The Big Apple Launches Tap-and-Go

New York subway finally gets a contactless payment system

New Yorkers routinely complain about overcrowded subways and long queues to buy or top up their MetroCards. Commuters in many cities around the world, including London and Tokyo, for years have been able to tap and pay with a smartphone or contactless card to access public transport. Other cities in the US such as Chicago and Portland have also been operating a similar system for a while. However, tap-to-pay is finally coming to New York, but with limited coverage for now.

Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced the launch of its contactless fare payment system OMNY, short for One Metro New York. The service lets people pay for fares with digital wallets and contactless credit and debit cards. OMNY readers work with NFC technology in contactless credit, debit or reloadable prepaid cards, as well as in smartphones and wearables. However, travellers won’t be able to throw away their MetroCards anytime soon.

OMNY will launch with an open-loop contactless payment system, meaning customers never need to wait in line to buy a fare card. They simply use a device of their choice and seamlessly enter the system. In time, OMNY will allow New Yorkers to pay their fares on subways, buses and the two commuter rails using the same payment method.

The roll-out is pretty limited, especially considering the size of New York’s metro system. The tap-to-pay service will initially only be available on the 4, 5 and 6 subway lines between Grand Central Station in Manhattan and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn for single-fare rides, as well as buses in the New York borough of Staten Island. The MTA expects to expand OMNY to other lines through 2019, and for the system to be available throughout the entire subway system and bus routes by late 2020. Over time, the MTA will add more fare options, including time-based passes, reduced tickets and student fares.

Completion of the entire project is expected by 2023, by which time it will empower customers with a new OMNY app that will provide seamless fare payment in Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, subway and bus services. An OMNY card will also be available to support customers who prefer to fund fares with cash. Eventually, the system will accommodate the migration of all current unlimited ride passes and other special fare products over to the OMNY environment, and will offer the option to buy tickets online or in stations and new machines. A closed-loop OMNY card will be sold in stations at a robust network of retail stores beginning in 2021, so cash will always be an option.

The roll-out is part of the MTA’s modernization plan aimed at making commuting faster and more convenient, although it’s long overdue. Cubic is implementing the technology in New York, the same company that brought the system to Chicago in 2013. There were early hiccups when the contactless fare payments debuted in Chicago, so the company has taken a slow approach in New York. The initial pilot in New York ran smoothly and commuters hope the company has learned from its mistakes in Chicago.

Contactless technology has dragged its heels in the US compared with other countries. But the growth of mobile payment infrastructure thanks to Apple, Google, Square and others is finally beginning to speed up adoption of the technology more broadly, starting with public transportation.