Today in Tedium: Public infrastructure is a reflection of a community’s values. Americans, however, are disconnected to what public infrastructure says about our values. We’ll claim the U.S. is the greatest country on earth, yet accept potholes and failing schools as a fact of life. In a larger sense, public infrastructure is a clear sign of a government’s priorities and even what a government thinks about a specific community. Clean streets and robust public spending shows where and who governments value. This is generally pretty obvious like with police responsiveness to community needs or well-maintained community spaces. The issues facing forgotten neighborhoods and communities can manifest in truly nefarious ways that undercut the ability of individuals to improve their lives. Today’s Tedium is going underground to look at the New York City subway system and why paying per ride might cost you your job. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The number of MetroCards sold on the first day of their debut in 1994. A curator for the New York Transit Museum glibly noted in an interview with the Gothamist that sales had “increased steadily” since their debut. With some 1.5 billion rides on NYC subways annually, millions of MetroCards are produced to meet demand. In 2019, the MTA launched OMNY, a contactless payment system that officials hope will provide a convenient, more permanent solution. If history is any indication, it will not.
Convenient payments for public transportation is a shockingly complicated obstacle
If a government is going to provide public transportation to a given community, it has two options: make users pay or just make it free.
Free to use public transportation is pretty rare for the obvious reason that it’s really expensive to do. In fact, governments just recently started to provide completely free public transit with Luxembourg being the first in 2020. Malta followed in 2022. Individual cities have experimented with free fares since the late 1990s, with one city in Belgium seeing a 13-fold increase in ridership in the first few years of the project.
The unfortunate reality is that even when riders are paying to use public transportation, the revenue collected is a fraction of what it takes to maintain services. In New York City, for example, fares contribute 23 percent of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s budget for 2022. Federal COVID aid represents 15 percent, more than the MTA collects via tolls. While these funds are desperately needed to keep operating, collecting this money is a bit of a pain.
The earliest public transportation systems used paper tickets to keep track of payments but these were easily counterfeited. Figuring out ways to access public transit for free or reduced cost has been a thing about as long as public transportation. When the city’s public transportation systems were still largely privatized (though constructed by local government and leased to companies for operation), paper tickets collected by guards kept instances of fare evasion low. The problem is that people, especially low-paid workers facing large swaths of an unruly public on a daily basis, can be corrupted. This resulted in the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) replacing humans with turnstiles that first accepted nickels. These early machines were pretty easily fooled by slugs and officials realized they would eventually need to increase the cost of fares beyond five cents. Amazingly, the cost of subway fare in New York City remained at a nickel until 1948, when the system was officially made a public entity and the system switched to tokens. By the 1980s, kids had figured out they could steal free rides from the turnstiles by inhaling on the token collection slot, forcing the New York Times to report on the phenomenon known as “token sucking”. The tokens were finally phased out in 2003 with only one iteration, the Five-Borough token, that “was the only token issued by NYCTA that was never successfully counterfeited.”
The MetroCard, introduced in 1993, was supposed to eliminate many of these headaches. Now the standard by which New Yorkers access public transportation, the MetroCard is a digital system that eliminates manual collections at turnstiles. It is a simple yellow card with a magnetic strip that riders swipe at a turnstile for entry to a station or bus. Riders purchase MetroCards in one of two ways: by ride (individual rides at $2.75 a piece) or unlimited (purchased in time block intervals, like one week up to a monthly pass). The magnetic strip is a closely guarded proprietary secret that the MTA goes to great lengths to protect. Courts in NY state have ruled that even bending a MetroCard to manipulate the turnstiles to gain free entry can result in a felony forgery charge. This doesn’t stop anyone, of course.
A 2018 Times article documented the illegal swipe trade at the 125th St. station in Harlem, where riders routinely purchase discounted $2 swipes from hawkers that use a variety of methods to game the turnstiles. Bending is one such method, but difficult to do in bulk, and carries increased criminal penalties. Some vendors manipulate unlimited MetroCards, which have a time limit of 18 minutes between uses. Selling swipes is still illegal but doing so with a standard MetroCard is a misdemeanor. Despite the relatively meager savings, vendors find dozens of willing buyers a day, often resulting in hundreds of illicit dollars. Whether selling swipes or good old fashioned turnstile jumping, the lost revenue to the city is significant with estimates reaching as high as $119 million in the first quarter of 2022.
