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So Long, MetroCard: NYC Subway Cards Will Soon See Their Last Swipes

New York City MetroCards are going the way of the token, replaced by new and (hopefully) better technology.

[Image: Flickr user Guian Bolisay]

In the very near future New York City commuters will no longer have to swipe disposable subway cards through a turnstile to access trains. By 2019, New York's MTA plans to implement a new, yet-to-be-announced system that will either involve "bank issued contactless cards" (i.e., credit or debit cards) or smartphones, Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesperson told Fast Company on the occasion of the MetroCard's 20th anniversary.

"MetroCards is a system that is reaching the end of its useful life," Ortiz explained. "Its equipment is on the verge of becoming obsolete." Cubic has provided the now-dated vending machines and their technology since New York began the transition from tokens to cards in 1994. And while the MTA credits the yearly increase in ridership—now at 1.6 billion people—in part to the switch to cards, the current system has become increasingly expensive for the organization to maintain.

The hope is to find something that saves on infrastructure costs and also increases convenience for riders. Currently, the cards are easy to lose or damage, create pollution, and only work for the subways or city buses. In the ideal future, riders will be able to use one app for all regional commuting, no matter the type.

What exactly that will look like or how it will work, the organization does not yet know. Back in January 2012, there was talk of a smart card system, similar to the Washington, D.C. Metro, which gives commuters a durable plastic card. Users only have to tap it, rather than swipe, to get through. But, the MTA has moved away from that line of thinking.

One possibility would involve replacing metro cards with credit or debit cards, an option that the D.C. Metro has also explored. Theoretically, riders would just wave their Visa in front of the entry, replacing both the need for machines as well as MetroCards. That would save the nation's capital $30 million by 2030, according to a 2011 analysis. Machines alone can cost around $50,000 each.

Despite the convenience a system like that would offer riders as well as the potential savings for the MTA, the technology has not advanced fast enough to accommodate New York City's needs, Ortiz told Fast Company.

Given the current landscape, the MTA will most likely introduce some sort of mobile ticketing. Ortiz expects that the mobile payments space offers the most potential, even though it has not quite taken off with consumers since 2010. That future certainly has constraints. For one, not everyone owns a smartphone.

Still, it's not impossible. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority introduced the country's first smartphone ticketing system in November 2012 for the Boston commuter rail.

That exact setup wouldn't work on the NYC subway, as it requires a conductor to read each ticket and there's no way that's happening on the subway, which serves over 5 million people on a given weekday. But, Ortiz envisions something tappable, much like Visa Paywave app, which the mass-transit organization pilot tested in 2010.

At this point, though, it's pretty unclear what our futuristic subway cards will look like. The organization will issue a request for proposal sometime this year and grant the most promising tech company a contract "most likely in 2015."

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