On January 6th, 1994, subway tokens began their long goodbye from the city's transit system upon the arrival of "something called a MetroCard," as WABC 7 anchor Diana Williams declared during a broadcast that day. Upon its introduction, the cards were only available at two Lower Manhattan stations, the Whitehall and Wall Street stations (on the 4, 5, N, and R lines), but the goal was to have all subway stations outfitted with MetroCard turnstiles by 1995.
The move was not only meant to replace the cumbersome payment method — it was to make mass transit more accessible with fare incentives.
One big change the MetroCard heralded was an increase in bus trips to/from subway stations: Thanks to the free transfers it allowed (given the cards could store payment data), riders who had previously chosen a long walk were now hopping on the bus at no extra charge. This was something that straphanger groups had been pushing for at the time.
“The MTA’s adoption of MetroCards led to fundamental changes in how people use the transit system including enabling the mass production and easy transport of cards to a wide distribution of retail outlets in every community," MTA spokesperson Eugene Resnick told Gothamist.
As for the new fare incentives they offered, he said, "The cards allowed for customers to transfer between subways, buses and between unconnected subway stations, which significantly increased ridership. This technology also allowed the MTA to offer multi-ride discounts, unlimited passes including monthlies, and other fare incentives intended to provide more convenience and savings for riders."
New Yorkers knew the change was coming before that first day in 1994, and among the coverage leading up to its introduction was a piece by Newsday reporter Ellis Henican, who in the summer of 1993 became the one and only reporter to cover the new MetroCard mascot, created to hype up the big change in transit payment.
The MTA's internal MetroCard marketing plan had stated that this character, called Cardvaark, was meant to be "a high-tech yet lovable creature who can `sell' the card." But Henican savagely called it "a dumb-looking, snout-nosed, big-eared, bug-eyed, round-cheeked, pot-bellied, card-pitching mascot."
Cardvaark wasn't a very present figure in the transit system, but that didn't matter — it was all about this sleek new payment method that would lighten the load for straphangers. For comparison, imagine carrying around one of the old TimeSaver Paks:
"It's a lot lighter than carrying a lot of tokens, I think it's a great idea," one woman told WABC in the below clip.
While the token was more elegant, the MetroCard provided more ease (once you got the swipe down) and was easier to carry around. Aside from the TimeSave Paks, some even carried custom token holders to avoid losing tokens in their pockets.
On that first day of the MetroCard, which came after nearly a year of testing, more than 660 cards were sold, New York Transit Museum curator Jodi Shapiro told Gothamist, adding that sales "steadily increased" from there.
Though tokens were still in use through 2003, by 1997 MetroCards were being used system-wide—sales of the cards via vending machines on April 3rd, 1998 brought in $3,170,774 (in 2019, that was up to $16,374,338 on a typical day).
The big jump came in 1997, Shapiro said, when "the card became MetroCard Gold—this change marked the beginning of free transfers between buses and subways with the card; previously a customer would have to pay two separate fares." This is also when the blue MetroCard got its new golden color.
And production was full speed ahead:
Before OMNY — which many New Yorkers still haven't adopted — began rolling out in 2019, the MetroCard had been our only payment method for decades. But prior to that, the system saw more frequent changes, mainly in tweaks to the longstanding tokens.
It all started with a time-consuming paper ticket system, though.
PAPER TICKETS AND THE DIME-DROPPING ERA
The first payment method was a paper ticket that you could purchase for 5 cents. (Between 1904 and now, single fare rides have gone up from 5 cents to $2.75, with the first fare hike in 1948 when it went up to 10 cents.)
"A subway customer would buy a paper ticket from the booth, then walk over to an attendant by a ticket chopper, who would verify the ticket, destroy it in the chopper, and allow the customer into the system," Shapiro told Gothamist. "The Board of Transportation kept the fare at five cents for more than four decades."
In 1920, paper tickets were eliminated, as electric turnstiles made their way into stations. "At this point, straphangers could just drop down a nickel for entry," Shapiro said. That lasted until July 1st, 1948, when the fare rose to 10 cents—this is often referred to as the “dime-dropping era," and The New York Times reported at the time, “Heat plagued men and women of Gotham poured through the changed-over subway turnstiles, meekly as sheep turn into a familiar fold, dropping dimes instead of nickels without protest."
In 1953, things changed again — on July 25th of that year, the fare increased once again, this time to 15 cents. And since there wasn't a 15-cent coin, the subway got its own currency.