But alas, many fare evasion schemes are coming to an end as the MTA seeks to upgrade its systems, yet again, to attempt to harness technology for the ostensible sake of efficiency. As the MetroCard greets its twilight, we should take the time to consider one of its greatest, and almost entirely unnoticed, failures. And how this failure is likely to manifest in OMNY, which was poised to takeover the MetroCard in 2023.
We need to talk about mis-swipes and their disproportionate impact on poor New Yorkers.
The number of MetroCard swipes from June 2003 to March 2005, according to data from New York City Transit cited in a report from the office of the New York City Public Advocate. The office is essentially the city’s ombudsman, overseeing the entirety of city government with a specific watchdog role. Many former Public Advocates have gone onto higher office, like mayor or state attorney general. The office also tends to be one the last avenues for citizen grievances against small issues that frustrate their lives. In 2005, the Public Advocate gave its attention to a unique issue regarding MetroCards.
What exactly is a mis-swipe and how does it impact daily life?
A mis-swipe is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you swipe a MetroCard at a turnstile but the machine, for whatever reason, fails to read the card. As we’ve previously noted, the NYC subway system is a hodgepodge of ancient infrastructure and slap dash updates of whatever technology seems viable at the time. This is how IBM OS/2 became a stalwart and vital component of the modern system. The general gist is that when a rider swipes a MetroCard, the turnstile communicates with a couple of computers in order to determine authorization. Because of this complexity, issues are inevitable.
Earlier I mentioned that MetroCards are purchased either per ride or by time. This is important because the machines process the information differently. For a MetroCard with unlimited access (a monthly pass that can be used every 18 minutes costs $127), a turnstile effectively has two options for access, either the card is within its active period or it’s not. Simple. (There are third and fourth options but why bother with that now?)
An issue arises with pay-by-ride MetroCards, which are processed differently. Unlimited passes have fewer possible outcomes, whereas the pay-by-ride option requires the system to do math to determine authorization. A single ride costs $2.75, meaning a round trip is $5.50. When the MetroCard balance gets low, i.e. at $2.75, it can take a rider multiple swipe attempts for the turnstile to accept the fare. This might seem like a small issue but when you’re running late for work and the train pulls into the station with the next one over 15 minutes away, those swipes matter. Those swipes can cost people their jobs. And it’s an issue that is largely unnoticed by many New Yorkers, even experts in public transportation.
Neil Waldhauer is a transportation software consultant who I interviewed via email for a previous Tedium piece. When I asked him about the multiple swipe issue with pay-by-ride MetroCards, he said, “I can’t comment in too much depth about the technical aspects of the MetroCard system. I think I can go so far as to say that OS/2 and the Mainframe are not involved with your issue with multiple swipes. I wish you’d been there to test the turnstile when we were developing it. I expect that your issue is real, and solvable.”
One office of the New York City government did notice the swipe issue … all the way back in 2005. A report from the Public Advocate for the City of New York Betsy Gotbaum began, “Every seasoned New York City subway rider has swiped his or her MetroCard at the turnstile. only to be greeted with error messages such as “Swipe Again,” “Too Fast,” “Swipe Again at this Turnstile,” or most annoying, “Just Used.” These messages stall the entrance line, slow riders down, and sometimes cause them to miss their train.”
The report notes that in the past, this issue could be resolved with the rider simply going to a booth attendant. One of the supposed benefits of MetroCards, however, was the need for fewer booth attendants, making this option a “a luxury of the past”.
The results of the report are quite staggering, confirming something that many New Yorkers have long suspected to be true: the system sucks. Of the 2.4 billion swipes logged in the 22 month period covered, 688 million swipes failed. This is a nearly 29 percent failure rate. Almost one in four times a New Yorker attempted to access the subway, they failed to do so. The report notes that “it’s reasonable to assume some are the result of consumer error—riders who incorrectly or fraudulently swipe—it’s also reasonable to assume that consumer error alone cannot account for the high frequency of swipe failure.” Things like this tend to affect lower income communities more, so it’s unsurprising the report found that failure rates were higher in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. The worst offending station, Rockaway Avenue, had a swipe failure rate of 54.5 percent and serves a community with a median household income of $28,947. Median household income of NYC as a whole is more than twice that at $70,663. Manhattan had the lowest swipe failure rate of all boroughs, though this number wasn’t too far off the city average.
