Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


Why is MTA OMNY asking Apple to fix Face ID?

MTA is asking Apple to fix Face ID. We all know that using Face ID with face masks sucks but the MTA situation is special. It’s a perfect storm of 2 separate issues, the Face ID with face mask problem and the OMNY rollout problem combined in a COVID crucible.

The MTA OMNY rollout started in May 2019 with Apple Pay EMV Express Transit support, aka Open Loop. This means regular credit and debit Apple Pay cards work for transit on new OMNY readers. It sounds great but there are downsides: open loop doesn’t support the full set of MTA transit fare options so many users have to stick with the good old MetroCard swipe until the native OMNY smartcard arrives.

Lately we don’t hear much about the OMNY card. It seems delayed along with the rest of the OMNY rollout. And because the rollout is delayed, open loop isn’t really useful because the entire system doesn’t support it. The old chicken or egg problem.

One outcome of this mixed mode is the long running complaint of unwanted Express Transit fare charges that has been constant with OMNY transit gates since the very beginning. Many users who still use MetroCard may not be aware that Express Transit is on when going through an OMNY gate. If iPhone gets close enough to the reader, bingo.

This should not be happening, so the stock advice is ‘turn off Express Transit’. The mixed mode MetroCard/OMNY open loop rollout seemed like a nice idea but implementing Express Transit before the system was completed turned out to be a bad call compounded by the COVID crisis, a victim of poor gate design, poor planning and execution.

The irony here is that iPhone users riding MTA end up turning off Express Transit, the very thing that helps keep face masks on. MTA is asking Apple to help but a ‘how to use Face ID with face masks’ ad campaign courtesy of Apple isn’t going to fix anything.

Until the OMNY rollout on MTA is completed and Apple comes up with something better than the iOS 13.5 Face ID tweak, New Yorkers will have to deal with it and use passcodes. After all, commuters with Face ID iPhones in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China have been wrangling with face masks for years and Apple never lifted a finger. Get used to it.

MTA OMNY Apple Pay Express Transit User Problems

Apple’s decision to offer Apple Pay EMV style Express Transit as a iOS 13 feature when adding cards to Wallet may not have been a good idea after all, especially on the work-in-progress mixed environment that is MTA OMNY. Manual swipe MetroCards will be around for a few years, and with Cubic Transportation running the show it is anybody’s guess when OMNY, the system and the MIFARE MetroCard replacement, will completely in place and running smoothly.

For every tweet saying Express Transit is great, there are plenty of complaints of unwanted OMNY charges because iPhone users didn’t know Express Transit was turned on. The thing is iPhone and Apple Watch have to be damn close for a read. Unless the device is in a pants or coat pocket or wrist that brushes on the OMNY reader, accidental reads can’t happen. Nevertheless Apple would have happier New York City customers keeping EMV Express Transit off by default, and leave default on for the native OMNY transit card, whenever that arrives.

EMV Express Transit Option Returns in iOS 12.4 Public beta 4

The temporary absence of EMV Express Transit in iOS 12.4 betas 1~3 has ended, the option has finally returned in iOS 12.4 public beta 4 (16G5046d). OMNY users in New York can use the beta for transit now, but since OMNY itself is one big beta system why bother with beta on beta? I think it’s better to wait for the official release. Portland HOP iPhone users need not bother as they can put real HOP card in Wallet. It’s way better than using a credit card, faster and cheaper too.

The only question remaining is, what kind of Wallet grunt work were they up that they had to remove EMV Express Transit temporarily in the first place?

The MTA OMNY EMV Launch

The most surprising thing about the new OMNY system service start on May 31 isn’t that it’s EMV contactless credit/debit card only, or that Cubic is working with Apple to bring Apple Pay EMV support, or even that mag strip MetroCard is hanging around until “at least” 2022.

The most surprising thing is that MetroCard is manually swiped on the new OMNY contactless fare gates (YouTube video 1:25 mark).

Dear lord, have MTA commuters really been manually swiping MetroCards all these years? Living in Japan since the 1980s, I have never manually swiped a mag strip card at a transit gate ever. Some people may not like Trump, but let’s make America great again by not manually swiping MetroCards anymore.

It’s very interesting that MTA and Cubic decided to launch OMNY with standard fare only, slower EMV contactless cards for those who have them, and leave the majority of transit users with MetroCard, which has all the fare options (student fares, discount fares, etc.), until the real MetroCard replacement, OMNY transit card, is due in late 2021.

Usually it’s the other way around, the fast new transit smartcard card comes first, slower EMV support comes much later after the system kinks are worked out. My theory is that MTA did it the other way around to road test the system with a smaller group of transit users, while pushing out the expense of installing all that OMNY card issue related hardware (kiosks, recharge stations, etc.) in the hope that lots of transit users will happily end up using only EMV, thus magically reducing said OMNY card related hardware investments. It’s wishful thinking, like Transport for London wishing that Oyster cards go away.

Once the real OMNY card appears is when things get interesting. All the different fare types will be supported on a smartcard, real MIFARE cards will be faster than EMV at the gate, smartphone apps from Cubic will be there for credit card linking and recharging OMNY plastic cards on the fly. Last but not least, native OMNY cards can finally be hosted on Apple Pay with faster secure native Express Transit, just like Chicago Ventra and Portland HOP. New York is a great city that deserves a great transit system. Here’s hoping OMNY helps make that happen.

UPDATE
TechCrunch reported that Apple Pay EMV Express Transit would be available at launch but this did not entirely mesh with earlier statements from Tim Cook and MTA OMNY transit fare system developer/operator Cubic. NYCT Omny support clarified Tim’s earlier statement and confirms Apple Pay EMV Express Transit bank card support at launch for iOS 12.3 users. The Apple Pay Transit support page has also been updated to show EMV Express Transit “at select stations.” Last but not least here are some Express Transit tips.