OMNY card completes the EMV only OMNY system (updated for Apple Pay OMNY)

After a long gestation, and a COVID related delay, the good old swipe MetroCard replacement has finally shipped. OMNY card: a ‘truth in the cloud’ EMV bank payment card, not a MIFARE or FeliCa ‘truth in the card ‘ smartcard like London Oyster or Tokyo Suica. As MetroCard missed the transit smartcard revolution of the early 2000’s, MTA and ticketing system management company Cubic Transportation Systems decided to go all in with a new system built on EMV and open loop, i.e. using ‘open payment‘ EMV contactless credit/debit cards for transit fare foundation instead of dedicated transit cards. It’s a ‘one size fits all’ approach where bank payments cards are promoted for every kind of purchase. The coming addition of fare capping, i.e. OMNY card features without OMNY card, further reduces the need for OMNY card commuter passes and encourages credit/debit card use.

The piecemeal OMNY rollout has not been an easy transition for MetroCard users. One problem with one size fits all open loop is that different people have different 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. Hence OMNY card is a closed loop OMNY branded EMV card with CVV security number, likely from a Mastercard issuing agency, similar to the Mastercard closed loop Ventra and Opal digital cards. Like Ventra card, OMNY card comes in plastic and the digital version will come to Apple Pay and Google Pay ‘soon’, although MTA has not given any launch window for OMNY iOS and Android apps that will be necessary for adding OMNY to Wallet and for recharge.

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.

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’s a choice between supporting one or the other, not both. I suspect Apple does this because of the complexity supporting MIFARE and EMV mixed mode operations on the same transit system.

OMNY is a new system however, built completely on EMV and EMV only. 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 would result 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.

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 for you. And as ever there are thorny open loop user data privacy issues.

OMNY truly represents the state American public transit as it tries to get on board with mobile payments. Progress is good and welcome but a real next generation vision with meaningful forward development of American public transit will continue to be a confused mess despite endless broken promises to fix it…simply because people with money and means don’t use it. If they did, things would have been fixed long ago.