Why is New York still stuck with the MetroCard?

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Old-fashioned turnstiles in Brooklyn. (Adam Fagen via Flickr)
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Six years and two chairmen ago, when George W. Bush was still president and George Pataki the governor, the M.T.A. tested out a new technology that promised to hasten commutes and lessen the authority’s overhead: a smart card.

Straphangers equipped with credit cards, debit cards or fobs capable of wireless communication could pass through some subway turnstiles on the Lexington Avenue line with the mere flick of the card in front of a reader.

The technology was a way "to quickly get through the turnstiles and get onto our subways so we don't have to stand in lines on hot days like this," said then-New York Giant Tiki Barber at the July launch of the pilot program at the Grand Central subway station.

"It could be the beginning of the end of the line for the MetroCard," proclaimed the Daily News.

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Four hot summers later, another chairman, this one a technocrat named Jay Walder, tried a yet more ambitious experiment.

This time, by using such cards, not only could riders move through the subway system, but they could also transfer to New Jersey Transit and the PATH trains, the fare again automatically charged to their bank accounts, credit card accounts, or withdrawn from pre-paid ones.

At first, Walder "said the agency aims to have the new system permanently in place throughout most city subways and buses by sometime next year," according to a Newsday article from the time.  A few years later, he said it would do so by 2015. Then he left for Hong Kong. 

Whether the 2015 date remains an operable one is an open question.

"Yes, we are still working on it, always have been," Adam Lisberg, an M.T.A. spokesman, told Capital. "But, no I don’t have a date for you."

In the meantime, other U.S. cities are leaving New York behind.

Chicago and Philadelphia are both now rolling out"open payment" systems. London is, too. 

These things have their benefits.

First, such cards have the capacity to speed up bus boarding by quickening the payment process to what Aaron Donovan, another M.T.A. spokesman, describes as, "just a few milliseconds at most."

Speed up the transaction time, you speed up the bus.

There’s also the question of overhead.

Fifteen cents of every dollar subway rider's fare dollar goes toward producing MetroCards and underwriting the infrastructure that supports them. 

“When you’re having to do cash transactions, you’re talking about armed guards, armored trucks, you’ve seen them throughout the system,” said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association.

Not to mention vending machines, vending machine repair, and so on.

Rather than spend money on those sorts of things, transit agencies “can instead invest some of their dollars into better signage or ... invest in the infastructure,” said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, an industry group that promotes smart card adoption.

The end goal, however, is far grander.

Transportation wonks imagine a future in which a traveler from donwtown Brooklyn can wave his credit card to board the A train to Jamaica, and then, using that same card, board the AirTrain to JFK.

Hours later, when he disembarks at Heathrow, he’ll be able to use the same credit card to board the Tube and travel wherever it will take him. 

“Ideally, it would be amazing if users of our system could have one card to use not only on the M.T.A., but also on PATH, and then could go to London and use their cell phone, or Boston or Philadelphia or D.C.,” said Barone. “In the long term, it really will change how people use transit, and make it much more convenient.”

The M.T.A., for its part, says the 2010 experiment, which was itself a continuation of the 2006 one, was a "success."

Among others things, Donovan says the agency learned that such technology "can be securely implemented in the transit environment," "works under tough conditions," and that the "card readers proved extremely durable."

Referring to the MetroCard, Donovan said, "We feel it’s a 1990s technology, if not a 1980s technology."

Recently, the M.T.A. has taken one step in the open-payment direction.

The technology on Staten Island buses that enables Bus Time, a pilot program in Staten Island, and parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan that allows riders to track bus arrivals on their smartphones, is also capable of reading smart cards, should such things come to be.

Though more than $200 million has been allocated for the development of such a system in the existing capital plan, the M.T.A. has yet to issue a request for proposals.

But the passage of time may well force its hand.

Bill Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the M.T.A., says one thing about the M.T.A.'s existing, nearly 20-year-old payment system is "undeniable:" "The MetroCard system is reaching the end of its useful life, you’ve got to replace it with something."

Among riders, there certainly would seem an appetite for a new way of doing things.

In August, nearly 6,000 Long Island Railroad Customers bought their train tickets to the Barclays PGA Tour in Bethpage online. It was another successful pilot.