The traveller’s lament

In 2007, I visited many cities — including Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, Boston, Washington, DC, New York and Toronto. I used the transit systems in the last four and, of course, the San Francisco bay area. Over time, a few questions emerged:

  • Why do I have to have a different card for each city?
  • What transit systems offer good deal for visitors?
  • How do the prices and features compare, generally?

Transit cards

Here’s a chart comparing the basic features of each system:

City, transit system and nickname Fare card Card type Card used Ride Week Month
New York Metropolitan Transmit Authority (none) MetroCard paper magstripe entry $2 $241 $761
Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) Metropass plastic magstripe entry $2.75 $32.252 $1092
Boston: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (T) CharlieTicket, CharlieCard paper magstripe, plastic contactless entry $2 $153 $594
San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) Bart Ticket, EZ Rider paper magstripe, plastic contactless entry and exit $1.50–7.65 n/a5 n/a5
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) farecard, SmarTrip paper magstripe, plastic contactless entry and exit $1.65–4.50 $26.40 or $396 $125

Passes and flexibility

  1. New York’s weekly and monthly passes are valid for 7 and 30 days from the day of first use.
  2. Toronto’s weekly and monthly passes are valid for the calendar week (Monday–Sunday) and month.
  3. Boston’s weekly passes are valid for 7 days from the day of purchase.
  4. Boston’s monthly passes are valid for the calendar month. I think.
  5. BART does not have monthly or weekly passes. Riders receive a 6.25% discount when $45 or $60 is spent.
  6. Washington, DC’s weekly passes are valid for 7 days from the day of first use.

New York’s weekly and “monthly” passes make sense to visitors arriving at any time.

Toronto’s weekly pass only makes sense to semi-regular users or visitors who time their trips.

Boston’s weekly system is more flexible than Toronto’s, but it doesn’t give you the option of buying weekly fares in bulk or in advance.

BART offers no weekly pass or other discount for visitors.

DC calls their subway “rail,” which is super-confusing.

Winner: New York
Loser: BART. Duh.


New York’s MetroCard can be used as a stored-valued card and can hold weekly and monthly passes.

Toronto doesn’t have a stored-value card. Its passes are credit-card like hard plastic.

Boston offers both a paper farecard, the CharlieTicket, and a free contactless card, the CharlieCard, and gives riders a discount for using the plastic card. Both CharlieCards and CharlieTickets can act as stored-values cards or weekly passes. Monthly passes require a CharlieCard.

DC’s SmarTrip is only half-baked, though. It is a stored-value card only — it can’t hold passes — and a card costs $5. Want a weekly pass? You’ll need a paper farecard.

BART’s EZ Rider card is a stored-value card only, as BART does not offer passes. The initial card is free when you put value on it, but replacement cards are $5. No discount is offered for using the card.

Winner: Boston, hands down.
Loser: Toronto. Partly due to environmental impact (see below).
Dishonorable mention: DC.

Environmental impact of payment method

Toronto’s single-day passes are disposable paper. It offers reusable tokens and disposable paper tickets.

New York doesn’t offer a permanent farecard, and used-up paper farecards are littered throughout the subway stations.

Boston’s CharlieTickets are not reused—once you insert them in to a machine, you get a new one back.

Both BART and DC’s paper farecards are reusable for a dozen or so trips, until all the space on the card is used up.

Winner: Boston, again. Free plastic cards, and reduced litter.
Loser: New York. All those wasted cards.
Dishonorable mention: Toronto. Paper tickets? In 2008? Please.


Winner: Boston ($59)
Loser: BART, no passes of any kind
Dishonorable mention: Toronto, almost twice as expensive ($109)

Transit system integration

The Greater Toronto Area’s transit systems will be switching to the Presto card, a multi-provider, contactless stored value card. The TTC gets a big raspberry for opting out of this. Bad TTC, no cookie.

The San Francisco bay area’s transit authorities (BART, Muni, Caltrain, VTA, SamTrans, AC Transit and 20 others) are also attempting a multi-provider card. Theirs is called TransLink. BART got tired of waiting and implemented EZ Rider temporarily.

Washington DC-area riders who use MARC and VRE (huh?) can get a Transit Link Card, which acts as a monthly pass for the DC Metro.

Getting to the point

So, why do so many transit systems still use paper? That’s not the big question.

The big question is why do I have to carry separate cards for every system? Why can’t one Octopus/Presto/Oyster/TransLink card work everywhere?

I don’t have to use a separate credit or debit card for each city; I shouldn’t have to use a separate transit card.

I’m not asking for fare integration — the agencies don’t even have to trust each other, or know the others exist. The card can store a UUID, and the fare/pass data can be stored in the cloud.

Make it work, people.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. I love this – thank you. I should go over and Digg this so many, many people see it, no? :p

    “Make it work, people” should be the maxim of customer service in the 21st century. Honestly, integration of systems can’t all be impossible, can it?

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