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OMNY Is Alive: MTA Opens Up Tap Payment System In Limited Subway Pilot

At 12:15 p.m. on Friday, the MTA activated OMNY, its long-awaited tap payment system for subways and buses that will one day replace the MetroCard. The readers have been installed at sixteen 4, 5, and 6 train stations between Grand Central and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center, as well as on all Staten Island buses as part of a pilot program.

Riders can use OMNY—which stands for One Metro New York—by using a contactless credit card (it will have the WiFi symbol on the card) or using a credit/debit card hooked up to a smartphone. Eventually, riders will also be able to buy an OMNY card. More subway stations and bus lines will be getting OMNY readers this and next year, with total OMNY-fication at all stations and on all bus routes by the end of 2020.

Right now, each ride via OMNY costs the full $2.75 fare, but the MTA says it will add time-based, reduced fare, and student fares to OMNY once it's available throughout the system. The MTA hopes to phase out the MetroCard by 2023.

MTA CEO Patrick Foye noted in a press conference at the Bowling Green station that the project had been "years" in the making, with transit officials and their partners at Cubic (the company behind the technolog; they are also involved with MetroCard), working over the past few months to get the pilot ready. Foye, NYC Transit President Andy Byford, and NYC Transit Chief Revenue Office Al Putre all emphasized that it would make commutes much easier, especially on buses. Putre said 30 people per minute will be able to tap through, which is about the same number of MetroCard swipes turnstiles can handle—assuming every swipe goes perfectly.

"It's the quickest, easiest way to pay," Byford said. Referring to how having OMNY connected to credit cards would eliminate the need to refill MetroCards, he added, "You don't have to line up to top up the card."

One man tried to use his American Express card with an OMNY reader, but it took him much longer than the estimated 2 seconds.

"There is an education campaign that we've conducted, we'll continue to update," Foye said. "There are people, including me, who have to do multiple swipes with their MetroCard, so I'm in need of education. And we're prepared for that education campaign, we've rolled it out and we'll be continuing and increasing it going forward."

Putre said that there are hundreds of different credit cards from around the world, and each credit card has its own "computer," so this pilot will give MTA and Cubic to opportunity to adapt and add cards to its software. Another thing to consider: All the credit card companies needing to reconcile their own systems with smartphones, etc.

Byford was also proud that the MTA jumped into using an open payment system—as in not being tied to having some kind of a card—and said that New York City was able to learn from what London, Sydney, and Toronto have found out from their forays with contactless payment. "It's transformative," he rhapsodized.

The MTA awarded a $573 million contract to Cubic Transportation Systems to implement the technology in 2017. Once fully rolled-out, the MTA expects the contactless system to save "tens of millions," according to Foye, because the MTA will no longer have to pay for various MetroCard upkeep costs.

Executives brushed aside worries about data privacy, saying that data was encrypted from the point of purchase and that information was stored with the credit companies. Foye said the MTA would not sell its customers' data either.

Albert Cahn Fox, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, reviewed OMNY's privacy policy and terms of service and told Gothamist he had "a lot of unanswered questions. For example, the law enforcement section allows information sharing with authorities, even without a warrant or subpoena, when agencies simply request data. Furthermore, it was unclear what access the MTA police would have to the data. Lastly, while end users will have travel history for up to 90 days, it’s unclear if there’s any limit on how long the MTA itself can retain such data, opening up concerns about indefinite retention."

Monqiue Sanchez, 33, who lives on Staten Island, doesn't like to connect her credit card to her phone, but is very excited to start using her credit card to tap on the bus for rides.

"I feel like it might be easier," Sanchez said. "Honestly, now that the Express buses aren't taking coins, I feel like if you have a card, you just go."

"It'll be one less thing to carry around in the wallet, and less trash," Ray McConville, 36, who lives in Hell's Kitchen, said. He's ready to use it when OMNY is ready for unlimited MetroCards. But he wonders why the MTA didn't do more to modernize the turnstiles. "It would've been good to see if they took the time to redesign the turnstiles while in their in the midst of retrofitting all of them, but it is kinda cool seeing the old token slots, the MetroCard slots and then OMNY tap to pay all in one, it's like a little time capsule."

Additional reporting by Stephen Nessen

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