Zachary DuBow was used to seeing MetroCards strewn all over the city’s subway stations — discarded by tourists or neglected by everyday commuters. He began to wonder how many of the cards contained little bits of leftover money. Probably not enough for a full fare, he thought, but what if he combined the value of all the cards he found and distributed them to people who struggle to pay for public transit?
In early 2013, DuBow founded the Next Stop Project, an effort to do exactly that: redistribute the pittance left on discarded MetroCards to the neediest riders. “It’s a no-brainer idea,” says DuBow, a 26-year-old Upper West Side resident who recently left a business technology/IT consulting job. “There are cards that are wasted. No one’s benefitting from it.” He had an idea to put out collection boxes in some of the city’s subway stations, so riders could donate the remaining value on their cards instead of tossing them on the ground. “Any retail or marketing expert would tell you the best product placement is where it’s being used — when it’s at the ready in their hands,” DuBow adds.
The only problem: The MTA wouldn’t let them set up collection boxes in stations. DuBow surmises the plan was rejected partly for “bureaucratic” reasons, but also because the unused balance rolls back to the MTA. This past year, for instance, the transit agency reaped about $62 million due to remainders left on MetroCards. If the agency made it easy to aggregate those almost-empty cards, it would essentially be giving away rides that might otherwise be paid for.
For its part, the MTA won’t say much about why it has denied Next Stop’s proposal. In an emailed statement, spokesman Kevin Ortiz mostly declined to comment on the record. “This group has been at this for over two years,” he wrote. “We haven’t commented on it and do not plan on doing so.” But if one reason for the MTA’s resistance is losing the revenue that languishes on forgotten cards, DuBow says that doesn’t make much economic sense. After all, even if Next Stop could find $100,000 in unused cards (dramatically more than the group has collected), that would only represent about one-fifth of 1 percent of the MTA’s $62 million unused balance this year. And compared with the MTA’s multibillion-dollar budget, the fiscal impact starts to seem vanishingly small.
Still, DuBow is careful not to directly criticize the MTA since he hopes to eventually convince it to work with Next Stop — and over the past three years, he’s built an operation distributing the cards without the agency’s help. He’s not the first to come up with the idea: A Washington, D.C., organization has a farecard donation program designed to help homeless veterans. Similarly, Next Stop prioritizes those who struggle to scrape together transportation to job interviews and medical appointments; the group mostly leaves decisions about which people get cards up to its partner organizations. So far, Next Stop has donated 1,103 round-trip MetroCards and 15 monthly passes to a handful of organizations that serve needy populations, such as the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and the Hope Program.
Without the use of subway stations to collect used cards, DuBow says, almost 95 percent of their donations come through monetary contributions from friends and family. Anyone can leave a cash donation on the group’s website or send them a MetroCard; some tourists have discovered the site and mailed in their used cards from twenty different states. But Next Stop is trying to branch out and has launched a crowdfunding campaign, which the group hopes will raise $10,000 to load 1,000 new MetroCards and invest in collection boxes they’re starting to place around the city.
Those MetroCards can make a huge difference to people who are just scraping by, according to Elyssa Gersen, a director at the Hope Program, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that teaches job readiness skills to low-income populations and places them in jobs and internships. “Our students are often in such extreme poverty they can’t afford a round-trip fare each day,” Gersen says, adding that her organization has received fifty MetroCards from Next Stop since May. “Some of them have walked five miles to get here.”
Asked about the MTA’s refusal to allow Next Stop to collect used MetroCards in subway stations, Gersen makes the argument that it’s actually in the transit agency’s long-term economic interest. If the program helps more people get jobs, she figures, chances are they’ll turn into paying public transit riders. “This could ultimately increase their ridership,” Gersen says. “And it really doesn’t cost them anything to put a box in a station. I hope the MTA can see the big picture here.”