having to delay the MetroCard turndown because the FSA providers are absolutely lacking in any motivation to support it. (Hell, Optum AKA Justworks is somehow still sending out magstripe-only, no-chip VISA cards, and VISA allegedly made chip support mandatory in…2018?)

Avi November 11, 2021 - 9:29 pm

My FSA provider just issued a new card with NFC support and it works perfectly on OMNY. The FSA doesn’t need to know about OMNY, they just need NFC cards. And now that the MTA has their own OMNY card you can get one of those and refill it with your existing credit card.

Doctor Memory November 11, 2021 - 10:19 pm

Paying from an FSA account via NFC works for single rides. But right now, there is AFAIK no way to get an unlimited monthly pass on your FSA transit benefit account without using MetroCard.

Avi November 15, 2021 - 8:54 am

Literally this entire article was about fare capping to support the equivalent of monthly cards on NFC enabled credit cards.

meesalikeu November 19, 2021 - 11:31 am

my city worker pre-tax transit card is edenred and it has no chip. you have to use it to get a metrocard. i contacted them long ago about this issue and they have no timeline for new cards. meaning, no incentive to do so as enabled cards are more expensive, as would be getting them out to people.

Larry Littlefield November 12, 2021 - 6:21 am

“It’s an unfortunate truth that while commuters who can afford to pay $127 a month upfront are rewarded with unlimited rides, lower-income transit riders who can’t front the cash often end up paying for more expensive single-fare rides each month,”

Can’t save up $127? How do they pay monthly rent?

Here is the problem I see. Right now, one can use a pay per ride Metrocard to swipe in multiple people. If that is still allowed, it’s going to be a big revenue loser, and groups of people travel using one Metrocard, exhausting a months worth of swipes in a week, and some even sell swipes. But if it isn’t…

“It’s an unfortunate truth that while households who can afford to pay for four Metrocards up front are rewarded with unlimited rides, lower-income transit riders who can’t front the cash for four different cards often end up paying for more expensive single-fare rides each month.”

Ken I November 12, 2021 - 7:37 am

How will this impact on seniors and others who now use half-fare cards?

Ashley C November 13, 2021 - 12:38 pm

As exciting as the OMNY system was to me, there was one factor that wans, and is preventing me from switching to an OMNY card that I don’t see in the conversation: I live in Long Island.

The n6 has to be the single most popular bus in the NICE system, and a lot of people are going to be hit with a second fare transferring from NICE to MTA, because NICE doesn’t use OMNY, they have their own system. If you’re familiar with the NICE buses at all, you’ll also know that’s not the only route that intermingles between Queens and Long Island: the n20, n4, n22, n24, n25, and n26 do as well. I’d almost be paying the price to use the LIRR just to get to Queens, but everyone knows those ticket prices rise every year so let’s not even talk about that.

I don’t know if it’s because they haven’t considered this demographic of their ridership, or if they simply don’t care, but we all know the biggest thing that sets New Yorkers from other cities is the intermingling of NYC, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. I really hope they consider this because there’s a lot of riders like me, kids and adults alike, that rely heavily on these buses and will be hit pretty hard by this change if there’s no solution.

Jack Fuller November 13, 2021 - 2:57 pm

Connectivity between transit systems in a barrier to use. It is so in the SF Bay Area, but the issue of inter-agency fares is being [slowly] eliminated with a Bay Area “Clipper” card. [ https://www.clippercard.com/ClipperWeb/index.do%5D

Some agencies have transfers between agencies, but not all. And there is no mileage-based fare, save for BART [where one must tap in and tap out.].

However, San Jose transit [Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority] is not included. San Jose is the Bay Area’s largest city [population].

The Bay Area is an interesting comparison with Vancouver BC, where there is one over-arching transit agency. The BA’s fragmentation is due to geography.

SEAN November 14, 2021 - 12:45 pm

Hi Ashley,

NICE & Bee-line will get OMNY next year at some point. And yes, the N6 is so busy regardless of time of day.

Jabal Yaffa January 24, 2022 - 4:28 pm

Check out a petition to bring back the blue MetroCard for one more run before MetroCard retires in 2023.


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