The New York City subway system is one of humanity's greatest accomplishments. It's the bloodline that millions of people rely upon each and every day. Sure, delays can make it incredibly frustrating to ride, and it can often smell worse than a fermenting vat of East River water, but the subway is what makes New York, well, New York.
The subway—much like the rest of New York City—has not always been the envy of people who live elsewhere. It's suffered through decades of low ridership, disrepair and waves of crime. A report from the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation breaks down how the MTA subway system changed from a problematic mess in 1975 to one that provides more than 1.7 billion rides every year.
The report found that there was one key tipping point in making the subway what it is today: the advent of the MetroCard. The impact that the magnetic striped pieces of plastic have had on the city over the past two decades cannot be understated. They're the greatest thing that's ever happened to New York City—period (you know, aside from things like indoor plumbing and the subway itself).
Here are five reasons why.
MetroCards have given New Yorkers an unparalleled level of transit freedom
The modern iteration of the MetroCard was first rolled out in 1997, replacing the tokens that were somehow still in use. For the first time, New Yorkers had the option of buying unlimited seven- and 30-day passes and to transfer between trains and buses without being charged. When the cards were first announced, then-Governor George Pataki said they would "empower the person who takes the subway and the person who takes the bus by giving them the broadest possible range of options as to how they want to choose to use the mass transit system."
Pataki had no idea how big of a hit the cards would be, or the effect they'd have on leveling the playing field across the city. Heck, riders are now encouraged to swipe people into the subway with their unlimited cards when asked.
They gave way for huge increases in MTA ridership
Graph: NYU Rudin Center for Transportation
When commuters were first able to make free transfers between trains and buses by way of the MetroCard in 1997, it opened the subway up to millions who would otherwise be unable to ride. In 1998, the annual ridership jumped by more than 137 million rides compared to the year before. To put that into perspective, between 1975 and 1998, the average annual increase was about four million rides. This isn't as much a factor of the tokens being awful as it is the MetroCard being incredibly effective, the report argues.
The MetroCards allowed for the boroughs to be connected like never before
Between 1997 and 1998, subway ridership increased in Brooklyn by 16 percent and in the Bronx by 17 percent. Why? The goddamn MetroCard. Because riders were able to purchase unlimited passes, they were able to navigate the boroughs, transfer as they pleased and effectively work anywhere without worrying about being too broke to get home. This might seem like small potatoes today, but in the late 90s it was a big F-ing deal. The MetroCard truly unified New York (except Staten Island—sorry).
They made the subway system more affordable
Aside from the fact that the MetroCard stripped away the cost of a transfer, they were also incredibly affordable when they debuted. When unlimited ride cards were first introduced in 1998, a 30-day pass cost just $63—a little more than half of the current price. Back then, the cost of a single ride was $1.50 each, making the cost of an unlimited ride card equivalent to 42 individual trips. With the most recent MTA fare increase, a 30-day pass costs the equivalent of 44 single rides (if you don't count the five percent bonus you get when you load more than $5.50 onto your card).
Most of all, they allow New Yorkers to identify tourists
One telltale sign that someone on the subway is from out of town is their inability to swipe their way through the turnstile (even Hillary Clinton fell victim to this during her campaign last year). If you're looking for a social construct that levels the playing field, look no further than an MTA subway swipe machine. Whether you're a CEO or a crust punk, forcing people to wait behind you as you fiddle with your MetroCard is an unforgivable sin.
The MetroCard has become every New Yorkers key to the city, and it's easy to take them for granted. But when you look back on the impact that the advent has had on NYC and everything that has changed with it, it's hard not to call those magnetic stripe wonders the greatest thing that's ever happened to the city.