Object # 2: The Subway Token

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It might seem odd that our listeners chose an object that hasn’t been used in New York City for nearly a decade as number two on our list. But as Robert Del Bango of the New York City Transit Museum told us, it’s actually “a very smart object” to tell the story of New York. (continue reading)

For starters, the cost of a subway fare has always been a pretty good way to estimate the price of a slice of pizza. Then, there is the fact that most of the things that make New York what it is (densely populated, filled with skyscrapers, etc.) have always relied on public transit.

In the early days of the subway passengers would purchase a 5-cent paper ticket when they entered the station. Ticket terminals were later replaced by turnstiles, which took regular coins. The city didn’t introduce the specially designed subway token until 1953. That system stuck for the next 50 years and was, according to Del Bango, astoundingly inefficient. He said “You used to have seven million people riding the subway every day, spending two million dollars each day on subways and busses,” which created a bit of a problem. “All that money is being dumped into the system every day and it has to be taken out of the booths and out of the turnstiles. It was incredibly labor intensive to collect all that money and distribute it throughout the city.” With the Metrocard, one simple swipe means the MTA gets its cash in fractions of a second.

The subway token went through a number of redesigns until it was phased out in 2003. One redesign was to address a technical problem with the distinct y-shape cut in the middle of the token. “You put it in your pocket and lint would get into the Y and it would clog up the turnstiles,” Del Bango said.

Then there was the problem of counterfeiters and fare evaders, with whom the MTA seemed to be locked in a constant battle. In Steal this Book, Abbie Hoffman advised readers who wanted to cheat the MTA out of a fare to “buy a cheap bag of assorted foreign coins from a dealer that you can locate in the Yellow Pages. Size up the coins with a token from your subway system.” Later he notes that the Jamaican half penny, the Bahaman penny and the Australian schilling all are about 12/1000th to 15/1000th inch smaller than a New York token, and would work in about 80-percent of turnstiles. In 1995 the MTA finally succeed in creating a counterfeit-proof token. Del Bango described it as being made “from a combination of rare metal alloys that had distinctive magnetic characteristics” that prevented the illicit use of Jamaican half pennies.

The arrival of the Metrocard was met with a bit of resistance by New Yorkers. “There is something we like about “real” objects, that mechanical feeling of dropping a token into a turnstile,” Del Bango said. Still, does he miss subway tokens? “Honestly, no. Everything does work better now.”