It should be noted that the report didn’t make a distinction between pay-by-ride and unlimited MetroCards, instead focusing on the total failure rate and limited solutions available to riders as booth attendants were reduced in the early 2000s. There is a correlation between rider’s income and which type of MetroCard they purchase, according to the 2020 New York City Travel Survey.
The exact reason why pay-per-ride users experience a higher failure rate might have to do with lack of maintenance in stations. One cluster of turnstiles in the Rockaway station registered an astonishing 78 percent swipe failure rate. That individuals that rely on these stations are also more likely to use pay-per-ride MetroCards might be a coincidence. In any case, whether due to equipment failure or some flaw inherent in the design of the MetroCard system, lower-income New Yorkers have to swipe more to access public transportation. They miss trains. They’re late to work. For too many, a failed swipe could mean a lost job.
The issues surrounding MetroCard use have taken nearly 30 years to suss out and have been disproportionately inflicted on poor people. Given this history, one could be forgiven for doubting the next iteration of NYC public transportation payments is going to be any kinder. It might somehow be even worse.
The amount of money saved by NYC riders in the first month of newly implemented capped weekly fares. The program was introduced in early 2022 and offers riders free fares after paying for 12 in the Monday thru Sunday period. With plans to phase out MetroCards entirely, the program likely means the end of unlimited passes on NYC public transit.
Why the frustrations of a contactless world are worse if you’re poor
Introduced in 2019, OMNY is the MTA’s effort to introduce contactless payments to New York public transit. Despite a pretty remarkable degree of popularity, the rollout hasn’t been going too well.
For starters, there’s the weird issue of double charges. As noted by a writer at The Points Guy, the OMNY system is oddly designed in a way that makes it too easy to accidentally pay. When noticing multiple broken OMNY payment stations, the writer attempted to take a photo while paying with an unlimited MetroCard but managed to pay with his phone. Beyond weird design issues, the system occasionally charges riders twice anyway. I ran into this issue recently at the 96th St station just off Central Park.
The money was returned to my account within 24 hours but wasn’t returned immediately. Had that $2.75 been my last $2.75, getting home would have an interesting experience. This brings up one of the most glaring issues with the switch to the OMNY system, which is connecting access to public transit directly to people’s bank accounts.
For starters, most Americans (and plenty of New Yorkers) simply don’t have bank accounts that offer contactless credit cards. And requiring expensive phones to ride public transportation puts an incredible burden on the working poor especially, as they are now expected to have working, charged devices with funds in a bank account in order to get to their jobs. (This is becoming more of an issue for anyone that still makes cash daily as some banks have decided to stop offering 24-hour access to ATMs because of a variety of issues.) For all of the MetroCard’s faults, someone could put enough money on one to function until payday. Once fully connected to riders bank accounts, an errant ConEd bill might leave a bartender stranded far from home after a 12 hour shift.
The MTA says it will offer its own card, a MetroCard 2.0 if you will, that will work with the contactless OMNY system. It has yet to make its debut. None of this even speaks to the significant delays in rolling out OMNY, which was slated to completely replace the MetroCard by 2023. Word from the MTA now says the transfer will be complete by the fourth quarter of 2025.
Hopefully they still accept cash by then.
Public transportation is admittedly unpopular in much of America. We as a country love our cars. In places like New York, or for people anywhere without the means, cars are a luxury. If we are going to offer public transportation, it should be as accessible as possible.
Which makes the issues facing poor people using public transportation all the more frustrating. When designing public infrastructure, city planners seem to prioritize their considerations to higher income levels. They design public works for their use.
And if you live in a low-income neighborhood, I couldn’t blame you for feeling like you weren’t considered at all.
Thanks to Andrew for the exellent food for thought. Find the one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
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