For much of the history of NYC public transport, ancient methods of fare collection such as coins, tokens and paper tickets were utilized on the city’s buses and subways. On their website, the MTA lists 1953 as the year tokens became the standard on NYC subways, marking the system’s first moves towards streamlining fare collection since opening in 1904.

Tokens ruled the subways for almost half a century, until 1993, when the MTA started testing the now iconic magnetic strip card pass known as the MetroCard. It took a full decade until the mighty subway token was phased out entirely, according to a New York Times article from 2003.

That marks 25 years since the dawn of the MetroCard, and 15 years of dominating fare collection on city buses and subways. After a quarter century of swiping, New York transit riders are preparing for another sea change at the turnstiles.

Making Contact with the Contactless

According to the New York Times, the MTA is taking a cue from cities such as London by introducing a contactless payment system on subway systems turnstiles beginning late in 2018. This will include 500 subway turnstiles and 600 city buses to start.

As the name implies, contactless payment will involve simply holding out a smartphone.
The fare will be deducted automatically. Contactless payments will help alleviate issues such as congestion at stations and damaged or lost cards – not to mention problems all too familiar with New York City commuters, including everybody’s favorite, needing to swipe a MetroCard a second or third time before a turnstile unlocks.

The new payment system should eliminate these issues altogether.

This new system will be compatible with popular smartphone apps like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay – or an NFC chip-embedded payment card.

Those without a compatible card or smartphone will be able to pay by tapping their debit or credit card. The new payment system will necessarily include another long overdue step into the 21st century: an online account for commuters, with the ability to prepay weekly or monthly fares remotely.

A Slow Rollout – as Always

With hundreds of subway stations and thousands of city buses, the replacement of the ingrained MetroCard system will be an epic, multiyear undertaking. With the first turnstiles being converted in 2018, the replacement of the MetroCard with new, contactless technology will not be complete until 2023.

By then, the MetroCard will have enjoyed three decades as an icon in New York City life. However, like the subway token before it, the iconic MetroCard is soon to become a relic of city history as it makes way for modern technology.