It’s the beginning of the end for the MetroCard.
In 2019, the MTA launched a pilot program of its new tap-to-pay system, known as OMNY, that will eventually replace swiping a MetroCard. The fare technology is rolling out in phases, allowing transit officials to iron out the kinks as they work toward fully retiring the MetroCard in 2023. With OMNY, riders can bypass lines to refill their MetroCards and simply tap their contactless bank cards or mobile wallet app on their smart phones to pay the fare.
“OMNY is designed to save New Yorkers their most precious commodity: their time,” said Pat Foye, the chairman of the MTA, at an event launching the system last year. The contactless payment method is especially relevant in light of COVID-19. The pandemic, so far, has not affected the timeline of OMNY’s rollout.
In the more than year since its launch, OMNY has steadily expanded across the city and has been used more than 10 million times by New Yorkers and tourists from 130 counties. The system started with 16 subway station on the 4, 5, and 6 lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn between Grand Central-42 Street and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center; riders have also been able to try out OMNY on all Staten Island buses since the system’s launch.
Now, some 60 percent of all subway stations are equipped with OMNY readers, including in every single Bronx station. The MTA also rolled out OMNY to 60 other stops in January, including five major transfer hubs: Herald Square, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, West 4th Street-Washington Square, the World Trade Center, and Jay Street-MetroTech. Just shy of 100 OMNY readers were already installed at 34th Street-Penn Station in December.
The system will function on a full-fare, pay-per-ride basis until every train station, bus route, and the Staten Island Railway is outfitted with the new tap-and-go tech by late 2020; Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North will follow in early 2021. The goal is for OMNY to be commuters’ passport to the New York region across all of the MTA-controlled subway, buses, and commuter rail lines.
Whether you’re eager to embrace OMNY or aim to stick with the MetroCard for as long as possible, here’s what you need to know about the new payment system.
What does OMNY mean, anyway?
The OMNY system stands for One Metro New York and is based on the prefix “omni,” meaning “of all things.” (That should give you a pretty good idea of how the MTA views the new payment method.)
How will the new system work?
With OMNY, commuters can tap contactless bank cards (credit or debit) or smart devices linked to a digital wallet system such as Apple Pay or Google Pay to pay subway and bus fares.
Contactless cards allow for quick tap transactions using near-field communication (NFC), a radio-based technology that allows for communication between devices. Riders can tell if their bank cards are contactless by looking for a symbol that resembles a sideways Wi-Fi icon—if not, riders can request one from their bank.
Straphangers also have the option to use digital wallet applications that support mobile payments. Just as with contactless cards, these apps use NFC to transfer payment after a user has linked their bank card information to the digital wallet. Fares are bundled into daily charges that riders will see on their statements, though trip details associated with each tap will be available. Visit the MTA’s website for more on what cards and digital wallet apps OMNY accepts.
OMNY will start with a full-fare, pay-per-ride option, but will gradually expand with weekly and monthly passes, reduced and students fares, and other options riders currently use. The new system offers the same two-hour free transfer as MetroCards, but riders must stick to one payment method—contactless card or digital wallet—if they want that transfer. Switching between the two will result in multiple charges.
Can I use cash?
Not right away. OMNY will initially rely on contactless cards and digital wallet apps. A MTA-issued contactless transit card won’t be available for purchase until 2021; those without bank accounts or who prefer using cash must continue to use MetroCards until then. Initially, customers will need to buy OMNY cards from retailers—such CVS and Rite Aid—but will eventually be able to purchase cards from OMNY vending machines installed across the system.
What’s an OMNY account and do I need one?
Riders can register an OMNY account that keeps track of up to 90 days of trip history and charges, along with other tools like managing payments methods. Registration isn’t required; it’s simply another tool in the arsenal of commuters.
For example, it can be used to dispute a charge if an unauthorized or incorrect charge is made. Riders can simply go to their dashboard, select the charge, and submit an online form to rebuff the fee. Customers will receive a reference number for the claim. Alternatively, riders can reach out to MTA customer service to speak with a representative.
The OMNY app is currently in the works for iOS and Android.
Why is the MTA making the switch to contactless payment?
New York City is, as is often the case when it comes to transit, behind the times on this one. Other major cities, including London (Oyster Card) and Sydney (Opal Card) have already embraced 21st century tap-to-pay systems. The new program opens the door to other technology and potentially improving equity issues.
On the current MetroCard system, a monthly pass can be purchased at $121, but only those who are able to shell out the upfront costs are able to benefit from the savings. Some low-income riders have little choice but to pay the more expensive per-ride option. But transit advocates hope OMNY, along with fare policy changes, could change that by capping fares per day, week, or month. This would allow the MTA to credit riders if they’ve reached a certain amount of trips in a certain chunk of time—a method already used in London and Dublin, and in U.S. cities such as Dallas and Portland.
The switch to OMNY also allows for better integration with regional transit systems and will enable all-door boarding on city buses—which advocates say could significantly speed up bus service by slashing boarding times.
Valeria Ricciulli contributed reporting to this story.