MetroCard know-how
October 13, 2009 5:34 PM   Subscribe

NYC filter: tips for swiping a MetroCard?

So, I just want to preface this by saying that I've been to New York many times before I started working there. Many times I've ridden the subway or bus and used a MetroCard with no problem. The past few weeks, though, I seem to be having problems.

This morning, I swiped it, like I normally would. The little monitor thing said "swipe again at this turnstile." Did it again, got the same message. Did it again, was told that I had insufficient fare. (I have an exceptionally small budget right now, so I use pay-per-ride rather than unlimited, and each day I only put on as much fare as I need for that day.) After this, I put some more money on it, went to a different turnstile, and the same thing happened. I went to the MTA ticket agent, and she told me to go through the special turnstile, so that took care of that.

But such incidents have been occurring with increasing frequency over the past few days. I was thinking today that this could have something to do with my card somehow, even though it doesn't expire until March and looks OK physically. Then again, something could be wrong with my swiping technique, as silly as it sounds. This leads me to ask, MeFites: how exactly do you swipe the MetroCard? I know that for me, the turnstiles are a bit narrow, so I kind of have to go in sideways, and sometimes I have a backpack on, so that may have something to do with it. But it shouldn't. How do you guys do it? I know this may sound like a stupid question (hence why I'm posting anonymously), but I feel like there's something in it (the speed, etc.) that I'm missing.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated, both by me and my bank account.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (24 answers total)
Press down a little more than you'd expect, and push rather than swipe the strip through the reader. I don't know if that's a satisfactory explanation, but I hope as a tactile thing it makes sense.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:47 PM on October 13, 2009

Well...while traveling in London with my kids, I would hold on to my son's daily Travel Card. I'd put it next to my cell phone in a pocket of my bag. We couldn't figure out why his cards kept quitting on us, until we asked an Underground staffer. Apparently the magnetic strip would get wiped out by the cell phone. As soon as I stopped putting his tickets next to my phone, the problem stopped.

And when we were in Chicago last week, my husband put the hotel room swipe card next to his cell phone in his jacket pocket. The card quit working.

Just a thought.
posted by cooker girl at 5:50 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another thought is that this isn't *your* problem but is rather an MTA issue. In the last three days, I've had issues swiping my MetroCard at the Fulton Street Station and at Grand Central (the only two stations I use currently). So, as a datapoint, it might not be you and your technique.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 5:59 PM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

The MTA recently admitted that the turnstiles have been periodically "stealing" a ride from your Metrocard (deducting a ride even when it says "Please swipe again"), and that they're working to fix the problem. Whenever you have a problem, go straight to the station agent. A huge hassle, but if you're on that tight a budget, it's worth it.
posted by telegraph at 6:04 PM on October 13, 2009

I've suspected my iPhone of killing a couple of Metrocards. No real evidence, though. I stopped using the same pocket, anyway.
posted by rokusan at 6:06 PM on October 13, 2009

I've had the same "please swipe again" issue a couple of times recently, where I normally don't. It might just be the system.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:10 PM on October 13, 2009

I haven't noticed any issues - just do it in one quick motion - no hesitations midswipe, just one clean motion.

Dang tourists *shakes fist*
posted by jourman2 at 6:17 PM on October 13, 2009

Two possible issues: Either you're storing your card in a suspect storage place (next to something magnetic, e.g., cellphone) or you're not learning the motion for a successful swipe. My sister visits here about twice a year and occasionally has to re-train her hand for the proper speed and technique to get through the turnstile on the first try.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:24 PM on October 13, 2009

Seconding what jourman2 says - don't overthink a plate of MetroCards. That said, the cards themselves do sometimes go wonky, so try asking a token booth clerk for a replacement.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:36 PM on October 13, 2009

It's almost definitely telegraph's explanation and not a cell phone /storage issue. This has happened to me plenty, and I never keep my Metrocard with a phone or something magnetic. If this happens to you, go to the attendant immediately after the first or second 'swipe again" message, and they'll help you. If you watch the turnstile you tried to go through, the same thing will inevitably happen to many people behind you.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:52 PM on October 13, 2009

I second Inspector.Gadget. Every time I've messed up a metrocard swipe it's been because I was pulling it through from directly above rather than a little behind the card, which made for a stilted swipe and a bit of upward motion.
posted by invitapriore at 7:33 PM on October 13, 2009

I just got back from two weeks of touristing in NYC and I had this problem off and on. I had to go to the guy in the booth once and he checked the card, said it was good (unlimited rides) and then let me in the gate they use for wheelchairs. Other times, I would go for days without problems, regardless of whether I swiped fast or slow or whatever.

I think it was probably the turnstiles, or something else in the system.

Buses worked fine, btw.
posted by Danf at 7:47 PM on October 13, 2009

I've had a ride swiped before and also received a message telling me that I couldn't go through back when I bought unlimited metro cards. All I can say is don't bend the card. And talk to the station person if you do suddenly find yourself missing $2.25 from your card.
posted by Hactar at 10:31 PM on October 13, 2009

For me, it was one of those times that thinking too hard about it just gets you in to trouble. Those MetroCard machines can smell fear. The MTA had them outfitted with special sensors when everyone started complaining that New York City was getting too easy.

