If you’ve needed to go anywhere in the city, you probably have one with you: that mustard yellow background behind shadowed blue lettering, leading the eye to a peculiarly chopped corner no one knows the purpose of. It’s been a key part of New York culture for decades, an iconic symbol of the city’s power as a public transportation giant. The MetroCard, invented in the early ‘90s, has become the symbol of the city’s subway and bus systems. It came from a desire in New York to replace the slow, cost-inefficient token system – imagine paying with a Chuck-E-Cheese-like token for every subway ride you take – with a more modern, less expensive, easily accessible form of fare collection. The MetroCard was born out of over ten years of brainstorming and planning, truly stepping into its own with the creation of its vending machine, now a staple in all subway stations. It’s easy to acquire, even easier to use, and soon it’ll no longer exist.
The MTA’s push towards the new tap-based OMNY system has been apparent even before the pandemic brought service to new lows, but in the past year millions dollars have been spent on advertising the MetroCard alternative. A large portion of this was devoted towards an extensive campaign promoting OMNY’s fare capping initiative. Lining their subways and buses with strings of repetitive ads, the MTA touted the new system’s rule of allowing the customer free rides for the rest of the week after paying for 12 rides with OMNY. Meanwhile, the MTA has not shown interest as of late in fixing malfunctioning MetroCard machines, leaving customers without the ability to tap at a loss. While for many the digitization of currency has only been convenient, the process of acquiring an OMNY card, a device far more complicated to produce than the polyester of the standard MetroCard, is anything but. Without the easy operation of the user-friendly card booth comes specialized locations the rider has to seek out in order to obtain theirs, making those in possession of solely cash or a non-tap based debit card out of luck. With the MTA simultaneously spending $249 million1 on increasing NYPD presence within their subway system, the question comes to mind of how public they want this transportation to be.
While relying on external systems to charge for subway fare will save the MTA money on maintaining and producing so many single-use MetroCards, its replacement feels half-baked in its ability to truly provide for a city already dealing with constant delays and outages in its modes of transport. With the pandemic came a rise in personal vehicles among permanent residents, with more and more cars slowing bus movement and filling up bike lanes. Rather than adjust for this in any discernible way, the MTA has decided to implement a system that is less friendly to those who need the subway and buses to get to work on time and less accessible for those unable to pay through a cell phone app.
The MetroCard was never perfect; its magnetic strip only worked when swiped at exactly the right speed, and it generated a fair amount of waste in a city that certainly doesn’t need any more. What it was, however, was accessible and reliable, an efficient way to get as many people where they needed to go as possible. It was inclusive public infrastructure personified, and the not-so-distant day they print the last MetroCard will mark the end of an era in New York history.
1. Rivoli, D. (2019, December 18). MTA Board approves $17B budget, includes $249M for 500 transit officers. MTA Approves $17 Billion Budget. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2019/12/19/mta-approves--17b-budget--includes--249m-for-500-transit-officers
Art by Serena Cheng