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The Future Of Subway Swiping

Take a good look at these transit cards — thanks to new technology, they might be on their way out.

The Future Of Subway Swiping

WHEN SUBWAY cards began to replace unwieldy tokens in the early 1970s, commuters could suddenly swipe a magnetic strip to enter a retrofuturistic world of molded-plastic seats and whooshing doors. But tomorrow's technology has quickly become yesterday's. Dedicated transit cards — including the contactless smart cards of Asia and Europe — may be facing extinction, as more cities begin to take advantage of bank cards and cell phones.

"We can link new systems to these accounts, rather than storing information on a separate card," says Steve Brunner, a regional director for Cubic, which helps run the fare-management systems of New York, London, and Shanghai. U.S. transit riders — who took 10.1 billion trips in the past year — can expect the transition to happen in the next five years, he says.

Still, for Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art's senior curator of architecture and design (and no fan of the subway card), smartphone entry is not good enough. "The ultimate goal is to make the technology disappear," she says, advocating for entrance by fingerprint or eye scan. "It's a bit Minority Report, sure, but so convenient — it's harder to lose a finger than it is to lose a phone."

Around the world on a dozen trains: 1. Boston 2. Washington, D.C. 3. New York 4. Mexico City 5. Pittsburgh 6. Moscow 7. Salt Lake City 8. San Francisco 9. Portland, Oregon 10. Tempe, Arizona 11. Shanghai 12. Miami

Photograph by Jeff Harris

A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.