For the MetroCard, that bright slash of yellow that’s decorated the wallets of New Yorkers since it supplanted subway tokens in the 1990s, the end is in sight. Late next year, the MTA will enable riders to pay for their trips on the city’s subways and buses with a wave of their cell phone or a tap of certain debit or credit cards. By 2023, the MetroCard will be obsolete.
Cubic Transportation Systems–the same company that developed the MetroCard—was selected by the MTA to build out the new payment infrastructure. The company has worked on myriad transit systems across the world, most notably London’s, which was an early adopter of contactless and mobile-based payments. New Yorkers, says Cubic president Matt Cole, can expect a payment system that’s essentially a modern take on London’s, which was first rolled out in 2003.
The announcement of the payment system upgrade, which was finalized in late October, comes at a time when the MTA is in perhaps the worst shape its been in since the 1980s. Signal failures and arbitrary delays are plaguing morning commutes; the trains, when they do arrive, are more crowded than ever before. Citywide gridlock is driving down both bus speeds and ridership. And with a cold war waging between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA, the chance that these overwhelming structural failures will be addressed anytime soon is slim to none.
The least the MTA could do, it seems, is ease the difficulty of paying for trips along its fractured transit network. Cubic’s new payment system will certainly accomplish that. Instead of having to wait in line at temperamental vending machines to refill the very-losable MetroCards, bus and subway passengers will be able to pay for trips as they go, either with mobile payment systems like ApplePay, or with debit or credit cards that are embedded with chips that can complete payments with a single tap on iPad-like screens installed on subway turnstiles and bus fareboxes. Riders will be able to monitor both payment systems through an app.
Conversion to a system that leans so heavily on new technologies necessarily raises concerns around equity. “The hope in New York is that most people will use their phones and bank cards,” Cole says. But Cubic recognizes that those amenities are out of reach for many New Yorkers, especially the city’s most socio-economically disadvantaged. Around 20% of people in the city don’t own smartphones, around 12% are unbanked, and 25% are underbanked. When the new payment system rolls out, they will be able to use a tap card–not unlike London’s Oystercard–which they can top up with money to pay for trips; people with privacy concerns, who may not yet feel comfortable linking their bank account to their transit payment system, Cole says, may also opt to use the tap cards.
But the main reason Cubic is hopeful that all New Yorkers will eventually be able to adopt the mobile payments system is because it can actually save transit riders money. Many New Yorkers, Cole says, pay for trips on a one-off basis because they can’t afford a monthly pass. However, the individual rides can often add up to a total greater than the pass would cost. Cubic’s back-end system tracks how much a transit rider spends, and will “cap” the amount at the cost of what a monthly pass would be. So even if riders end up taking more trips than usual in a month, they won’t have to pay for it–Cubic will adjust for the additional cost. “You get the benefit of just paying for single trips, but without the concern of them adding up, which is a benefit for low-income riders,” Cole says.
This type of capping system, Cole says, could even extend out to the whole New York regional transit network, including Metro North and Long Island Railroad. “People don’t just ride the train or the bus, they make journeys,” Cole says. “Interoperability between modes is essential.” With the new payment system, riders will be able to use the same technology to pay for trips across all modes–subway, bus, and rail–and perhaps eventually extend out to other systems like bike and ride-sharing.
“One of the things that excites me most about this system for the city is the ability to actually implement multi-modal fare policy, where you could perhaps have a pass or a fare cap that would apply across all modes,” Cole says. “That way, you can really encourage people to use more sustainable modes of transit, and not only make an individual’s journey better, but work to optimize the whole network. That capacity will absolutely be there.”
The catch: It’s not in Cubic’s hands to decide the policy around the implementation of its system. From Cole’s perspective, his company is building a transit payment network that could do all of these things to promote equity and sustainability, but it’s really the MTA and the New York City government that determine how fares are scaled and priced. Ultimately, Cole adds, Cubic is the platform around which they will make all of these decisions.
“Technology is just a means to make it easier for people,” Cole says. “It’s all about people in the end.”