COVID-19 delays NYC’s contactless subway payment system

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NYC's contactless payment system is delayed due to COVID-19.
Image: NYC MTA

The havoc caused by COVID-19 is widespread. Over the past several months, the pandemic has forced countless projects to a screeching halt. Likewise, it has radically altered the ways that people interact with the world.

No one would argue that the subway was ever a clean or healthy environment. However, in the age of a global pandemic, it’s downright dangerous. That’s why subways across the world are ghost towns aside from a few essential workers.

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed a contactless payment program that was in the process of being implemented for New York City’s public transportation. It’s poor timing for a system that would have decreased thousands of touchpoints along the city’s subway and bus networks.

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Business as Usual

New York commuters were looking forward to the One Metro New York (OMNY) payment system. It allows individuals to pay for their transit with contactless methods like Apple and Google Pay. Offerings from Samsung and Fitbit are also supported. Commuters will be able to initiate payments either with their mobile device or a smartwatch.

The system is designed to make things more convenient by decreasing reliance on a physical MetroCard. However, today’s world has quickly become less about convenience and more about safety. OMNY decreases the number of times people actually need to touch a payment terminal or turnstile. In the world of public transit, less touching is always a good thing.

The first contactless payment systems were opened at select subway station turnstiles last May. At that time, officials expected that OMNY would be available at all subway stops and buses by October. Sadly, COVID-19 has delayed that timeline. Due to lockdowns and public health concerns, the installation of the payment terminals was halted in late March.

OMNY is now expected to be completed by December, per a Wall Street Journal report.

Fortunately, installation has now resumed and the OMNY rollout is once again underway. That means commuters who are using public transit will find the contactless readers available at more stations as time goes on. The MTA notes that contactless payments will be available on all Manhattan buses by the end of July and all NYC buses by the end of 2020.

Making the Jump

It’s a weird time for public transit. With lingering fears of the coronavirus, it’s unclear when (and if) people will start using it regularly. OMNY may alleviate some of those fears. However, it also introduces some of its own.

The contactless payment system has come under fire for collecting data from users. Information collected includes things like location data and smartphone identifiers. Meanwhile, some riders have also reportedly been double-charged when using the service.

Fortunately, OMNY won’t be the only option. MetroCard machines will continue to operate until 2023. At that point, they will be phased out in favor of the new contactless system. Those without access to a phone or credit card will be able to purchase a prepaid card (which sort of defeats the purpose). However, that option isn’t yet available since MetroCards are still functioning.

Despite its flaws, OMNY would have been a perfect solution right now. It’s a case of poor timing and irony that delayed the system practically made for a pandemic.

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