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From tokens to MetroCards, here are seven things

From tokens to MetroCards, here are seven things you probably didn't know about NYC's subway fare. (Credit: Diana Colapietro)


Secrets of NYC transit fare: From tokens to MetroCard

Boerum Place & Schermerhorn Street, New York, 11201

The MetroCard is always in your wallet. And if it was still the 1950s, your coin purse would be overflowing with tokens.

Aside from how much it costs, and the fact that you need it to get anywhere and everywhere, how much do you really know about New York City’s subway fare?

The New York Transit Museum’s educator James Giovan and other experts filled amNewYork in on why the token was even created, some unpleasant tales of theft and what the future holds for the MetroCard.

For the first 49 years of the New

Credit: Getty Images; New York Transit Museum

 The token was created after a technical issue

For the first 49 years of the New York City subway's existence, riders dropped nickels, not tokens, into turnstiles. When the fare tripled in 1953, the transit system's engineers were unable to figure out how to design a turnstile that accepted both nickels and dimes. Thus, the token was born.

"They created a token so people could drop one coin into the turnstile, so the mechanics could stay simple," Giovan said.

The Transit Authority found itself dealing with a

Credit: Courtesy of New York Transit Museum

A ‘disgusting’ case of theft came along with the token

The Transit Authority found itself dealing with a bad case of theft that lasted "virtually the whole time the tokens were in use" between 1953 and 2003, Giovan said.

People would shove folded gum wrappers into the token slot and hide at the station waiting for another rider to drop in the fare. The paper caused the turnstile to get stuck, denying the rider's entry. The thief would come back to the turnstile to retrieve the token. Known as "token suckers," the thieves would put their mouths up to the slot and suck out the token, he said.

The practice was called "disgusting" in a 2003 New York Times article, which stated that more than 60 percent of transit system repair calls during a typical week involved paper inside the slots.

"This was such a bad problem during the time we had tokens that the station agents would actually put pepper spray onto the slots to deter people from sucking them," Giovan said.

There were eight different token designs between 1953

Credit: a.pitch via Flickr (CC BY-SA)

The 'Y' in NYC was cut out to prevent fraud

There were eight different token designs between 1953 and 2003, most of which featured a cutout.

Whether it was a "Y," diamond or star, the cutouts were added as a safety feature to prevent the use of counterfeit tokens, Giovan said. The designs changed each time the fare increased to prevent riders from using older, cheaper tokens. Each time the token design changed, the turnstiles did too, he said.

The birth of the MetroCard in 1994 didn't

Credit: Newsday / Susan Farley

There are thousands of old tokens left over

The birth of the MetroCard in 1994 didn't rid the subway of tokens. In fact, it wasn't until 2003 when the token officially became obsolete. That's when many were traded in for MetroCard value. So, what happened to all of the leftover tokens?

Many extras are on display at the New York Transit Museum, but there are thousands that the MTA still sells. There's a section of the MTA website devoted entirely to the sale of old tokens called MTA Asset Recovery. You can order all of the vintage token designs -- even a batch of one thousand, if you want. The tokens range from $2.85 to $4.

When the MetroCard was first introduced, it was

Credit: iStock

The MetroCard used to have a glitch riders enjoyed

When the MetroCard was first introduced, it was easier than it is now for riders with phony replicas to swipe their way through the turnstiles. (Nothing on the scale of the token suckers, though). The old turnstiles also read authentic MetroCards as faulty at times, Giovan said, failing to correctly charge for a ride.

"The new turnstile might have read [the MetroCard] incorrectly and thought it had an extra fare on it when it didn't," Giovan said. But, you won't be that lucky with today's card. The newer barcodes make counterfeiting near-impossible, Giovan said. "It's mostly secure and very difficult to cheat the fare."

We've all been there at one point: No

Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Renneisen

Running for president? No problem. Taking the subway? Eh ...

We've all been there at one point: No matter how swift the swipe, the turnstile lights up in error. Hillary Clinton knows this all too well.

On an NYC transit ride in April, the Democratic presidential hopeful hopped on the No. 4 train in the Bronx after speaking outside of Yankee Stadium and rode down to the 170th Street station. But, it really wasn't that simple. She had to swipe her MetroCard five times at the same turnstile before her fare was finally accepted.

She's not the only one the MetroCard has left stumped. In an interview with the New York Daily News in April, former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders (a Brooklyn native) revealed he thought New Yorkers still used tokens to ride.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and George E. Pataki, among other notables, have also struggled with the swipe.

Your wrist is straight, swipe is smooth and

Credit: mtaphotos via Flickr (CC BY-SA)

Is there a method to mastering the swipe?

Your wrist is straight, swipe is smooth and steady and your MetroCard is aligned with the black bar facing you. The same motion you use to successfully pay your fare every day suddenly stops working. Why? It could be bad karma, Gene Russianoff, head attorney and chief spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, a transit advocacy group, told the New York Times.

"For a lot of people [getting in on one swipe] would be a good day," Russianoff said after Clinton's turnstile troubles in April. He also shared a tip: "Some days you have to find a rabbi or a priest to get the turnstile to let you in."

It doesn't matter if you drop a new

Credit: Meghan Giannotta

Your lost MetroCard is money in the MTA’s pockets

It doesn't matter if you drop a new card with $10 on the tracks or stow one away in the back of your wallet. It all adds up for the MTA.

Between 2000 and 2010, the MTA reported making a profit of $500 million off of MetroCards that were never redeemed, according to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. That includes cards that were lost, expired or for whatever reason never swiped.

Just as the token became obsolete, the MetroCard

Credit: Meghan Giannotta

The future MetroCard might not be a card at all

Just as the token became obsolete, the MetroCard is about to become a thing of the past. The MTA has released bits of information on what the future holds for the city's transit fare. Giovan said the new MetroCard might not be a physical card for New Yorkers to carry.

"The MTA's plan is to, within the next few years, come up with a new fare system where you can tap a contactless card," he said, adding that the new fare could be something attached to the credit or debit card already in your wallet, or might involve Apple Pay or an app on the iPhone.

"It will take several years and be very similar to the phase out to the token to MetroCard," Ortiz said earlier this year. These new payment options will begin rolling out in 2018. That means MetroCard likely won't completely disappear from wallets until at least 2022.


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