New York Is Doing Away With Subway Cards. Good Riddance.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 8 2014 1:18 PM

New York Wants to Get Rid of Subway Cards. It’s About Time.

MTA MetroCard turns 20
A 20-year-old technology whose best days are behind it.

Image via MTA.gov

New York City officials are celebrating the 20th birthday of the MetroCard this week by calling for its demise.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t have it this long,” an MTA board member told amNewYork.* “I think New Yorkers will be very happy when we put the MetroCard to bed.”

Advertisement

The idea is to replace the iconic yellow-and-blue cards by 2019 with various ways for customers to pay by tapping or waving their own credit cards, smartphones, or other RFID- or NFC-enabled devices. As plans go, that’s a little nebulous, but I suspect that’s on purpose: The city doesn’t want to commit itself to one technology today when a new one might come along tomorrow.

The benefits of ditching magnetic-stripe subway cards are clear enough: The move would save the MTA money by allowing it to ditch all those card-vending machines. It would get people onto buses and trains faster, because they wouldn’t have to waste time dipping their cards into a machine or repeatedly swiping them at a turnstile. Few New Yorkers would miss the experience of standing behind a beleaguered flock of tourists as they struggle to master the precise swiping motion necessary to get a finicky card reader to let them through. And presumably you’d no longer need multiple different cards for the subway and commuter trains—your card or device would figure out whom to pay on its own.

On the other hand, opportunistic thieves might salivate at the prospect of hordes of commuters having to wave their credit cards and smartphones around every time they want to ride a train or hop a bus.

More broadly, it will be interesting to see whether moves like this by public agencies will give NFC and RFID technology the push it needs to go mainstream in other realms, like paying for things at coffee shops and retail stores. Private-sector pay-by-smartphone schemes, like Google Wallet, have struggled to get off the ground, perhaps partly because people aren’t yet comfortable with the concept. But if cities like New York force millions of people to do it every day in order to get on the subway, that could change in a hurry.

Then again, government agencies and “change in a hurry” tend not to go hand in hand, and “by 2019” isn’t exactly the most ambitious timetable. It’s quite possible that by then people will already be paying for everything with their smartphones—or with something else entirely, like Coin—and New York City’s switch will seem long overdue.

*Clarification: This article originally cited Newsday as the source of the MTA board member's quote. It was in fact published first on amNewYork.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?