This week marked the 20th anniversary of the MetroCard—but there won't be many more such milestones in its future. The MTA plans to supersede the MetroCard with a new form of "fare payment technology" starting in 2019. "[The MetroCard] was revolutionary for it's time," MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan told us. "It's time has come, and it's time to move on to the next innovation."
The MTA wants to switch over to an electronic system that would get rid of the need for separate cards: "It would be a new fare payment system that is based on a form of technology for payment," Donovan said, "which is technically known as the RFID or NFC for near-field communication type of payment. It's really common in Europe; you can pay for taxis with it. It hasn't gotten as much traction here but it has overseas."
The idea is to install an E-Z Pass-esque system in the subways: instead of swiping a magnetic MetroCard strip, you would tap a credit card, smartphone or keychain (anything with the particular chip embedded in it) and go straight through. D.C. has already adopted a similar technology with SmartTrip, but there's a key difference between their cards and the MTA's plan: the MTA doesn't want to produce any more physical cards.
In D.C., the WMATA produces the SmartTrip Cards embedded with the chip—the MTA's plan is reliant on credit card companies adopting the new technology.
What we're looking to do in 2019, or thereabouts, is to reduce the presence of the MTA in selling a particular card that you then carry around with you. What we're envisioning is the large banks and credit card companies will be moving towards including the RFID chips right in their credit cards. That takes place on a large scale. Customers would just be able to tap their own credit cards at the turnstile, rather than having to go to a machine, insert the credit card into the machine, take out the credit card, and get a new card from the MTA. We'd take away that whole step and say you just tap your own card—debit card or credit card—and then you would be able to see on your bank statement how much you paid to the MTA and when.
The MTA will still have unlimited and pay-per-ride plans—this technology wouldn't affect fare prices, in theory—but the physical mechanism at the turnstile would be different. The plus sides of this plan: it would reduce wait times on buses, it would end the need to have a separate card in your wallet, it would save the MTA approximately $6 million a year producing those cards, it would save the MTA money maintaining MetroCard vending machines, and it would mark the end of the tyranny of the missed swipe.
The challenge with the plan, assuming they stick to their goal of getting the first new tap machines installed in some subway stations by 2019, is that the MTA will be relying on another industry to implement it. While some companies have already adopted the technology, other credit card companies are still grappling with security risks associated with RFID technology.
The other potential problem: not everyone in NYC has a credit or debit card. According to a study commissioned by the city's Department of Consumer Affairs' (DCA) Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) , more than 825,000 adults in New York City—13 percent of all households—do not have bank or credit union accounts. The MTA is hoping that smartphones will also be enabled with apps that can be used to tap as well, and they say there will be a long period of overlap between MetroCards and the new system. But there are still some serious questions to be addressed before any concrete plan is down.
These are all the kinks they are tackling now, as they begin to build a plan to introduce the new system. So NYC likely won't get more details on the future of mass transit till next year: "We will put flesh on these conceptual bones fairly soon, maybe a year or two from now," Donovan said. "The actual capital program is a five-year plan and right now we are in the 2010-2014 plan. So in the course of this year we will be putting forward details on the next capital program, 2015-2019."