Ode to the New York City Subway’s MetroCard

2 New York City MetroCards from the mid-2010s

By Anna Breuer on 25 April 2023
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For years, the New York City subway token was a kind of coin of the realm.  In 2003, as they were about to be phased out, there were some 60 million still in circulation.

When the first subway began operations in New York, paper tickets cost five cents. The city discontinued paper tickets with the introduction of the turnstile, which required the insertion of a nickel and, starting in 1948, a dime. The once ubiquitous subway token was introduced in 1953, when fares rose to 15 cents, a move that necessitated the introduction of new subway token vocabulary, namely the token booths and token booth clerks, the latter of whom would empty the turnstiles that accepted the tokens using a bucket and dustpan.

Tokens were phased out in 2003 in favor of the MetroCard, which had been introduced in 1993. The city had planned to eliminate the MetroCard by 2023 in favor of a new system, OMNY, or One Metro New York, but that plan has been delayed to 2024.  However, OMNY has been in use for several years in parallel with its predecessor system.

The MetroCard, a magnetic stripe card, is used for fare payment in public transit in New York City and environs.  It is accepted by the New York City Subway, the Staten Island Railway, New York City Transit buses, and MTA buses. It’s also accepted by several partner transit authorities: Nassau Inter-County Express, the PATH or Port Authority Trans Hudson train system, the Roosevelt Island Tramway, AirTrain JFK, and the Bee-Line Bus System in Westchester County.

Launched in 1993, the MetroCard was slowly phased into the New York City transit network, with the installation of MetroCard-compatible subway turnstiles followed by MetroCard card readers in buses.  The entire network was able to accept the new card by the end of 1995.

The original design of the MetroCard was blue with yellow lettering and those cards have become collectors’ items. Currently the card has blue lettering on a goldenrod background.  The MTA sells a variety of types of MetroCards including 7- and 30-day unlimited ride cards and a 1-day Fun Pass.  The advent of the card allowed the city to offer free transfers from bus to subway or to another bus, and MetroCard vending machines were installed in 1999 (until then, to purchase a MetroCard, one had to go to a token booth, where a token booth clerk would complete the transaction).

Still, there’s one thing the New York City subway token is good for, a purpose for which the MetroCard was never suited: jewelry.  The New York City Historical Society shop continues to sell subway token cufflinks, a subway token charm, a leather money clip  with a subway token, and even a wristwatch with a subway token watch face.  Try doing that with a MetroCard or your OMNY app!

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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