NYC will ditch flimsy Metrocards for phones and chips, but there could be a downside

New York City looks set to finally replace its outdated, difficult-to-use Metrocard system for public transit.

Right now, if you want to get on a bus or subway in the city you have to buy a flimsy $1 Metrocard, load money onto it, then swipe it at exactly the right speed through the slot at the turnstile to make it read. Tourists, newbies, and Hillary Clinton find this system confusing. Those of us who get stuck behind them find it frustrating.

The new system, as outlined in this solicitation notice from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, should work with sturdy, credit-card sized cards that you wave over a reader, as well as phone systems like Apple Pay and Android Pay. It’s set to complete in 69 months — or by 2021.

Chicago launched a similar system, known as “Ventra” way back in 2013. And as someone who lived through that transformation of the Windy City’s public transit I can tell you: It’s way better.

No more standing in line to refill your card when it runs out, just reload it on your phone. No more haggling with a bored agent to load your old rides onto a new card when it bends. No more clogging up at the turnstiles behind confused tourists. London and Tokyo have made similar advances.

There are challenges to this new system though: Moving to more advanced technology is great for middle class and wealthy people, but it threatens to further disadvantage the poor and homeless people trying to get around New York’s already overpriced transit network.

If you’re living hand-to-mouth you probably don’t have an Apple Pay-enabled device, and a new Chicago Ventra card costs $5. That may seem like a trivial increase on a one-time purchase, but it could mean the difference between eating and going hungry for a person just barely getting by — especially if they live in an unstable situation or have a mental illness which can make it difficult to hold on to a small, valuable object for extended periods.

And that’s not to mention the major delays that strike any big change to a public transit system the size of New York’s. Check out this New York Times article from 1994 bemoaning the delays to the original Metrocard rollout.

Here’s hoping the new upgrade goes smoothly, and without harm to any of the 4.3 million people who rely on the New York subway system to get around.

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