Streams

Smart Cards Coming to City's Subways and Buses

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The region's three transit agencies launched a "smart card" pilot today, saying it would cut down on their operating costs and make commuting more convenient for riders.

If it works, the technology could lead to the demise of the MetroCard and the rise of an interstate system that would let commuters travel from Red Bank, New Jersey to Red Hook, Brooklyn, without buying a ticket--much less two or three tickets.

Over the next six months, people with certain types of credit or debit cards can tap them against specially designated fare boxes and turnstiles on parts of New York's and New Jersey's transit network. That means that instead of buying a MetroCard at a machine and then swiping it, the commuter only needs to dig out the right card from their wallets.

The eight New York City bus lines where the cards will work were chosen because they connect with the 4,5 and 6 subway line: the M14, M23, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103 and BxM7. NJ Transit selected the 6, 80 and 87 bus routes because they connect to the PATH. Most entrances to the PATH are enabled except the Christopher Street and 9th Street Stations in Manhattan.

“The same card that allows you to go to the store to buy groceries is the same card that allows you go to the movie theater is the same card that allows you to get on the transit system,” MTA Chairman Jay Walder said at a press conference announcing the pilot program.

Walder said the card had a variety of benefits, including “the end of the mis-swipe.”

"I've been using it all around on the Lexington Avenue line,” he added. “I have not yet found a single place where there's been any difficulty.”

(Walder was given a card to try out two weeks ago, that’s how long this system was actually enabled without anyone noticing.)

The Transit Trial, as the six-month pilot is called, is actually the second phase of the MTA’s test of a “contactless” fare payment system. The first one lasted from 2006 until last year and applied only to the Lexington Avenue subway line. This time, the Lexington line was brought back into play, as well as eight New York City bus routes, three New Jersey Transit bus routes and most PATH stations.

Walder says if all goes well, the contactless fare payment system could be rolled out across the five boroughs next year. It’s not clear when, or whether, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad would adopt contactless cards since they don’t have turnstiles.

Walder was instrumental in bringing the contactless Oyster card to the London Underground when he was an executive there. Various other systems around the world, from Hong Kong to Miami, also use contactless cards. PATH launched its SmartLink card two years ago.

In contrast to those systems, though, the latest trial is piggy-banking on computer chip-enabled cards that are already out there.

The new fare payment system, if it gets adopted broadly, will help realize a planner’s dream by letting commuters switch from one authority's network to another without having to carry multiple passes or stop and buy new fare cards each time. (Transfers between those system will still cost you, however transfers within each system will follow the current rules.)

“People, when they're traveling to home, to their office, or they're going through their daily commutes, they are not concerned about whether they are on a Port Authority system or an MTA system,” Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia said. “We need to be able to work continuously on making it easier for people to move around the region and that has a direct impact on our ability to be competitive from an economic standpoint.”

Straphanger reaction is mixed. Thomas Di Mascio, the procurement director for DC Comics, says he's used the new kind of card while traveling in Hong Kong.

“It's just easy,” he said. “I keep it in my wallet, you take it out, you punch it on the thing, I don't have to take anything out of my wallet and swipe it.”

Bernie Escarcega, a music engineer and military reservist, says he doesn’t find anything wrong with the current system.

“I figure if it's not broke, why fix it?” he said. “I mean it's convenient if you don't have a MetroCard, but I figure, the machines are easier.”

MTA officials have been eager to get off the MetroCard standard because they expect that they will need to replace all of its equipment soon. Instead of spending money that way, Walder says, the MTA could spend it upgrading to a more modern system. The MTA capital plan allocates $275 million for a contactless fare system.

Because the trial piggybacks on bank cards, the technology will also save the agency the cost of operating its own proprietary payment system, though Walder says that the MTA will eventually have to accommodate or come up with a way to provide for the many New Yorkers who don’t have debit or credit cards.

The MTA will lose between 2 and 3 percent on bank interchange fees for fares purchased through the new system, according to Amy Linden, the senior director for new fare payments. But that’s the same amount as the authority loses when people buy MetroCards with debit or credit cards now, and the MTA loses even more money when customers use cash because of how expensive it is to handle, she says

Transit advocate Gene Russianoff of the Straphanger’s Campaign says he’s circumspect about the new fare payment system because other systems that use them, namely London’s, have much higher fares than New York. He also notes that it generally costs a lot more and takes a lot longer for the MTA to implement new technology.

“But in general, I’m holding my powder,” Russianoff said. He’s scheduled to get a demonstration on Friday.

MasterCard is paying for the pilot. In return, holders of its PayPass card--a credit or debit card with a computer chip and antenna--get exclusive access to the pilot project for the first two months. After that, owners of a similar card from Visa, the Wave, can also take part.

Tapping the cards will deduct the cost of a ride from one’s bank account, though it’s also possible to get discounted fares by pre-loading the card with multiple fares or a monthly pass. (A word of warning: don't get the weekly or monthly card unless you are sure you will only need to use those subway stations or bus lines that are equipped for the pilot, otherwise, you will have to use a regular MetroCard to get on elsewhere.)

For more information, or to pre-load a card, check out the official website.

Or check out WNYC's previous coverage here.

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