Bring back tokens! MetroCard swiped my fare!

BY BILL WEINBERG  |  If you use a MetroCard, please take heed.

Did you ever have a sneaking suspicion that you are actually being charged an extra fare every time you are told by the turnstile’s little display screen “Please swipe again”? Everyone always told me it was just my paranoid imagination. But now I know for sure.

I found out when I recently ventured back on the subway for the first time in months, for a family dinner in Queens. I’ll admit that I had a beef with the MetroCard before I uncovered the scam. Since the token was finally phased out in 2003, I have tried to get around on foot and bicycle as much as possible. Apart from the sneaking feeling that I was being ripped off, I’ve found the MetroCard generally odious. I’ve come to view the demise of the token as a final nail in the coffin of a once-great city.

Ironically, the M.T.A. has been famously luring New Yorkers back to the subway — boasting a cleaner, safer system — during the very years I have been avoiding it. But I’d take dirt, panhandlers, faulty P.A. systems and even a degree of danger over the utterly alienating MetroCard any day.

Not only have we lost a unique icon of New York City — willingly abandoned in favor of a sterile magnetic-strip card basically identical to those used in every other city with a mass transit system — but now my experience demonstrates that the MetroCard is a massive fraud being perpetrated against the commuting citizenry.

I didn’t have it in me to bike all the way out to Queens. I viewed taking the train merely as a slightly odious compromise. I didn’t imagine that it would border on the Kafkaesque.

At the station where I picked up the F train (it will remain nameless for reasons to become clear; suffice to say it was in Lower Manhattan), I debated whether to just get a single round-trip fare — but of course they provide every disincentive to this. Especially given that, starting this year, we are now charged a dollar just for the privilege of buying a card, I had to consider if I shouldn’t gamble on taking at least one more round trip in the near future. I decided to get a $10 card. But of course the modest discount means there would be an extra 50 cents on the card after my four rides — it is designed so that you can never get rid of a damn card. I had the ominous feeling of being sucked against my will back into the system.

It didn’t take long before I wished I had opted for taking my bicycle over the 59th St. Bridge. A few admittedly all-too-quotidian details of my journey… . At the 34th St. station, the F train mysteriously halted — for five, 10, 20 minutes… . A moderately talented busker in my car made the wait slightly more palatable, but it was maddening to have to be repeatedly told through that nice new clear P.A. system that “we are being held” (by what, pray tell?), and, worse yet, “thank you for your patience.”

Finally I snapped. “Patience?” I said aloud. “What patience?” Passengers turned and looked at me. I found myself launching into a rant. “How much longer, fellow New Yorkers?” I exhorted. “How much longer are we going to take this arrogance? The fare goes up and up and up, and they still can’t even get the basics together!”

I knew I was risking arrest, but at that moment I felt ready to face the consequences. “What would they do if we all jumped the turnstiles?” I urged. “They couldn’t arrest all of us! How much longer, New Yorkers?”

I was saved from myself by a new announcement. We were told that another F train was arriving across the platform and would be pulling out first. There was a mass exodus from one train to the other, with much unpleasant shoving and scrambling. But as soon as we were all settled in the now uncomfortably crowded new train, a voice came though its P.A. system — telling us that the first train would be leaving first! There was immediately another scramble back across the platform into the first train — now bursting with the former passengers of both. With exasperated sighs and eye-rolling, we lurched forward through the tunnel uptown.

But that was just the beginning. The real pièce de résistance — proof of the financially predatory nature of the MetroCard system — was saved for my return trip.

On the way home, I swiped at the 74th St. station in Jackson Heights — and got that familiar “please swipe again” routine. I dutifully swiped again — and found that my fare had been reduced not by one but by two rides. The screen registered that I was down to $2 and change — a single ride, after I had purchased four and used only one. I had been charged for the first swipe. My longtime suspicion was vindicated!

I was now faced with the dilemma of whether to fight it out with the clerk in the booth — which might mean forfeiting yet another fare if I lost the fight. I decided to complain back at the station where I’d bought the damn thing. I went through the turnstile just before my swipe timed out.

Back at the first station in Lower Manhattan, I psyched myself up to assert my rights with a surly, overworked clerk in what I still anachronistically think of as the “token booth.” He was actually something of a mensch, thank goodness, and listened sympathetically to my story. But he told me I would have to write the M.T.A. for a refund. “Write the M.T.A. for a refund?!” I sputtered. “For a lousy two-fifty?! Are you kidding?!”

And here is why I am constrained from revealing the identity of the station. When I persisted in arguing, the clerk finally cut me a break. He issued me a one-ride pass — while emphasizing that he was bending the rules and couldn’t do it again. I hope the M.T.A. will not be able to identify him and punish him for this good deed.

I say this demands a public investigation. How many other such cases have there been? How many thousands of dollars have been fleeced from commuters by the M.T.A. through this “please swipe again” scam? How many fares have been written off because commuters either didn’t notice they’d been ripped off or couldn’t be bothered writing the M.T.A.?

If you notice, we never had this problem with tokens.

O.K., now let’s address the rationale for this egregious scam and desecration of New York’s culture. The MetroCard was sold to us with a fare discount for multiple rides — but given the relentless fare hikes, this is easily cancelled out. In 2003, when tokens were phased out, a ride was $1.50. Now it’s a dollar more. (In the previous decade, by the way, the fare had only risen 60 cents.) How much further ahead of the game would we be if we had stuck with tokens and frozen the fare back then?

Given how we have presumably been ripped off by the MetroCard for the past decade, we have more than earned an indefinite fare freeze — for at least the next 10 years.

Then there is the pseudo-ecological argument for the disincentives to getting a new card — the extra dollar charged, and the mathematics that make it virtually impossible to get an exact number of rides on a single card. Under the justification of saving paper, we are giving Big Brother a complete electronic record of all our comings and goings — especially if you pay with a credit card. Tokens left no such electronic traces — and were 100 percent recycled. A win-win.

How many other things are wrong with the MetroCard?

The inevitable move toward fully automated subway stations devoid of human employees obviously creates a climate that breeds crime — as well as contributing to unemployment in lean economic times.

The imposition of having to battle the controls of the MetroCard vending machines is simply discrimination against technically challenged people such as myself.

The MetroCard  also discriminates against folks like me who ride the subways only occasionally — having to keep track of that damn card between rare subway excursions. How much money has been essentially stolen from New Yorkers who have just misplaced  or mangled their cards?

I need to call out the Straphangers Campaign on this one. This group that ostensibly lobbies on behalf of subway riders actually advocated for this monstrosity. They must answer for having lubricated the way to this dystopia.  Will they take any responsibility for the systematic rip-off of New York straphangers? I challenge them to respond.

For myself, I’m a MetroCard abolitionist. I know I’ll be called reactionary, Luddite and primitivist for even broaching this. But it’s been said that when you’re poised at the brink of a cliff, the most progressive step you can take is backward. This issue goes way beyond the subway system. Look at what is going on in the world: nanotechnology, total surveillance, the patenting of human genes, eyewear computers (next stop actual implants) — all these “advances” against the backdrop of a collapsing biosphere, and a breakdown of human culture, manifesting in terrorism and spectacularly senseless violence. In the face of this “progress,” New York City has the opportunity to make a real statement to the world.

Abolish the MetroCard! Bring back tokens! May this courageous return to a demonstrably superior and more rational system be a clarion call announcing the beginning of humanity’s retreat from the brink.


Weinberg blogs at

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