National News

After Backlash, MTA Eases MetroCard Disruption

Posted February 6, 2018 5:01 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Transportation Authority delivered the news in a presidential manner — 220 characters posted on Twitter last Wednesday night announcing that its MetroCard machines would not accept credit cards from about midnight Friday through 5 a.m. Monday while the computer system that runs the machines was upgraded.

A tsunami of fury rolled across the internet in response, ranging from musings on what sort of stone-age computers take that long to update (2 days 2 hours 15 minutes, according to the outage schedule the MTA posted) to official condemnation from the City Council speaker, who in a Tweet wrote, “Ummm, UNACCEPTABLE!”

The backlash forced the authority, which operates New York City’s subways, to do an abrupt about-face, delaying the plan until this weekend to give riders more time to prepare.

On Monday afternoon, the agency announced that the upgrades would now take place over a much shorter span — 5 hours 59 minutes, to be exact, from 12:01 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturday. The outsize reaction seemed more than just irritation at the inconvenience — the MetroCard machines will still accept cash payments — but a reflection of a generally beleaguered riding public fed up by the failings of a slow, shoddy subway system.

In a rare instance of a government agency expressing chagrin, the advisory this time was sent widely to the news media, through email, with the heading: “Overnight Weekend Timing Designed to Minimize Customer Inconvenience.”

“After hearing clearly from our customers that they needed more information regarding this upgrade, we reassessed the entire process,” said Veronique Hakim, the MTA’s managing director. “We are aggressively communicating with customers about this upgrade to ensure that we avoid confusion, and limiting the disruption to only the very early morning hours Saturday.” “It’s good that we positively responded to that and reworked the plan,” said Andy Byford, the president of New York City Transit, which oversees the subway and public buses. “Where I want to get to is we get it right the first time.”

Byford, who started his job last month, said the kerfuffle was in part the result of the MTA’s failure to use “customer-led thinking,” that puts the needs of riders first. “Customer-led thinking would never have let that happen.”

The upgrades are meant to enhance the reliability and security of processing debit and credit card transactions, according to the MTA. The city’s more than 2,700 MetroCard machines process about 800,000 transactions each day. A spokesman for the MTA, Shams Tarek, said the disruption was necessary to make the improvements. “It is like any computer, right?” he said. “You can’t operate a computer while you’re replacing the software.”

MetroCard machines were introduced at the turn of the century. In the last 14 years, there have been three major system upgrades, according to information provided by the agency. There are also periodic outages on Saturdays between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. while the system is backed up.

“They are trying to extend the life of this equipment that truly should have been replaced by now,” said Richard Barone, the vice president for transportation for the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and policy organization. “We are working with equipment that is going to need continuing investment to continue to work.”

Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said the new schedule was an improvement. But the enraged reaction from riders pointed to the subway’s bigger problems, he said, of endemic delays, crumbling infrastructure and deep unreliability that led Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the MTA, to declare a state of emergency and unfurl a $836 million plan last summer to turn around the troubled system.

“It is emblematic of just complete and total mutiny and unabated anger at the MTA for the daily abuses that riders have to endure,” he said. “If this was an isolated incident on its own, people may have shrugged and dealt with it, but given everything else, this became a rallying cry.”

By 2023, MetroCards will be phased out entirely; fares will be paid with contactless readers that can deduct from credit and debit cards, similar to transit payment systems in London and other cities. Barone said that the new system would not likely need to be taken offline for updates. Unlike the MetroCard machines, which do much of the processing of transactions themselves, the new system will process payments in a back-end computer system.

The debacle over the upgrade, Johnson said, underscores the need for that more modern fare collection technology.

“In the meantime, things might be clunky and unacceptable,” he said. “But this is an improvement until we get a state-of-the-art technology system.”