New York prepares to retire the MetroCard

The bright yellow plastic card is a daily part of New Yorkers' lives

Today's expression: Phase in, Phase out
Explore more: Lesson #60
June 29, 2018:

They are a ubiquitous part of live in New York City: the yellow plastic cards with a magnetic stripe called MetroCards are the way New Yorkers board the subway. But they are set to be retired in the next several years, in favor of a more high-tech way to ride the 114-year-old system of underground trains. Plus today learn the English phrasal verbs "phase in" and "phase out."

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New York is getting ready to say goodbye to a familiar yellow friend

Welcome to Plain English, episode number 60, for June 29, 2018. I’m Jeff and you are listening to the program that goes at the right speed for English learners. New York City is gearing up to change the way you ride the subway. The ubiquitous yellow magnetic cards called MetroCards are going away. At the end of the episode, we’ll talk about the twin phrasal verbs “phase in” and “phase out.”

Remember you can get the transcript of this episode online at PlainEnglish.com/60. And you’re in luck if your first language is Japanese, French, Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese because we have translations of key words and phrases from English into your language. All that is available for free, like always, at PlainEnglish.com/60.


New York City to retire the MetroCard

If you’ve ever been to New York, chances are you’ve taken the New York City Subway, the underground (and above-ground) network of 25 train lines covering 472 stations and 665 miles. It runs 24 hours a day and carries 5.7 million riders each weekday. It’s how New Yorkers get around in a city where it’s so expensive to have a car—and there’s nowhere to park even if you did have one.

And every day, those millions of people all do the same thing: they pull out a bright yellow plastic card with a magnetic strip and they swipe it at the turnstile in order to get into the system. Once you’re in, you can take the trains however long you want, whether it’s one stop or you can ride all day if you want. Those yellow cards that give you access to the New York City subway are called MetroCards and they are going to be retired.

The MTA, the agency that is in charge of public transit in New York, announced that it is going to phase out the MetroCard and replace it with a much more high-tech way to ride the 114-year-old subway. The new system doesn’t have a name yet, but you’ll be able to pay by your smartphone, your credit card if it has a contactless feature, or a new type of card that will make boarding faster. With the new cards, it will be easier to manage your balance. Now, if you run out of money on a MetroCard, you need to stand in line at a vending machine and re-load it. It’s maddening when you’re in a hurry, especially if the people in line ahead of you are slow and can’t figure out the machines. But the new cards will let you skip the vending machine, which is a good thing.

In some ways, New York is already way behind many other transit systems around the world, like London, Washington DC, and Toronto, which all have more high-tech systems. I think even the subway and Metrobus in Mexico City and the Transmilenio in Bogotá all have some form of contactless card that you just tap before getting on. Chicago retired its paper cards years ago in favor of a system that lets you just tap and go—it speeds up boarding on trains and buses, and the cards are sturdier and you can manage your balance online. We don’t have a smartphone app, though, like in Seoul, South Korea, and in some places in China.

I don’t think too many people will miss the MetroCard once it’s gone. It doesn’t have the same nostalgia as subway tokens did. For fifty years, from about 1950 through the end of the 20th Century, you paid your ride with a token. The tokens were these small little coins that were good for one ride. You had to buy them from a person or a vending machine and then drop them into the turnstile. They were tiny and easy to lose, so they’d show up in your pockets, in your backpack, underneath the cushions in your couch, wherever. And they were kind of like little souvenirs. You can still buy them on eBay for a couple dollars.

One thing that will change will be the subway swipe scams. In the age of the token, you could fool the system with counterfeit coins called slugs. They didn’t look anything like the regular tokens, but based on the size, weight, shape and composition, you could make a fake subway token for less than the cost of a ride. That all went away in the era of the MetroCard, but New Yorkers are nothing if not resourceful, so new scams popped up. Today, at certain stations, you see people selling swipes. So, these guys have unlimited-ride cards that they buy for about $100 a month and they stand outside the entrances of subway stations and offer to sell people a swipe, by which they mean they’ll swipe their own card and let you go through the turnstile. You pay $2 in cash instead of the $2.75 it costs for a normal ride. Anyway, so now the scammers—and this is all illegal by the way—now the scammers are complaining to the newspapers that the new payment system is going to put them out of business. Something tells me they’ll figure out a new scam soon enough.

If you haven’t been to New York and you still want to swipe the old MetroCard, don’t worry. They’ll be around for a while—the new system will be phased in gradually and the plan is to officially retire the MetroCard only in 2023.


Today I want to say hi and good luck to Gislaine. She is listening from Sao Paulo, Brazil, but will be moving to Canada soon and is listening to Plain English as a way to get ready for her move. Congratulations & good luck, Gislaine! I know you’ll make lots of great friends in Canada.

One great way to stay connected with Plain English is to get the show emails each time a new episode comes out. The emails have one additional explanation of a phrasal verb, expression, or other word. I usually have a hard time choosing just one to talk about in the main program, so I put an additional one or two in the emails I send out. So that’s two more English phrases or words a week that you can learn just by signing up for the episode emails. Head over to PlainEnglish.com/mail and enter your email address and you’ll get those each time a new Plain English episode comes out.

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Expression: Phase in, Phase out