I know that even a couple of years of daily swipes, if there was a cool-looking person in the vicinity, I was doomed. My brain would say, "Man, I hope I don't look like a jerk who can't even swipe a MetroCard," the sensor would scan the thought, and then I'd crotch myself on the turnstile.
posted by lauranesson at 10:43 PM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here's a tip I got from one of the booth dudes: My card had a gnarly bend in the stripe. He said to look for a discarded Metrocard, stack the two and swipe them TOGETHER with the valid card on top. It helps hold the card straight and makes the stripe readable. Try that!

Also, Laura- If you think crotching yourself is bad, the subways in Korea have these little doors that swing out if you don't scan your card. They're like right at knee height and don't pop until the last possible second. It's like something from Home Alone
posted by GilloD at 11:41 PM on October 13, 2009

Also: nthing 'push' as opposed to 'swipe'. Physically kind of move in through, it should feel like pushing it through a thin liquid. It's a state of mind.
posted by GilloD at 11:43 PM on October 13, 2009

I was recently in NYC with my girlfriend and her brother. We all bought day-pass MetroCards from the same kiosk and had no end of problems. Fresh after purchasing, I and the gf's brother were able to go through the turnstile just fine and my gf was stuck behind. Talked to the agent, they swapped (or at least checked) her card and buzzed her through.

Thereafter we had consistent problems where 1, 2, or all of us were unable to use our cards. We went all over Manhattan too. The fun started when it got late and encountered stations with no service personnel. Ended up humping it and then getting no help from the agent there other to buzz us through after 15 minutes of pointless checking.

On top of it the trains broke down or something and we waited in the station for half an hour. Ended up not being able to get to a club we wanted to go to in time.

A shame. On my previous NYC visit everything went perfectly subway-wise.
posted by vsync at 1:20 AM on October 14, 2009

It shouldn't be a quick swipe—done correctly, it feels kind of like you're pushing the card through honey or molasses. Press the card into the reader.

each day I only put on as much fare as I need for that day

It sounds like you're saying you only put $4.50 (or $6.75, maybe) on your card when you add money to it. You should be adding it in increments of $8 or more to get the 15% discount.
posted by oaf at 2:34 AM on October 14, 2009

It sounds like you reuse the card a lot, adding a day's fare at a time. New cards swipe better than used ones.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:15 AM on October 14, 2009

1: Get a new card.
2: Work on technique (seriously, I can't tell you how often I can get through just fine on a machine that is giving tourists trouble).
3: If you see someone else having troubles at a turnstile, don't tempt fate: use a different one if available.
posted by dame at 7:02 AM on October 14, 2009

Chiming in to reassure that sometimes the stiles are just jerks & offer my own take on the "push it through" technique. I hold the card as I step through the gate and bring it through *with my stride* -- basically the card moves forward as a natural extension of my own move forward, and the Metrocard & my body are going through at the same time. If I do it this way, I very rarely smack myself on the bars. Swiping first, then walking, is the way every. single. tourist. does it, and it does not work as well as the walk-and-swipe.
posted by tigerbelly at 7:46 AM on October 14, 2009

The stiles get get gunked up. Station agents have these credit-card-looking things with a cleaning agent on them that they can swipe through a problematic turnstile and, voila, no more problems. You may be hitting bad turnstiles a lot. There are fewer and fewer agents in the system, and I have no idea if the MTA has people doing the swipey cleaning thing on a regular basis in the abandoned areas.

Sounds like your running into this problem or the fare-stealing problem telegraph mentioned. You might also need to buy a new card if you're putting money on it every day. Might be wearing out faster than normal.

As for swiping technique, agreed that you push it, in a steady yet not-too-fast manner, while pressing down a bit.
posted by Mavri at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2009

The whole Metrocard design terribly subject to user problems, especially compared to the card systems in DC, London, Paris and Moscow where the reader pulls the card through at the correct speed as opposed to the person.

Swipe briskly, but not too quickly and make sure that you have the bottom of the card resting against the top of the turnstile.

Definitely get a new card, instead of refilling the same one that is giving you problems. And be aware of the 15% bonus you get for adding $8 or more to your card. (e.g. add $10 at a time and get $11.50 in value.)
posted by andrewraff at 1:50 PM on October 14, 2009

Coming a month late to this but a great tip for those who may have marked this thread. As Mavri pointed out the MTA staff are supposed to clean the turnstiles to get rid of swipey residue. With budget cuts that doesn't happen as often. So take your metro card, turn it around to the non magnetic side and swipe *back and forth* three or four times. In many cases it is almost as good as the MTA staff cleaning and you will go right through. It doesn't work all the time but I've impressed many a person by this miraculous technique.
posted by xetere at 12:54 PM on November 23, 2009

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