When the MTA first rolled out the MetroCard in the 1990s, it was widely hailed as a success. For the first time, passengers could transfer from the subway to city buses without being charged a second fare, and the option of unlimited seven- and 30-day passes came into play. This week, a little more than 20 years after the MTA completed the installation of MetroCard payment systems across all of New York City's subway turnstiles and buses, the authority is expected to sign off on a deal that will push its fare system into the 21st century while phasing out the magnetic stripe technology altogether.
On Monday, the MTA's finance committee approved a $539 million contract with Cubic Transportation Systems to design, install, test and implement a new fare payment system for not only the city's subways and buses but also for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. Upon its completion, the new method will allow commuters to pay their fares with the tap of a smartphone, contactless bank cards or a new MTA-issued card. Under the plan, Cubic will begin rolling out some functioning payment interfaces for contactless cards and smartphones by early 2019, and all of the city's subway turnstiles and buses will be fitted with the new system by the fall of 2020.
By January 2021, the MTA aims to replace the current eTix mobile app with a new one that will allow users to purchase tickets on any of the authority's properties (commuter trains including), allowing straphangers to purchase passes and fares straight from their phones. Vending machines for the MetroCard’s successor will roll out during the following two years, and New Yorkers will be able to say goodbye to their MetroCards for good come 2023.
It's worth noting that these dates are by no means fixed—the new system is being rolled out in five phases that are subject to a whole host of delays. Even so, the deal is a major step toward modernizing the MTA.
“The MTA is doing some really smart things,” says Jim Venturi, the principal architect for ReThink NYC, adding that the pilot rollout of foldable seats and gangway car designs are steps in the right direction. But Venturi doesn't think the MTA board should pat itself on the back for the new fare system. “This should have been done yesterday,” he says. “We're at a stage of infrastructure right now where the obvious things to do become news stories.”
He's not wrong. Tap-and-pay systems have already rolled out in subway systems in cities like London, Hong Kong and Chicago.
Venturi—whose ReThink NYC plan advocates for consolidating NJ Transit, Metro-North and LIRR into a single, unified service—also points out that the new fare payment system could lead to some intriguing possibilities, such as the ability for subway and bus riders to transfer to LIRR and Metro-North trains within the city without paying an additional fare. Doing so would be a huge deal for New Yorkers living in areas near LIRR or Metro-North stations but far away from the subway. “There is an opportunity to use this new technology to solve a greater good,” he says.
If and when a more widespread application of the new payment system is implemented remains to be seen. For now, New Yorkers can start counting down to the death of the MetroCard. There will be at least four years during which the subway and bus riders can use either MetroCards or the new tap-and-pay system, down from the roughly 10 years it took for the authority to phase out subway tokens.
The full MTA board will vote on the contract on Wednesday.