Will MTA’s New Tap-to-Pay System Keep Transit Problems at Bay?
June 14, 2019
This article was originally published in the Observer on June 5, 2019.
Credit cards and “wallet apps” can make our lives a whole lot easier, and they’re about to have an even larger reach. Recently, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) announced that it would begin piloting “tap-to-pay” systems at 16 subway stations along the 4, 5 and 6 lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn—and at all Staten Island buses. This promising new technology will surely be a boon to taxpayers and consumers, and it’s a step in the right direction. But if the government really wants to increase ridership, it needs to eliminate the issues that make the transit system wasteful in the first place.
Taking a page from other metro systems, such as those in Tokyo and Portland, New York’s new program will allow consumers to simply place their credit card or compatible phone onto a reader to gain entry. No longer will riders have to swipe those pesky, worn paper cards. That’s a big deal, since many customers complain about having to wait in line to refill their paper cards on machines that don’t always work, eventually losing their card and the value on it. In 2017, for instance, Gothamist reported that metrocard vending machines were abruptly going cash-only (during rush hour!) or claiming “SORRY, WE ARE UNABLE TO PROCESS YOUR REQUEST” after taking consumers’ hard-earned dollars.
Although extremely unfair, the city government takes your money regardless, as fare machines offer consumers pre-set amounts to fill their cards with that leave small, unused balances at the end of each trip. When riders eventually stop using the subway altogether, it’s all-but-guaranteed that there will be a remainder on the card, which is eventually reclaimed by the MTA. Negative publicity about these issues, exacerbated by last-minute announced “upgrades” that leave commuters in a lurch, have led to consumers ditching the metro system entirely for alternatives such as ride-sharing apps, walking and bicycling.
It’s little wonder that metro systems have not been having a good decade. Cato scholar Randal O’Toole found that “nationwide transit ridership has declined steadily since 2014, with some of the largest urban areas, including Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles, losing more than 20 percent of their transit riders in the last few years.” The tide will turn when metro systems start innovating and focus on timeliness and consumer service.
Some metro systems, both around the world and in the U.S., have started to do just that by embracing tap-to-pay systems, which allow consumers to hold tap-enabled credit cards or smartphone apps up to a smart reader and get scanned into the system. Pioneering metro systems in Tokyo, Japan, and Portland, Oregon have made Apple Pay an option for getting through their turnstiles. While it’s too soon to tell if these experiences are creating lasting increases in transit ridership, research by ACI Worldwide suggests that the average commuter would use mass transit on 27 percent more of their trips, if there was a more convenient way to pay.
But in order for riders to fully embrace the benefits of these new technologies, metro systems will have to overcome their tired affinity toward old technology, bloated budgets and union contracts. For example, more than 1,000 of the 12,500 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) workforce earns six figures. And that’s not counting the massive, unfunded benefit liabilities (estimated at $3 billion) that comes with these salaries. In New York, overtime-pay stories that often suspend disbelief have prompted the attention of federal prosecutors.
These expenses won’t help bring riders back to mass transit, but they do succeed in eroding metro systems’ credibility. But, cutting the expenses of high salaries or excessive overtime could help transit authorities pay for the few things that would actually make commuters excited to hop onboard trains again. That would also mean lower costs for taxpayers and consumers who wouldn’t have to worry about declining ridership forcing bailouts and higher fares.
Technology has proven its power to make people’s lives easier. It’s time for metro systems to do that, too.