The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, better known to
New Yorkers as the MTA, is proposing
to abolish subway tokens as part of its drive to help close a budget gap of
$2.8 billion (or $951 million, depending on whom
you believe) for 2003 and 2004. You won’t have seen this, but according
to the dreadful Clyde Haberman in the New York Times today, only 9% of bus and
subway rides are now paid for with tokens, and so it seems a sensible economy
(The reason that you won’t have seen the statistic is that no one in their
right mind would ever have read past a third paragraph which begins thusly:
"These details — so fascinating that you may already be turning the
page — are mentioned to make a point about nostalgia. It isn’t what it
used to be.")
85% of all rides are now paid for with MetroCards, so it’s obvious how New
Yorkers like to pay for their public transportation. MetroCard is the way of
the future, and, if the MTA gets its way, it’s going to be the only way of the
future. (On the subways, at least, you can’t pay directly in cash, which accounts
for the final 6% in the statistics.)
But MetroCards are not completely understood, even by those who use them on
a regular basis. As a public service, then, I hereby present Felix’s
guide to using MetroCards: eight rules it’s useful always to keep in
- Know your balance. There are two ways in which MetroCards
are inferior to the tokens they replace, and this is one. If you have half
a dozen tokens in your wallet, you have half a dozen rides. If you have a
MetroCard in your wallet, you have, um, anywhere from zero to 50 rides. Every
time you swipe your card, the remaining balance comes up on the little screen.
Pay attention! If the number is low, remember you need to refill it or buy
a new card.
- Discard empty cards. If the remaining balance is zero,
throw the card away. The one way to know for sure whether you have at least
one ride remaining is to only hold on to cards with at least one ride left
on them. This is not environmentally friendly, since one of the good things
about MetroCards is that they can be refilled. But walking around with a zero-balance
MetroCard is a very bad idea, since you’ll forget it has nothing on it, and
end up getting annoyed trying to pass through a turnstile just a train is
pulling in to the station.
- Keep a spare. When the balance on your MetroCard gets low,
don’t refill it, get a new one. Keep the old one as a spare: that way if you
exhaust the new one before you’ve had a chance to replace it, you’ll know
you’ve got an emergency ride or two left. If you do replace the new one in
time, then keep that one as an extra spare. Trust me, you’ll use it.
- Never spend less than $15. Why lose out on a free bonus?
Every time you spend $15 or more, you get a 10% bonus automatically added
on to your card, worth at least one free ride.
- Be careful with the exact amounts you’re spending. If
Mr Colman’s profit is in the mustard left on the side of the plate, then a
good chunk of the MTA’s cashflow comes from 50-cent or $1 fragments of rides
which sit, unusable, on MetroCards. This is going to become a lot easier to
work out if the fare increases to $2 from $1.50 – but much harder to
work out if it rises to $1.75. But in general, make sure that the amount of
credit on your card is a multiple of the standard fare.
This is not an easy rule to comply with, especially if you’ve taken rule #4
to heart. $15 will get you 11 rides, and $30 will get you 22 rides, but there’s
no amount which will get you any whole number of rides in between. If you
wanted 15 rides, say, you would have to pay $21, which you get you a card
with $23.10 of credit on it. After those 15 rides, you’d still have 60 cents
of useless credit left over. Even if you spent $20.50, there would be an annoying
5-cent overage at the end.
I will, however, tell you the solution to the common problem of what to do
with the change left over on a $10 MetroCard. After six rides, there’s $1
left on it: how much do you refill it with, if you’re going to comply with
rule #4? Answer: $25. The 10% bonus makes your $25 worth $27.50 of credit;
add that $1 and the total on the card is $28.50, or 19 rides. If you think
of yourself as buying 19 rides for $25, that comes out at just under $1.32
- Remember the 1-Day Fun Pass. Many New Yorkers who don’t
buy unlimited-ride MetroCards on a regular basis are losing out by not buying
the one-day card. Last Thursday, for instance, I took the subway up to 57th
Street for a panel discussion I wanted to see, took another ride down to 33rd
Street for a lunch meeting, and then a third one back home again. Already,
by this point, I would have been better off buying a "fun" pass
rather than swiping my pay-as-you-go card. By the time I went up to 23rd St
and back for another meeting in the late afternoon, I’d used up $7.50 of credit
on my MetroCard (which cost me about $6.80 because I follow rule #4) when
I could have gotten it all for $4.
This rule might not be in effect for long, however. Even if the standard fare
goes up from $1.50 to $2, that 33% increase is dwarfed by the proposed 75%
increase in the price of the one-day pass, from $4 to $7. And it’s rare indeed,
outside the realm of tourists, that someone knows before their first ride
in the morning that they’re going to be making at least half a dozen subway
or bus journeys that day (not including free transfers).
- Buy your card when you get to where you’re going. Because
you’re following rule #1, you’ll know when you get on the subway that it’s
time to buy a new card. When you get off, you’ll often have a minute to spare
before you have to be where you’re going. Or maybe you’re going home, and
you’re not in much of a rush. This is the perfect time to buy your new card,
since there’s no chance that the time you spend buying it will make you miss
your train. The only time it’s completely safe to buy a card when you go in
to the station is when you’re at one of those smaller stations where the train
tracks are easily visible from the MetroCard machines, and you can see if
your train has just left. Take your anger at missing your train, and turn
it into happiness that you now have the opportunity to buy a new card!
- Beware double-charging. When MetroCards first came out,
there was a rash of complaints from people saying that they had been charged
double – $3 – for their rides. If the first avantage of tokens
is that you always know how many you have left, then the second advantage
is that they’re completely reliable: you put your token in the turnstile,
and walk through. With MetroCards, on the other hand, it often takes multiple
swipes before you get admitted. Many people, when they see the message saying
"please swipe again", simply try a different turnstile. That’s fine.
The problem is when the message says "please swipe again at this turnstile".
For reasons which are rather complicated and hard to understand, the swipe
system means that your $1.50 gets deducted from your card before the turnstile
lets you through. If your swipe is too fast, or too short, or something like
that, then you can end up on the wrong side of the turnstile with $1.50 already
deducted from your card. If you stay at the same turnstile, it recognises
the card, and doesn’t deduct another $1.50. But if you move to a different
turnstile, you get charged twice over.
Learn all these, and you’re pretty much there. You still have to master the
swipe action, of course, but that can only come with practice: I can’t help
you on that. Just remember: your subway ride won’t often be pleasant, but it
can be efficient.