The MetroCard’s days are officially numbered.
The MTA will launch its new fare payment system in May 2019 along a stretch of the 4, 5 and 6 trains and across all bus routes on Staten Island, allowing riders to use mobile wallets or bank cards to pay for a ride, according to MTA officials.
It’s the first significant step in the staggered rollout of the new contactless payment system, part of what will be a long phase out of the MetroCard for a next generation, high-tech model.
“We do a lot of talking about a modern system and 21st century system,” said MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein. “This is proof and this is a great example of us taking our system . . . and making it on par with the systems around the world that are considered world-class. We’re a world-class city and we deserve a world-class system and this is one example of that.”
The MTA is currently testing the new fare readers, or “validators,” and plans to begin installing them on railings of Staten Island buses and in front of turnstiles in the selected Lexington Avenue line subway stations as soon as this October.
In May, the tap-and-go system will launch at every turnstile along the line between Grand Central-42nd Street and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center in Brooklyn and on all Staten Island local and express routes. The MTA plans to detail the launch to its board on Monday.
Riders will eventually be able to pay to board subways and buses in a variety of different ways — either by tapping bank cards, a proprietary smart card, or their phones up against a reader. Gone will be the days of waiting in line to load up MetroCards. But the initial launch will have its limits.
In addition to MetroCards, which won’t be completely phased out until 2023, commuters will only be able to use specific, contactless credit or debit cards or mobile wallets from Apple, Google and Samsung to pay for fares during this initial launch.
The MTA won’t unveil its new smart card until February 2021, when it will be available to purchase like any gift card at drugstores and other convenience stores. Vending machines within stations will follow in 2022. And a new app, to which riders can attach their bank accounts and pay fares, is still under development.
“A lot of work is being done on the app,” said Patrick Foye, MTA president, who is spearheading the project. “Our goal is to provide customers with a single, seamless, superior customer experience and we’re making a great deal of progress toward that end. And we’ll be reporting on the app and the customer experience as we go forward.”
Most riders will have to keep their MetroCards handy for the time being; a citywide launch of the new fare system won’t come until 2020. The technology is being developed by Cubic Transportation Systems, which is also the operator of the MetroCard, through a $573 million contract that is currently moving ahead on time and on budget, according to Foye and Bradley Feldmann, Cubic’s CEO.
“Our aim is to improve the user experience and to work our way through all the bureaucracy,” Feldmann said.
Also still unclear is how the MTA board will craft fare policies tied to the technology, which has the potential to improve the service quality and affordability of the transit system.
Policies like systemwide, all-door bus boarding could reduce the time buses spend at stops. And what’s known as “fare capping” could end the debate over whether it makes more financial sense to pay for a monthly MetroCard or a per-ride one by capping payments once riders become eligible for weekly or monthly rates.
The authority has come out in support of all-door bus boarding. But the initial fare tech roll out on Staten Island will only feature new readers at buses’ front doors. Each bus, however, will be wired so that the readers can be easily installed on back doors when the new policy is crafted. Weinstein said the MTA board must lead the decisions on the new policies.
“The MetroCard kind of revolutionized the subway system by allowing riders to transfer; it really changed the way people used the system and it actually opened up the entire city,” said Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“But the benefits of MetroCard didn’t roll out until after it was first released, which was sort of a shortsighted move,” he added, referring to perks such as monthly rates and free transfers.
Both Sifuentes and Jon Orcutt, a spokesman at TransitCenter, stressed that new polices should be crafted and put in place in tandem with the new technology. Fare capping, a London innovation, could be a great win for fare equity, Orcutt said.
“We have the perverse situation now where the people who can afford the most upfront costs get the steepest fare discounts,” Orcutt said. “What we’d like to see is more specificity on when we’ll be able to use rear doors for boarding local buses and whether we’re going to go in some of the initiative directions that places like London have gone . . . I think if you want to sell people on why they have to change, you want to offer new benefits.”