Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Liberty Card: Coming Soon?

Part 3 of Week-long Series on Mass Transit in NYC

The Liberty Card does not exist...yet. My long time imaginary name for the ideal smartcard that would be used in the tri-state region for mass transit fare collection. (For those of you who take PATH, you have a similar card called the SmartLink. A smartcard is great: it uses Radio Frequency IDentification technology to allow contactless payment, getting rid of all that frustrating magnetic strip swiping currently used in the Metrocard system. If even New Yorkers can't always swipe it correctly the first time, all hope for tourists are lost (I've seen and experienced it). Just tap and go, and you barely have to put any effort into it-keep it in your wallet or jacket pocket, and as long as nothing majorly metallic or thick gets in between your card and the reader, you're guaranteed a smooth entry.

But smartcards do not stop at the turnstiles. In Hong Kong, where the Octopus card was first introduced in 1997, the possibilities for its use truly lives up to the number of legs of the animal referred to in its name. Acting as a debit card, with "top-ups" with either cash or a link to your bank account, it is the island city's most popular form of payment (10 million daily transactions), next to cash. Places you can use the Octopus card (and some potentially in NYC as well) include:
  1. Subway
  2. Bus/Light Buses
  3. Tram
  4. Convenience Stores
  5. Supermarkets
  6. Bakeries
  7. Fast-food restaurants
  8. Vending machines
  9. Parking meters
  10. Newspaper stands
  11. Secure entry points
Now, the question is: who would pay for the implementation of a smartcard? Most likely, the MTA, since it has the highest ridership in the region. However, their most recent budget forecast for the next 5 years is $10 billion short, and money is always constantly being diverted to cover shortfalls. The point could be made that since credit card companies such as Mastercard and Visa already have their own RFID-enabled cards, that the MTA should just let the credit card companies develope it. In fact, select stations in the NYC subway system already allow pre-registered users to use their card.

But the MTA should partner with the Port Authority of NY and NJ (which has the SmartLink) to either keep the SmartLink or develop a new card: LibertyCard. The MTA could make the card pay for itself! By implementing a debit-card like system with online account access, the card could be used at retailers similar to those mentioned above, with the MTA charging a credit card company-like fee per transaction. This would not only allow the usage of the card to pay for all the research and implementation costs, but also would give higher security to its users: riders, especially little kids and the elderly would no longer have to carry as much cash with them when they go out. In addition, if the smartcard is lost, it can be easily canceled/replaced without having to worry about your checking being emptied or credit being hurt. The MTA should seriously consider transitioning to a smartcard, but only after planning out a long term financial sustainability plan for its use so that it recoups the cost of its development and roll out that will also benefit New Yorkers and visitors immensely.

Read More: I was planning on blogging about this topic before, but just never got around to it, until I was reminded by 2nd Ave Sagas: The Future of the Metrocard Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Published Post Number:150/156
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