The Iconic MetroCard Will Soon Go the Way of the Token

For 27 years, New Yorkers of all kinds have carried around a thin card of yellow plastic that grants entry to the city’s underground arteries.

But if plans go according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority and its longtime contractor, the Cubic Corporation, the MetroCard will go the way of the token by 2023. In fact, the shift is already underway. 

New York City will be one of the first in the U.S. to have a contactless system, Steve Brunner, vice president and general manager for Cubic’s operations in New York, said in an interview. Chicago may have been first in contactless payment, but New York will be the first major American city to have what mass transit experts call an open-based system that allows third-party payment media.

Starting this month, New Yorkers will be able to enter select subway lines and bus routes by holding up the payment applications—such as Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Google Pay—on their smartphone or smartwatch to a bright blue reader on the turnstile. Even a credit card itself can be tapped on the screen, if it has the contactless logo.

The white contactless logo on the left indicates that this credit card has tap-to-pay capability.

Commuters who use such features will be able to manage their MTA accounts and see their ride history on the MTA website and on a new app.

Of course, not everyone uses payment apps or credit cards, and some people don’t carry smartphones, so word of the plan got some pushback on social media. “So what if my grandparents who don’t have smartphones want to take the subway?” wrote Malaika Holder on Facebook, in response to news of the upgrade.

The answer: the MTA will still issue a card that commuters can tap on the new readers. Transit authorities are still working on the design of the new OMNY Card (short for One Metro New York).

Aside from speed of entry, advocates see other benefits. The transportation advocacy group Straphangers, for example, hopes the change will allow the MTA to pursue all-door boarding on buses. “Buses spend most of their dwell time waiting for passengers to pay before boarding,” said Jaqi Cohen, an organizer for Straphangers, told NYCityLens. “This would allow passengers to pay at every door of the bus and speed up bus service.”

Cohen also expressed hope that the new system, which would accumulate discounted fares retroactively, would make payment easier for riders who can’t afford a monthly MetroCard upfront.

Employees of the MTA and Cubic have been entering the subway through the new contactless system for the past month. The public rollout in May will be limited to buses on Staten Island and the Lexington Avenue subway line.

Cubic designed the original MetroCard system, which launched in 1992. The company won the $535.9 million contract to build the new contactless system in October 2017.

Was it necessary? “The Metrocard works just fine,” wrote Facebook user Dustin Ginsberg. “How about investing that money into fixing the system’s infrastructure?”

“The Metrocard was at the end of life,” Brunner said. “It’s getting harder and more expensive to support the system and order spares.”

MetroCards have been produced in New York City by the MTA, he explained. “They had to make about 10 million cards a month. It’s too big a job for the MTA,” said Brunner. “Now they’re going to encourage people to use their own ticketing media.”

Cubic’s contactless reader can decide whether to let a rider through in 500 milliseconds, according to Brunner. That’s nearly as fast as the blink of an eye, or a heartbeat. The seamlessness of contactless pay will hopefully reduce fare evasion, as well. “People say they jump the turnstile because they swipe the card, realize they don’t have enough fare, and the train’s coming,” said Brunner. “Now that you can pay with your credit card, there’s no problem of ‘Oh, I don’t have any fare, I need to go back to the booth.’”

MTA employees are being trained to guide customers through the new readers. “Of course I’m excited—I work for the MTA!” said Murray, an MTA employee who spoke with NYCityLens as he directed customers through Penn Station, one of the city’s busiest subway stops. He declined to give his last name.

Cubic aims to have the entire MTA system—subway, buses, Metro-North, and the Long Island Railroad included—outfitted with the new readers by October 2020.

To manage the OMNY project, the company says it is looking to fill information technology positions in its New York office and also hiring for a new customer service facility in Buffalo. The readers and vending machines are manufactured 900 miles away from the city, in Cubic’s Tullahoma, Tenn. factory. 

For Brunner, who joined Cubic in 1983 as a software engineering intern on the original MetroCard team, seeing his first project as a relic in the New York Transit Museum will not be a sad prospect.

“I’m very proud of the original MetroCard,” Brunner said. “When we won the contract, an MTA official said, ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to upgrade the system. But this is the second time in my lifetime.”