How the New York MTA learned from TfL to move on from the MetroCard

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The New York subway is finally moving on from the magnetic-strip MetroCard, and the London Underground's contactless system is proving the 'blueprint' for the new technology

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New York's public transport system is finally taking steps to move away from the flimsy MetroCard in favour of contactless payment cards, thanks to the company behind London's Oyster Card.

The New York transit authority sought bids for a new payment system back in October 2017 and chose Cubic Transportation Systems, the company also behind the original magnetic stripe MetroCard, from among five proposals.

Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), said at the time: "Today's vote is a tremendous win for New Yorkers, paving the way for flexible payment options, a streamlined trip through the region's public transit, and updated equipment that will help save money in operating costs. Together with Cubic, we look forward to building the MTA of tomorrow."

Cubic signed a licensing deal in 2016 with Transport for London (TfL) allowing it to take the technology developed for London to other cities, and the company admits that London was the blueprint for the contactless solution being put in place in New York.

Steve Brunner, Cubic vice president and GM for the New York Tri-State region told Computerworld UK via email: "Cubic's bid to New York featured the technology and support from the TfL contactless solution and we are confident that by using the London experience as the blueprint for New York, the new system will provide the world-class solution that New York riders deserve."

The technology

As part of this deal - which could be worth in excess of $570 million (£437 million) to Cubic if successful - the firm is responsible for the design, integration, supply and implementation of the new fare payment system. This includes platform hosting, hardware and software maintenance, as well as call centre support.

New equipment will include modern fare validators and configurable ticket vending machines across the MTA's 472 subway stations and 6,000 buses. 

These validators are integrated devices which include an LCD display with a contactless and barcode reader, and will be installed alongside the existing MetroCard readers while they are being phased out.

The Configurable Vending Machine will replace the existing MetroCard vending machines in stations by 2022 and will issue fare payment in the form of a contactless card or a single-ride barcode ticket.

The new system will allow travellers to tap the new MTA-issued contactless card (the branding of which is yet to be decided), a bank-issued contactless payment card, or a mobile device payment to get through the new ticket 'validators' at a station.

New York's flat fare system, unlike London's zone system based on distance travelled, will not be changing however.

The below YouTube video from Cubic gives an idea as to how this equipment will look once in place.

This will all be linked to an online account where customers can see their ride history, balance, add value and report lost or stolen cards.

The existing MetroCard, which has been the de-facto payment method since replacing tokens in 1994, won't be fully phased out until at least 2023, but this is a major step forward for a transport system that has been much maligned over the years, with flooding recently hitting the ageing network and unreliable MetroCard readers often slowing down people's commutes.

Rollout

The project is currently in the design and build phase, with Cubic and the MTA moving into what it calls the 'preliminary design review' stage in April this year.

Brunner from Cubic says the system will eventually be rolled out in a phased approach, with the initial launch of 600 buses and 500 turnstiles scheduled for early 2019.

The early phases will focus on accepting third party-issued contactless cards and mobile wallets, with MTA-issued cards to follow in the later phases. "The phased approach allows for a controlled rollout of the technology and encourages use of contactless bank-issued media and mobile wallets early in the project," Brunner said.

Why didn't the MTA simply replicate the Oyster Card system?

"Over the last few years TfL has introduced contactless payments in addition to the Oyster card, and the contactless payments are growing at a very fast pace," Brunner said. "The MTA in New York has analysed the payment trends and decided to prioritise contactless payments."

Adjustment period

Sarah Kaufman, adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at NYU Wagner university told Computerworld UK that, unlike the UK, this will be the first time many New Yorkers will be made aware of contactless payments, as the method isn't widely used in retail environments yet.

This means there will be an inevitable period of adjustment for New Yorkers who "make a sport of scepticism," Kaufman said.

However, "most New Yorkers are adept at using credit cards for shopping, so it will not be such a catastrophic adjustment," she added.

Overall this will be a massive positive for New Yorkers and the millions of tourists that visit the city every year.

"This will be a definite positive for customers," Kaufman said. "They will be able to enter the system more seamlessly and be able to reload payment cards as necessary, and they don't have to wait in line to buy the fare card. Hopefully we will see some more mobility as a result."

Speaking at the time of the contact being awarded to Cubic, John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance said: "Modernising the fare payment system is a boon for riders. It will make public transit more convenient, more accessible and more efficient.

"The new fare payment system will also save money for the MTA, and that savings can be used to improve transit operations for millions of daily riders.  Moving on from the MetroCard will be a win-win for riders and the MTA."

What took so long?

Why have New Yorkers had to wait so long for this modernisation to take place?

Brunner from Cubic says: "The system is reaching a point where the technology is more difficult to support at the same time that contactless and mobile technologies are more available for use in transit. The MTA has consciously waited until the time was right and the technology is both proven and available before replacing the iconic MetroCard."

Kaufman takes a slightly different view: "In general technology procurement is extremely slow in New York because there are so many requirements. The combination of procurement bureaucracy and constant turnover of MTA leadership has led to a profound delay to this process."

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