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MetroCards Outdated, But Replacement Years Away

By Zachary Stieber
Epoch Times Staff
Created: January 28, 2013 Last Updated: January 30, 2013
Related articles: United States » New York City
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The MetroCard. (Deborah Yun/The Epoch Times)

The MetroCard. (Deborah Yun/The Epoch Times)

NEW YORK—MetroCards are already obsolete says the MTA, but the agency won’t be moving to next generation fare technology anytime soon.

In the age of burgeoning payment technology, people are purchasing more and more with credit and debit cards that have embedded chips rather than magnetic strips, as well as mobile payment apps. But not in enough numbers for the MTA to make use of the chips in the subway system. 

Cards with chips and PIN numbers are the norm in Europe for ticket machines at train and subway stations, luggage lockers, toll roads, parking garages, and self-serve gas pumps. The key is a non-contact scan, rather than swiping with the magnetic strip. Over time, magnetic strips are damaged, the swipe machines need to be cleaned often, and tend to break down faster. 

In the US, chip cards have been slow to catch on. “Retail merchants didn’t dedicate resources to meet them and customers didn’t see the value,” Jerry Page, director of strategic initiatives, told the MTA Capital Program Oversight Committee on Monday. 

There is no argument that MetroCards need to be replaced. First introduced in 1993 and completely implemented in 1997, the current fare system was expected to be used for about two decades. Now, the various components of the system are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.

“There are just so many good reasons to get rid of MetroCards,” said nonvoting board member Andrew Albert. He cited failed swipes due to defective or damaged magnetic strips, having to clean the turnstiles, and the burden of handling cash and coin payments.

Two phases of a pilot program, one in 2006 and one in 2010, proved contactless cards will work in the subway system, according to Michael DeVitto, executive vice president in the fare collection unit.

The previous plan was to completely change the fare payment system by 2015. The update is the new generation of cards won’t be ready until 2016 or later. Either way, the MetroCard cannot be used beyond 2019, according to a presentation to board members.

The replacement will likely include reconfiguring some electronics inside of the turnstile infrastructure.

In 2011, 1.6 billion people used the system’s 468 stations.

High turnover at the top of the MTA, including the recent resignation of former chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota to run for mayor, might have contributed to the set back.

“It doesn’t help,” said Adam Lisberg, an MTA spokesperson.

London, Hong Kong, and Chicago, among other systems, use contactless cards. Hong Kong launched its Octopus Card in 1997, and its popularity translates to 13 million cards being used by the territory’s 7 million people, according to the website of MTR, the managing entity. The cards can be used at some restaurants and stores as well as public transit.

The new fare payment for New York will not change the pricing system (to a distance or zone based pricing), confirmed Lisberg.

The MTA staff working on the new fare payment will give an update in July.

Meanwhile, on the commuter railroads (Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road), the agency has been testing digital tickets via smartphones or tablets.

A request for proposals from companies that can help develop a complete system for digital ticketing was announced on Monday.

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