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New York Transit Edges Into a Future Without MetroCards

As any New Yorker knows, the proper way to swipe a MetroCard to get into the subway system—the timing, the speed, the downward pressure—is tricky, but possible to master. The successful MetroCard swipe separates the tourist from the hardened commuter, the New Yorkers of taxicabs and Ubers from the New Yorkers who descend underground daily.

But in the next half-decade or so, those distinctions will vanish, along with the now 26-year-old MetroCard pass. On Friday, New Yorkers get a peek at the future: paying for a transit ride not with a swipe, but just by holding a smartphone or smartwatch near a turnstile.

Starting at noon, contactless fare readers from Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new OMNY system will go into operation at 16 subway stations and on Staten Island buses. To use one, riders with contactless credit or debit cards, or smartphones or smartwatches equipped with mobile wallets, can tap or wave them in the direction of a reader, which will glow blue when they’re ready to use. (You can tell if your credit card is contactless if it has a sort of sideways Wi-Fi symbol on it).

Riders will also be able to use Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Fitbit Pay to purchase single tickets. And they’ll be able to create and log on to their own MTA payment accounts, so they can keep track of their rides and add money to their passes from afar. The system—and the ability to use it for monthly or weekly transit passes—should roll out MTA-wide by late 2020. By 2021, riders should also be able to purchase OMNY cards, which they can load with cash and use like today’s MetroCards. OMNY apps for iOS and Android are in production.

Despite New Yorkers’ insistence that they have the best of everything first, the idea of using contactless and mobile payments in a public transit system isn’t new. London, Tokyo, Sydney, Beijing, and Shanghai have had the tech for years. The US has lagged, in part, because contactless credit cards have not taken off here as they did in Europe and Asia. But even Portland, Oregon, beat New York to the transit punch, launching a full-scale Apple Pay integration this month.

And during the initial rollout, OMNY isn’t particularly practical for most commuters, who don’t use those particular transit lines and don’t pay for individual tickets each time they pass through a fare gate. Even OMNY’s short-term goals aren’t exactly world-shaking. It promises to cut down the time it takes for each rider to get through a turnstile, with the ability to accept 30 fares per minute—a nice feature during rush hour. It should reduce the amount of time people spend in line waiting to reload fare cards and allow the MTA to retire some of those bulky MetroCard vending machines that now crowd stations.

But one day, the OMNY system could allow New York to do much more. “Right now, OMNY is an efficiency and modernization improvement,” says Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation. “But really, it’s feeding into this great potential for data and creative payment.”

For one, creating a less frustrating transit riding experience might bring more riders onto the sometimes-struggling New York transit system. It should make it easier for even those new to the city to hop on the subway.

If New York manages to convince other local systems to use OMNY, it might make getting around the crowded, trafficky region that much less painful. One day, other local transit systems, such as the suburban Metro North commuter lines or New York’s CitiBike bike-share, could use OMNY. If New York manages to recruit a neighbor like New Jersey Transit or Philadelphia’s SEPTA, one smartphone wave might take a traveler hundreds of miles. In fact, one big agency upgrading its payment system tends to get others interested, says Jon Hill, who heads product development at Visa’s global transit arm. “Local transit agencies that don’t have that same level of resources to invest in research and development look at what the big cities are doing and invest in that as a next step.”

Then there’s the question of what MTA will do with the data it wrings from the OMNY system. In London—the global leader on fancy-shmancy payment—Underground officials have used its contactless framework to restructure how passengers pay for their rides and even reward return customers. When a passenger presents their card or phone to the fare reader, the system doesn’t immediately charge them. Instead, it logs the ride and waits until the end of the day or week to take payment. That’s handy because London offers daily and weekly passes; if a passenger’s rides exceed the cost of the pass, the system stops charging them, and additional rides are “free.”

This “fare-capping” structure is especially useful for low-income riders, who balk at paying up front for monthly fare passes but can take advantage of the “pay-as-you-go, and save money when you do” structure. OMNY lets New York at least consider implementing this option.

London does another fun thing enabled by its contactless, mobile payment system: It automatically gives riders refunds when their subways, trains, and buses are late. Because the system has access to each rider’s account—in a way the MTA doesn’t with MetroCard—London officials can identify and compensate riders for their time. Passengers can also use their accounts to request a refund for their late ride.

An MTA spokesperson did not respond to questions about how the agency would handle and use data collected by the OMNY system.

For now, though, New Yorkers using the limited new system will have to settle for faster taps. (Hopefully: A similar contactless system in Chicago, operated by the same vendor, Cubic, had to hand out $1.2 million in free fares in 2013 because of software and hardware issues. Cubic says the Chicago experience is one reason it’s going slow in New York.) “I spent a lot of time this last weekend doing some final testing, and when you sit in the stations all day long and watch people swipe, and watch all the different errors people have, it’s getting so old,” says Steve Brunner, the general manager of the New York Tri-State Region for Cubic. “This is going to be so much better.”

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