I have yet to meet a New Yorker who hasn’t missed a train because of a Metrocard. Either you lose it, you drop it, it’s out of money, or—my personal favorite— you swipe your credit-loaded card at the perfect angle but the turnstile simply won’t budge. When this last situation happens, the machine beckons you to “swipe card again at this turnstile”, which you have no choice but to do with an annoyed but undivided concentration lest you hold up traffic any longer. This whole process takes about 15 seconds maximum, but that’s more than enough for you to miss that one train that you desperately wanted to board. This experience is hardly glamorous, but you’re not a New Yorker if you haven’t lived through it.
Metrocards, in their imperfection, are expected to be obsolete by 2023. On May 31, 2019, the MTA launched a pilot program of a new tap-to-pay system called One Metro New York (OMNY). With OMNY, you’d be able to take a train or a bus with nothing but a single swipe of a smartphone or a flick of a contactless credit card. Gone will be the times of cruising the city through a germ-infested yellow piece of plastic. Refilling or replacing a lost card will be a hassle of the past. The initiative takes after those already implemented in cities like London and Toronto. New York, as one of the leading cities of the world, is late in modernizing its approach to public transportation. So why do I, a bona fide Newyorker, hate to see my Metrocard go?
For months, the promise of non-physical subway transactions resided in the back of my mind like an omen. At the launch of the new system last year, Pat Foye, the Chairman of the MTA said, “OMNY is designed to save New Yorkers their most precious commodity: their time”. The belief that New Yorkers—who are infamous for being amongst the unhappiest and most overwhelmed residents of this country—need to go faster than they already are terrified me. The city is aggressive in its penchant for maximizing time. It is also full of miserable people trying to optimize themselves and their daily lives. In switching the Metrocard out to OMNY, I feared that we would lose yet another moment of our day to a web of technology designed to make us more efficient and less aware.
This thought process was more defensible a few months ago, when germs felt like not much more than imaginary, weightless ants to the average person. Now that they’ve been rendered a universally visible menace by coronavirus, my concerns feel less compelling, if not frivolous. In the time that I’d spent dreading a contactless Metrocard, I couldn’t have foreseen our recent transition to a contactless society.
When I think of a world without physical contact, I don’t see self-isolation as I live it on my couch (despite the fact that I’ve been in quarantine in a room by myself for three weeks).The image most readily available to me is that of an apocalyptic Hudson Yards.The twenty-five-billion dollar neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan looks like the backdrop of one of Marvel’s Avenger movies, like an oasis of glass skyscrapers erected by Tony Stark only to be destroyed by aliens, or monsters, or whatever villain Hollywood execs find most suitable. The first time I went, I stood in the monumental shadow of the ‘Vessel’ that sits in the center of the multimillion-dollar apartment complex and immediately felt like an intruder in a sparkly new world built not for me, but despite me. Surrounded by glass, metal and hoards of tourists everywhere I looked, I was struck by how the people were the one element that felt out of place in this strange new territory.
Taking the train home that night, my Metrocard got stuck in the turnstile, instantly denting my day with a flaw. In contrast to the blinding perfection of Hudson Yards, my trouble with the card felt like a manifestation of a different reality, one in which a network of rats frolics freely and visibly within the less than hygienic subway platforms used by an estimated 4.3 million people a day. The Metrocard speaks to an experience of a New York that is gritty and dysfunctional, to the missteps and inefficiencies that characterize my daily life. In a city where everything seems to get more elusive and shinier by the day, I’m able to rely on the Metrocard as a reassuring, simple object. In its defects, it makes my encounters with the world feel clunky, if only for a moment, in a way that reminds me that my life is my own.
Looking at my Metrocard today, I have the sense of looking at an artifact. Already, my metro card feels like nothing more than a relic, a symbol of a time when New Yorkers had a tangible relationship with the mechanisms that governed their daily lives. With a single swipe in one of many machines used by thousands of New Yorkers in any given second, my card once gave me a material connection to the ground that I walked on and travelled under. By providing some friction in my day, the tactility quite literally grounded me.
Post-pandemic, a contactless subway system will not be a technological luxury as much as a tool for preservation. The impending switch to OMNY feels eerily indicative of what the world might look like when this is all over. Right now, from my third week of quarantine, my connection to others is entirely sustained by the intangible wireless systems of the internet. The virus has pushed us, almost overnight, into the world that media theorists have been anticipating for decades—a world where our lives are experienced almost exclusively through technology. I worry about the implications of a world without touch. New York is already an overpopulated city infamous for the loneliness of its inhabitants. The more we learn to relate to each other through floating systems that we can’t grasp, the more I fear that we might float off with them.