Smartcard Coup for Commuters
Posted: 01.11.04 - By Michelle Maisto


The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC)—a 38-member body of unpaid, governor-elected frequent-MTA-users created by the New York State Legislature for the purpose of holding the MTA Board and management accountable to riders—released the report “In Your Pocket: Using Smart Cards for Seamless Travel,” which commended the MTA for setting aside in its Capital Plan (a five-year agenda for the allocation of funds) $43.9 million for a smart card implementation. The report also urged the MTA to, in so many words, get to work.

The MTA have tentative hopes of getting started in 2007. “What we’ve been told—and I don’t think this is a great secret—is that the money that’s in the Capital Program is more or less a placeholder,” says William Henderson, associate director of the PCAC and co-author of the report. “They don’t have a definite plan in place.”

The current MetroCard system has more or less reached the mid-point of its lifespan, which means a major upgrade will be necessary in approximately 15 years. “It would make a lot of sense to put [the smart card] process into motion so that it would coincide with the upgrade they have to do anyway,” explains Henderson. “What we’d like to do is move the process along. … We think that up to this point, the MTA has been hesitant to get involved with the technology, but we feel like the technology is really maturing, and it’s time to get serious about doing the planning right now and getting the program in place, so that the technology can actually be brought out to the public within the next 5 to 10 years.”

There are numerous advantages to using a card that’s, well, smarter—the most immediate being a more streamlined way of entering the system: No more multiple swipes at a locked turnstyle—or waiting behind someone ineffectively swiping a bent or empty card. A smartcard user would simply wave the card (or even his or her wallet) over a scanner and be in. “Contactless” entry. Cards can also be tied to a personal profile, making it possible to go online and transfer money from a credit card or bank account into a transit account, or arrange for money to be automatically transferred weekly, monthly or when the balance falls below $10. Additionally, incorporating smart cards would reduce administrative, maintenance and customer service costs, increase throughput and decrease bus dwell times for transit operators.”

It would also enable the MTA to put “congestion pricing techniques” into place. “There is congestion pricing on Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bridges. If you’re using Easy Pass, they provide a discount at certain times. It happens on commuter railroads—peak fares are more than off-peak fares. There’s a precedent for it, certainly, within the MTA,” says Henderson.

It costs more to make a smart card than a magnetic-strip card (prices are in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 cents for a magnetic-strip and 20 to 50 cents for a smartcard, though orders on the quantity the MTA uses would considerably lower the per-card cost). Whether that’s a cost the consumer will bear is still undecided; potentially, it will average out with time. “You can issue one smartcard and a user can keep that for five years,” says Henderson. “Over time—in comparison with someone buying a new plastic magnetic stripe card every month or every week—you make up the difference. It pays for itself.” It would also lessen the litter of used cards strewn across tracks and subway platforms.

Smart chips and/or smart cards were first introduced to many of us on credit cards several years ago; and now, with large cities of consumers becoming more acquainted with smart cards over the morning commute, we can surely expect to see them introduced in other aspects of our lives, more sooner than later. The use of smart cards, however, does raise a few questions—and hopefully a larger, national dialogue; these are important questions to be addressing at this juncture in technology—that MetroCards, until now, haven’t. Will customer information be attached to each card? Will the MTA know who’s coming and going? Will our paths about the city be trackable? “It could be,” says Henderson. “It really depends on the kind of system you set up. The smart card itself is very flexible. As long as the system is made flexible enough to work with the privacy concerns of some folks—that there’s an option where there’s anonymity available—then people tend to accept that there are some cards that are personally identifiable to the user. That’s the case right now—if you buy a MetroCard with a credit card through a vending machine, that can be tied back to you.”

Many of these issues will likely be worked about by looking to examples from Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C., where smart card programs are already underway.

 


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