New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is delaying rollout of its contactless payment system for the subway and bus systems, which was originally scheduled for October. Now, as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, completion of the system is reportedly being pushed back into December.
The system, OMNY, uses contactless credit cards or non-PIN-restricted debit cards as well as supported smart devices with digital wallets—such as with Apple Pay or Google Pay—to pay a fare instantly before entering a subway turnstile. By being able to simply wave a chipped card, smart device, or wearable over the reader, users would be able to avoid the MTA’s vending machines.
The immediate bummer is that the system at launch will exclude weekly and monthly passes—which can save regular commuters a considerable amount of money depending on how frequently they use the subway—though OMNY will introduce support for those and other fares down the line. (MetroCards are supposed to be phased out by 2023.)
OMNY’s rollout was a multiyear plan that kicked off with a pilot for the subway and buses in May of last year. Completion of those transit systems was originally planned to wrap in October, with a commuter rail expansion for the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad expected to be completed in early 2021. But MTA officials are now saying they expect the completion for the subway to be done by the end of December, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
The paper cited Steve Brunner, a VP of Cubic Transportation Systems who is overseeing the OMNY project, as saying the delay resulted from a slowdown due to concerns over workers’ health back in March. According to the Journal, work to install the readers at turnstiles picked back up in early May, and readers are currently available at roughly half of the city’s 472 subway stations. Using two different payment methods between stations that either do or don’t have contactless scanners does sound like a pain in the butt, though.
There are valid criticisms of the project as well. Privacy nonprofit Surveillance Technology Oversight Project argued in a report last year that OMNY “empowers potentially abusive data collection” that could be used by the law enforcement groups to target and track individuals. STOP argued that OMNY has put few limitations on rider data collection, including being able to store data for unspecific periods of time. (OMNY states on its website that data “collected through the OMNY Website is retained by us in accordance with the applicable records retention and disposition requirements of New York or federal law.”)
The cashless system will also disproportionately affect people who rely on cash, do not have access to a bank account or supported credit or debit card, or cannot afford a wearable or smart device. While OMNY will eventually offer contactless transit cards for purchase that can be used at turnstiles, according to Curbed, folks will have to buy their OMNY card from a specified vendor rather than at the station until OMNY vending machines can be installed.
Right now, and even later this year, there are clear benefits to contactless entry. But the new delay means the completion of OMNY’s rollout may not be able to head off the start of flu season, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says typically peaks between December and February. The health agency notes that while the virus primarily spreads person-to-person through droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks, it can less often spread when a person touches an infected surface and then their mouth, nose, or eyes.
Of course, should another wave of coronavirus spread around then, too, commuters may be looking to use everything at their disposal to keep themselves safe—and a contactless fare system would be an important tool in that arsenal.