Gotham Gazette

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Beyond The MetroCard

Tired of the “please swipe again” message on subway turnstiles? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has announced a pilot program to let customers get through the gate quickly and reliably by simply tapping their credit card on a turnstile.

While only a test of a new technology, the pilot program opens possibilities as revolutionary as the MetroCard.

The MTA’s experiment uses an existing technology, the MasterCard PayPass, which is already used at McDonalds, various drugstores and with vendors at the PGA Tour and other sporting events. Citibank MasterCard PayPass credit card holders enrolled in the pilot program will be able to use their credit card or a tag that can be hung on a keychain to zip through the turnstile. In the pilot, every sixth ride will be free as with a pay-per-ride MetroCard. The test is not compatible with unlimited ride passes and will not offer free transfers to buses. Participants will be billed on their monthly credit card bill.

Citibank is footing the cost of installing PayPass readers at 23 stations on the Lexington Avenue line and one station each in Brooklyn and Queens. Only trial participants will be able to use their PayPass-enabled cards or keys in the program. According to the MTA, the test is intended to determine how well the technology works in the New York City subway environment and whether riders would like to use this kind of payment. Experience in Chicago and Washington DC, both of which are far ahead of New York in contact-less fare payment, suggests that riders will flock to more convenient ways to pay the fare. Transit systems in both cities have been offering contact-less “smart cards” for several years. The cards work similarly to a MetroCard in that riders add value to the card at subway stations. There is a $5 fee for purchasing the cards, which can be recharged indefinitely. (The fee has been waived during introductory periods in Chicago.) Like the MasterCard PayPass, smart cards are tapped rather than swiped at the turnstile.

In Washington, over 800,000 plastic rechargeable smart cards have been sold and are used by one-third of Metro rail riders. The cards can also be used on the Metro rail and bus system and at Metro parking lots, and will be expanded to other rail systems in the DC area. DC area riders can now get a Citi MasterCard that doubles as a transit smart card as well. Chicago’s smart cards can be used on the city’s buses and trains and also on the suburban bus system, becoming the first multi-agency smart card in the country. When transit fares paid in cash – but not with smart cards – were raised in January, Chicago’s smart cards became so popular that local retail outlets ran out of them. Even before the fare change, 250,000 smart cards had been issued.

Chicago has two versions of smart card. One version is recharged at subway stations; the other is recharged via the users’ credit card. Like EasyPass tags used to pay bridge and tunnel tolls, Chicago Card Plus accounts can be managed on-line and the account can be automatically replenished when it runs low. The Plus card can be used to pay both per-ride fares and as a 30-day pass. Riders choosing the 30-day option can also “pass back” the card when traveling with others and are charged a separate per-ride fare for those trips.

The PATH system and transit systems in Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Houston, Seattle, Orlando and other cities are in various stages of smart card development and deployment. The PATH system is currently testing its smart card technology in a program that is not directly related to the MTA test.

The smart card systems currently in place or being tested show two approaches to smart card deployment. The primary approach continues the MetroCard concept of having a dedicated transit system payment card that may also be used for parking and other purposes. Like the MetroCard, it requires users to acquire the card and learn how to use it. For regular riders, transit system smart cards offer the convenience of quick entry and all the fare options of plastic fare cards like the MetroCard. Transit system smart cards can be implemented regionally so that travelers need not purchase separate fare media for subway, commuter train, parking lots, etc. As in DC, smart cards can offer the convenience of automatic replenishment.

The MasterCard PayPass is a different and intriguing approach, relying on credit cards that riders may already have in their pocket. It would seem particularly apt for visitors and occasional users who are not likely to want to bother with having a permanent smart card issued by the transit agency. Whether smart cards issued through private banks could or should ever replace the MetroCard – or could have all of the MetroCard’s capabilities such as free transfers and unlimited ride passes – does not seem to be addressed in this pilot.

The two approaches use the same RFID (radio frequency identifiers) technology. The cards use radio frequency to send encrypted account information to readers integrated with the turnstile. The same technology (though different encryption methods) are used by MasterCard, American Express and Visa. Thus, a turnstile programmed to accept MasterCard could also be programmed to accept other credit cards and smart cards issued by transit agencies.

Perhaps the best system would be a combination of transit system-issued smart cards and commercially issued cards. Regular riders would want the dedicated card with the full range of fare payment options. But the visitor could dispense with figuring out the local transit system’s arcane fare rules and just tap their credit card at the turnstile. These riders might not always get the best fare deal, but they probably would not be using the subway enough to want to worry about it.

Either way, the next generation of fare collection technology offers increased convenience and ease of fare payment for transit riders. As is the case now for motorists with E-Zpass, riders will almost never need to think about paying the fare wherever they travel. This will be good for both riders and for transit systems, which are likely to enjoy increased patronage from making their systems easier to use.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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