New York City’s subway fares have been raising the eyebrows and vexing the souls of New Yorker’s since the first underground train left the station. The only thing that’s changed in that regard is the currency we use to pay our way. For decades, the New York subway pass was a token, and then the easier-to-use but less-stylish Metrocard came along and made the token obsolete. We thought we had reached the height of technology with the ability to buy New York subway day passes, and to buy metrocards online, and view the New York subway map on our phones! But now metrocards will be obsolete and replaced with electronic payments! As part of our Subway Series, we are taking a stroll down memory lane for a brief history of the most uniquely-New York form of currency: the New York subway pass.
1904 – Nickels and Dimes
In the earliest days, New Yorkers had to buy their subway pass in the form of paper tickets for $0.05 from an agent, which they then gave to ticket-takers on the platform. This system was abandoned in the 1920s, and replaced with turnstiles as a cost-cutting initiative in response to post-World War I inflation. The turnstiles accepted nickels until 1948, after which they accepted dimes once the fares were hiked by 5 cents.
1953 – The “Small Y” Token
Subway tokens became the new pass in 1953 with the next fare hike. Because turnstiles couldn’t accept both nickels and dimes, and because there were no 15 cent coins, the city punched out 12 million tokens with a “Y” cut out of it to deter potential fraud.
1970 – The “Large Y” Token
The city released a larger version of the classic token in 1970 to accompany… you guessed it, a fare increase to 30 cents.
1979 – The “Diamond Jubilee” Token
This coin was rolled out in 1979 to celebrate the subway’s 75th anniversary. Called the “Diamond Jubilee” coin, the design fittingly had a small diamond cutout at the top. At this point, the fare was a solid 50 cents.
1980 – The “Solid Brass NYC” Token
This “Solid Brass NYC” Token was the first radically different subway coin; the “Y” in NYC, previously cut-out, was now stamped on.
1986 – The “Bullseye” Token
When the “Bull’s Eye” coin (pictured at the top of the post) was introduced in 1986, fare rose to $1 a trip. The city had lost an estimated 2.5 million dollars in subway fare due to the widespread use of “slugs” or imitation tokens. The Bull’s Eye token and accompanying turnstiles were expressly designed to foil potential fare thieves. They met their end in 1998, when the New York City Transit Authority had the 60 million remaining “Bull’s Eye” coins melted into scrap metal.
1995 – The “Five Boroughs” Pentagram Token
The fifth and final rendition of the Subway token came in 1995, as the MTA rose fares to $1.50. It was released to scathing reviews, some of which noted that the coin was smaller in size and weight than any tokens since 1953. The pentagon in the middle was meant to symbolize the city’s five boroughs. Despite the critics, this token remained the standard currency for the subway through 2003, when it was officially phased out.
The Metrocard (1990s-present)
The metro card was rolled out in 1992, with unlimited fares for weekly or monthly cards becoming available in 1998. From the get-go, devious cityfolk were attempting to fool the turnstile with fake or expired cards, and succeeding.
The Future of Subway Fares
The NYCTA expects to begin phasing out Metrocards in 2019. Eventually, they will be replaced with an electronic system that will allow you to use your credit or debit card for maximum ease.
Which of the above tokens do you remember, or potentially still have? For a fascinating look at the New York City Subway through the years, visit the New York Transit Museum, housed in a Downtown Brooklyn subway station at 99 Schermerhorn Street.