OMNY white-label card completes the EMV only OMNY system

After a long gestation, and a COVID related delay, the mighty swipe MetroCard replacement finally shipped. The OMNY card: a white-label EMV bank payment card using the mastercard payment network, not a MIFARE or FeliCa smartcard like San Fransisco Clipper or Tokyo Suica. MetroCard missed the transit smartcard revolution of the late 1990’s, so MTA and their ticketing system management company Cubic Transportation Systems went all in with a new CUBIC designed system built using EMV payment network processing i.e. ‘open loop payment‘ regular EMV contactless credit/debit cards for mainstream transit fare use, and dedicated white-label EMV prepaid debit transit cards that replace MetroCard, relegated to a backup role for users who cannot use regular credit/debit cards for transit.

OMNY is envisioned and designed as a ‘one size fits all’ approach where bank card EMV payment networks (VISA, mastercard, American Express, etc.) are promoted as transit tickets since everybody supposedly already use bank cards for all daily life purchases. The addition of fare capping, basically a OMNY closed loop card feature for open loop, further encourages regular credit/debit card use and reduces the need for issuing OMNY card. And rest assured, MTA very much wants to get out of the card issuing business…good luck with that.

One problem with one size fits all open loop thinking is it ignores reality. Different people have different transit needs: minors, seniors, disabled, daily commuters with set routes, people without credit cards and so on. Even with fare capping open loop cannot handle these well, if it did TfL would have killed Oyster card long ago. One thing is certain, the piecemeal OMNY rollout has not been an easy transition for MetroCard users. As of February 2022 only 24% of MTA riders use OMNY, that’s a lot of MetroCard. I predict most will only switch from MetroCard when forced to do so when transit gate swipe readers are turned off for good in 2024.

What is OMNY card?
OMNY card is a private branded ‘white-label’ EMV prepaid debit card that comes with a CVC/CVV security number from a mastercard issuing agency, similar to private branded credit/debit store cards. Chicago Ventra tried a similar arrangement years ago. Ventra (also managed by Cubic by the way) has a long glitchy open loop history from its debut with the ill-fated mastercard prepaid debit Ventra card. Streets Blog had this to say about it in 2017.

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

StreetsBlog Chicago December 2017

Let’s hope the OMNY card issuer and MTA do a better job of hiding their white-label OMNY prepaid debit card fees. Because let’s face it, even though OMNY card is ‘closed loop’ it still uses the same EMV payment network that open loop cards do. I call it faux closed loop because OMNY doesn’t process their own fare payments, nor does OMNY (as of this writing) offer commuter passes, student discounts, etc. OMNY station kiosks that have yet to be installed will likely be modified ATM machines that take money instead of dispensing it.

A digital version of OMNY was advertised to launch on Apple Pay and Google Pay ‘soon’, although MTA now says it ‘expects’ to launch OMNY iOS and Android apps necessary for adding OMNY to Wallet sometime in 2023. We shall see. When the OMNY digital card does finally launch, expect the same rebranded version of mastercard closed loop Ventra and Opal digital cards, all managed by Cubic. As most of the open loop systems in North America, UK and Australia are designed and managed by Cubic it’s helpful to compare their ticketing system profiles.

Transition bumps in road
When you carefully analyze the different systems and Express Mode transit support listed on the Where you can ride transit using Apple Pay support page, one condition becomes clear: current transit systems do not support Apple Pay Transit cards and EMV Express Transit when the system uses both MIFARE and EMV open loop. It seems to be a choice between supporting one or the other, not both. I suspect transit system operators do this because of the complexity supporting MIFARE and EMV mixed mode operations on the same transit system.

OMNY is a new system however, built exclusively on EMV. When Apple Pay OMNY launches, OMNY will be the first system to support both EMV as an Apple Pay transit card and EMV Express Transit mode for credit/debit cards. There is a catch however similar to using Apple Pay China T-Union cards: turning on one card for Express Transit turns off other cards.

This happens when cards share the same NFC ID number which results in card clash at the gate reader. When cards share the same ID, only one card can be set for Express Transit mode at any one time. For EMV cards this applies to payment cards as well so Express Transit Card settings will likely turn off any activated payment cards when an OMNY card to turned on, and vice versa. Otherwise the complaints from Apple Pay MTA users would be endless.

The last big OMNY headache: MTA Railroad ticketing
After OMNY card is launched on Apple Pay and Google Pay, the next OMNY challenge will be integrating Metro-North and LIRR commuter rail ticketing. A difficult task as none of the train line are equipped with NFC card readers. MTA has yet to unveil any commuter rail ticketing integration details. Ventra has the same problem, commuter rail ticketing remains the age old conductor visual inspection, no tap and go contactless. And as ever there are thorny open loop user data privacy issues.

OMNY truly represents the state of American public transit as it tries to get on board with mobile payments. Progress is good and welcome but instead of real meaningful development, American public transit will continue to be a confused mess of endless broken promises. This can’t change as long as America treats public transit as a subsidized welfare and jobs program instead of essential public infrastructure.

Updated 2022-07-01