Smart Cards Tap Into Future of City Transit Systems

Transit networks in New York and New Jersey link up to launch a smart card pilot program for riders of subways and buses. Will this be the end of the MetroCard?

by / June 3, 2010

Photo: Smart cards and card readers will be tested in New York and New Jersey buses and subways / Metropolitan Transportation Authority


If a new pilot runs smoothly, public transit riders in New York and New Jersey may soon be swiping out the ubiquitous MetroCards for "smart cards" that allow them to ride subways and buses with a single tap.

Launched Tuesday, June 1, by the region's three transit agencies, the six-month pilot program will test technology where customers can tap credit or debit cards with a computer chip on fare scanners to pay for trips throughout the region. New York state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and New Jersey Transit linked up with MasterCard for the pilot.

In the past few years, MasterCard's PayPass system has already popped up in gas stations, convenience stores and stadiums. Transportation officials believe this tap-and-go technology could possibly revamp the interstate transit system: Commuters experience the convenience of simply tapping a credit card to make travel payments; transit agencies cut down on operating costs by eliminating the need to produce multiple MetroCards and collect the fare. Unlike smart cards, MetroCards are prepaid electronic fare cards that can be purchased from vending machines or subway stops.

"In essence, it's just like a debit card," said Kevin Ortiz, spokesman for the MTA. "This is a new technology that's really going to speed up the process. This is the first time that you have three different transportation systems teaming up."

The pilot program isn't costing the agencies a single cent. Funded by MasterCard for an undisclosed amount, the pilot, if successful, can lead to a systemwide implementation, Ortiz said. With about 470 subway stations and 6,300 buses in the network, he added, a full rollout would take years to finish.

In any case, he said, the MetroCard has worn out its welcome. Introduced in the 1990s, the card revolutionized travel in the metropolitan area, Ortiz said, but new technology offers ways to simplify and improve the travel experience.

"The MetroCard has been very successful, but it's outdated technology," he said. "This is a new technology that's really going to speed up the process and make the riding system a bit easier for our customers."

With the smart card, transit payments show up on the user's bank statements like any other purchase made with the card. Since launching a few years ago, the smart chip used in the PayPass system has been added to 75 million MasterCard devices, said Tristan Jordan, vice president of communications at MasterCard.

"This is all about delivering speed and convenience to passengers," Jordan said. "We think this will serve as a strong example for transit agencies, not just in the U.S., but also around the world."

Ortiz added that Visa will have the option to join the pilot in August. For more information on the program, visit According to the MTA, the technology will allow participants to:

  • Board buses and subways faster because tapping a smart card takes just a few milliseconds and won't suffer from glitches that can sometimes result in MetroCard error messages.
  • Avoid lines at MetroCard vending machines. Your smart card will be connected to your bank account, so you'll never need to visit a vending machine again.
  • Choose whether you want a pay-per-ride or unlimited ride option over the Web or the phone, and view your usage and payment statements online.
  • Reduce clutter in your wallet. The same bank card that you use every day to buy groceries or go to the movies will allow you to travel across multiple transportation agencies.

"This technology is a real triple play for the MTA," MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder said in a release. "It makes life easier for our customers, helps us board our buses more quickly and saves us money. It's a win-win-win and I think people are going to love it."


Russell Nichols Staff Writer
Platforms & Programs