Last night at 7:08 p.m., the official New York City Transit Twitter account fired off a tweet informing its followers of a pretty big freakin’ deal:
Plan ahead! Due to a scheduled system software upgrade, MetroCard vending machines may not be accepting credit or debit card purchases from Friday, February 2, at 11:45PM, to Monday, February 5, at 5:00AM. Purchase MetroCards before Friday evening or use cash.
— NYCT Subway (@NYCTSubway) February 1, 2018
And that was it. If you’re not on Twitter or don’t follow @NYCTSubway, there’s a decent chance you would not have heard about this planned service interruption before it took effect. As of Thursday morning, just 36 hours before the outage was set to begin, neither NYCT nor the MTA had done anything else to alert the millions of people who use the subway and buses every weekend that they would not be able to reload their MetroCards unless they have cash on hand. The MTA website did not so much as mention the upcoming change.
In response to the abrupt news, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson summarized what many straphangers felt regarding the abrupt, limited notice:
Ummm, UNACCEPTABLE! https://t.co/PYvLdjlp9C
— Corey Johnson – FLATTEN THE CURVE & STAY HOME (@CoreyinNYC) February 1, 2018
At noon on Thursday, the NYCT reversed course, again informing the public in a single tweet, saying it “heard you all loud and clear” and will postpone the outage to next weekend while it “work[s] to shorten the process and more clearly answer customer concerns.”
We heard you all loud and clear. We’re going to postpone this weekend’s planned MetroCard machine upgrade for a week while we work to shorten the process and more clearly answer customer concerns. More to come on Monday.
— NYCT Subway. Stay Home. Stop the Spread. (@NYCTSubway) February 1, 2018
The MTA did not respond to a request for details on the communication strategy regarding this planned interruption.
It seems NYCT underestimated how disruptive such an outage would be — which is curious, since a mass service interruption for card transactions at MetroCard machines has happened before, with disastrous results. In July 2008, MetroCard machines couldn’t accept cards for two days because of what Transit officials said was a “faulty encryption device.” The malfunction, as the Times summarized it, ended up “delaying commutes and sending thousands of frustrated riders back to the street in search of automated teller machines or change for a $20 bill.”
The Times reported that, at the time, credit and debit cards were used in approximately 30 percent of all MetroCard transactions. Those numbers were provided to the Times by the MTA, and while updated numbers could not immediately be located, it’s a fair bet to estimate the majority of transactions now occur via card. (The MTA is phasing in an all-digital payment system starting this year that will allow straphangers to pay directly with credit and debit cards, as well as phones.)
Recently hired NYCT president Andy Byford, who was named Communicator of the Year by the International Association of Business Communicators’ Toronto chapter for transforming the way the Toronto Transit Commission communicated with its riders, has said improved communication with customers is a focus of his in the coming year. Here’s a good place for him to start.