MTA's MetroCard Turns 20

Until the late 1990s, New York City’s most iconic symbol was slightly smaller than a nickel.  The New York City subway token had been the real key to the City since its 1953 introduction, but the MTA’s MetroCard – the token’s replacement – offered transit riders a much better deal and today remains a fixture in the pockets of more than 95% of our customers.
“You can’t think of New York City without thinking of the MetroCard,” said Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit.  “After two decades, it still serves millions of bus and subway riders daily offering a great transportation value. Of course, we are well on our way to developing the next generation of fare payment, part of our effort to upgrade and modernize the City’s mass transit system.”   
Monday, January 6, marks the 20th anniversary of MetroCard’s introduction in two Downtown Manhattan subway stations - Whitehall St R Subway and Wall St 4 Subway5 Subway.  Transit riders with sharp memories will recall that the original MetroCards were blue with yellow letters.  
“In the beginning, most people viewed MetroCard as a technology project. While the technology was the key component, the project involved so much more,” explained Wayne Lydon, Chief Officer, MetroCard Sales Operations, who was involved with its introduction. “It brought together all of the major departments to establish new customer service policies, retrain thousands of employees and alter the long established routines of millions of New Yorkers.”    
Customers, who for decades had simply dropped a token into the slot on top of the turnstile, had to familiarize themselves with a new method of entry.  Using the MetroCard required riders to master the swipe.  Not too slow, not too fast and don’t lift too early.  Some likened it to delivering a punch to the gut.  Well, this is New York.  
There was even a process for deciding whether customers would swipe or dip their cards into turnstiles.  Subway customer focus groups determined that they did not want to let go of their cards as dipping would require.  Bus customers, however, were not given that choice.
It took a little more than three years to outfit all 468 stations and the City’s nearly 6,000 buses (including private lines at that time) with MetroCard turnstiles and fare boxes. Subway station control areas had to be outfitted with new or upgraded power and communication lines, as well as new turnstiles and gates. This work was performed at more than 700 hundred entrances in the system’s 468 stations.
“As you can imagine, a project on the scale of MetroCard involved many people,” said Senior Director In-System Sales Operations Matt Holland, “I’m just proud to have been a part of the team that changed how New Yorkers use our subways and buses every day.
The real value of MetroCard, however, was first realized on July 4, 1997 with the introduction of free bus-to-subway transfers, available only with a card-based fare collection system.  This was followed by the introduction of bonus value in January 1998 and subsequently, the Unlimited MetroCard on July 4, 1998, which gave customers true value with 7-Day and 30-Day cards.  Of course, with increased value came a new color—MetroCard Gold.  
Was it a game changer?  Transit ridership soared and commuting costs were virtually cut in half for tens of thousands of riders.  The ridership jump was not unexpected and the new policy of free transfers drove NYC Transit to order 205 new buses and hire an additional 250 bus operators to handle the increase.
What’s next?  Oh, we’re working on something even better.