Felix’s guide to using MetroCards

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

to make.

(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


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

    per ride.

  6. 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).

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

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12 Responses to Felix’s guide to using MetroCards

  1. Michelle says:

    You scare me.

  2. harry says:

    where did you find the time to think of all these things to post on the web. you make some very interesting points. you sound like a freakazoid

  3. liz says:

    … WOW. You’ve thought VERY much about this. I have a student metrocard. It’s free.

  4. Steve Williams says:

    Indeed that is frightening.

  5. Eleanore says:

    I have guests coming into S.I. for a visit. What is the best way for them to get into the city. I have no idea what the costs of an xbus, local bus, subway are.

    Thank you..

  6. john says:

    how about some tips on how to REALLY get over on the mta??!!

  7. carrie says:

    My husband and I are headed to NY on a bus trip for the first time and I didn’t know how the subways worked, so I’m very happy to have found your website for instructions and to also found out I’m not the only one learning something new!!!

  8. Peter says:

    I found your page searching for sites devoted to collecting MetroCards. Regarding your Rule #5, I came up with a set of similar rules for evening out an odd-valued MetroCard. (I have found MetroCards with odd denominations, such as 10¢, 40¢, 60¢.) These are the minimum amounts for bringing a card up to a multiple of $2 while getting the 20% bonus. 10¢: $13.25, 20¢: $11.50, 30¢: $14.75, 40¢: $13.00, 50¢: $11.25, 60¢: $14.50, 70¢: $12.75, 80¢: $11.00, 90¢: $14.25, $1.00: $12.50, $1.10: $10.75, $1.20: $14.00, $1.30: $12.25, $1.40: $10.50, $1.50: $13.75, $1.60: $12.00, $1.70: $10.25, $1.80: $13.50, $1.90: $11.75. What can I say? I’m a former math major with too much time on my hands.

  9. Claude de Bigny says:

    Honestly, Felix! Whatever were you thinking of?

    A slightly scary thread, this.

  10. consumers should learn how to manage their finances well to avoid debt problems. They have to be more responsible in paying off their bills like credit cards, mortgage, loans, etc.

  11. Un says:

    Undeniably believe that which you stated. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the net the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed while people think about worries that they just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

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