THE TOKEN DAYS
Shapiro says the token was introduced for two reasons: "It was decided that changing the coin slots and acceptance mechanisms on turnstiles to accommodate two coins was too time-consuming and expensive, and at the same time the idea of having 'transit currency' was embraced. A token could be assigned whatever value the newly-formed New York City Transit Authority decided it to be, and it was a standard size, so fare equipment did not need to be modified."
Over time, there were six tokens used in regular revenue service:
- “Y” Cut Token (1953–1970)
- Quarter-Sized Cut-Out Token (1970–1979)
- Diamond Jubilee Token (1978–1980) — Note: this one did not accompany a fare increase, it was a commemorative token that you could also use in the system
- Quarter-Sized Solid Token (1980–1986)
- The Bull’s-Eye Token (1986–1995)
- The Five Borough Token (1995–1997)
The first token in widespread use was arguably the most popular of all the tokens: the "Y" cut.
It was designed by Louis A. Schineller, a NYCT employee with a background in graphic design, and according to Shapiro "it was made of solid brass and the size of a dime so turnstiles did not have to be altered." By the end of the token era, they were the size of a quarter.
In 1980, of course, that cut-out was completely eliminated. Why? "Previous tokens had trapped lint from people’s pockets and the accumulated lint eventually clogged turnstiles," Shapiro said.
That "Y" cut was still a favorite of New Yorkers, though, and the New York Times later called it an "icon" of the city. And when there's a winner, there's a loser — according to the Paper of Record, that was the Five Borough Token. When it was introduced in the 1990s, the Times wrote: "It's plain, almost generic. What's there to connect it with New York? Unless your eyes are good enough to read the tiny lettering that identifies it as coming from New York City Transit, this token could be the coin of some minor faraway kingdom." The writer thought they looked more D.C. than NYC, but the pentagonal hole was meant to represent each of the boroughs.
But its real magic was inside. "These tokens were made of a special ferrous metal to make the token slightly magnetic so that it could not be duplicated," Shapiro said. "Turnstiles of the era could detect their specific magnetism, making slugs unusable. It was the only token issued by NYCTA that was never successfully counterfeited."
It's worth noting that along with counterfeit tokens, the token era had another problem: token-sucking, when some would seal their lips over the token slot, inhale, and get a free fare.
By the end of 2003, the token system was fully retired, we were all MetroCard carriers.
Here's the late Richard Hake, with an ode to the subway token in 2003, as MetroCards finally took over the system:
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TOKENS YOU PROBABLY NEVER HEARD ABOUT
If you're not a vecturist, then you may not know about some of the slight variations on these tokens. Shapiro said, "Since different mints made the tokens over the years, there’s slight differences in, say, the 'Y' cutout tokens — mostly in the lettering in GOOD FOR ONE FARE."
There were also commemorative tokens over the years, like the Aqueduct Special Token (introduced in 1966) which was only used for the special Aqueduct subway service and later repurposed as an express bus token. And there was the Archer Avenue Extension commemorative Bullseye token, which was issued for the opening of the extension (this was interchangeable with the regular Bullseye token).
Another fun fact for the real heads: the “spirograph” type pattern that makes up the texture of the token is called hypotrochoid, Shapiro explained.
But back to the rarities — perhaps one of the least-known subway tokens was the "monogrammed" Bullseye tokens.
Shapiro explained that "in 1986, Sylvester J. Dobosz, then Assistant Controller of NYCT, placed the order for the Bullseye token with one last minute design change: adding his own initials, SJD. He claimed the addition helped in anti-counterfeiting measures. Sixty million tokens were made, but his unauthorized alteration was soon discovered and 30 million more tokens — without his initials — were minted."
THE COMMEMORATIVE METROCARDS
Of course, the MetroCard has had commemorative designs too (remember those popular David Bowie cards in 2018?). The difference here is that the MetroCard was able to give the MTA ad space to sell, which they began to do in 1995. But in 2012, they expanded this idea and offered up the entire front and back of the MetroCard (minus the black stripe) to advertisers. So after that, we got things like the Twin Peaks cards in 2017 when the reboot was released, and Supreme-branded cards the same year.
OUR OMNY FUTURE
Coming up next, the OMNY era. While many New Yorkers are still using their trusty MetroCard, the OMNY pay scanners are now in every station, and change is coming. You can keep swiping your MetroCard until sometime in 2023, when OMNY will be the only fare accepted system-wide.
And then you won't be seeing this struggle at the turnstiles anymore: