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MTA’s New OMNY Tap-and-Go Fare Setup Leaves Disabled Subway Riders Waiting

A commuter taps her phone on an OMNY pad at TimesSq-42 Street, Oct. 24, 2020.
A commuter taps her phone on an OMNY pad at Times Square-42 Street, Oct. 24, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The MTA’s new contactless fare-payment system, already in use at hundreds of subway stations, is on track to be working at every stop and on all buses by the end of the year.

But OMNY will not be an option for subway riders with disabilities until the fall of 2021, after its tap-and-go scanners are installed and activated at the automatic gates that are the way in to accessible stations for commuters in wheelchairs or with service animals.

“I couldn’t use OMNY in the subway even if I wanted to,” said Dustin Jones, a wheelchair user from The Bronx and founder of United for Equal Access, a transportation advocacy group. “They didn’t put those readers near the autogate and I feel 100% left behind.”

The MTA has been installing OMNY smartphone access at stations across the city, Oct. 23, 2020.
The MTA has been installing OMNY access at stations across the city, Oct. 23, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Jones said getting access to OMNY after other riders is “typical” of a subway system where only about a quarter of stations are fully accessible and planned Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades are jeopardized by the MTA’s coronavirus-driven financial collapse.

The autogates open to riders who use MTA-issued reduced-fare MetroCards for people with disabilities. But the gates are not yet tailored for OMNY, as the transit agency continues its phased introduction of the new fare-payment system.

“I’m a little tired of always being the last person in the back of the bus, figuratively speaking,” said Edith Prentiss, a wheelchair user and member of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “We’re always the last ones to get something working.”

‘A Transitional Period’

The MTA says the OMNY rollout is on schedule, with phasing necessary to deal with potential glitches along the way while shifting to new fare-payment systems via smartphones and contactless cards.

OMNY is in “a transitional period, which is so important for people with disabilities who may have been travel trained to use the MetroCard,” said Gian Carlo Pedulla, a blind subway rider who is on the MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility. “The extra time will allow for individuals to learn the new OMNY system.”

The MTA plans to start a reduced-fare pilot program for the new system next summer after developing and launching an OMNY card that can be refilled with cash or linked to bank accounts and credit cards. Riders currently must use a smartphone payment app or a general-purpose bank-issued contactless payment card.

Other features, such as unlimited ride passes and student fares, will also be added during the rollout.

The full OMNY reduced-fare program will follow the pilot program later in 2021, with plans to phase out MetroCards by 2023.

“The incredibly popular OMNY system continues to roll out on schedule as planned and we’re in close contact with customers with disabilities and advocates to keep them apprised and make sure we build a system that works as well for them as for anyone,” said Kayla Shults, an MTA spokesperson.

‘Why Can’t We Do It Now?’

The contactless payment system has expanded to more than three-quarters of all 472 subway stations and drawn nearly 25 million taps since its May 2019 debut on Staten Island buses and along a stretch of the 4, 5 and 6 lines, according to the MTA.

As with the MetroCards that are used at the autogates, riders with disabilities will have to fill out an application for reduced-fare subway access through OMNY.

“You have to prove you’re disabled, you have to wait weeks to get approved — you can’t just get a MetroCard and get on the subway like everyone else,” said Jessica Murray of Rise and Resist’s Elevator Action Group, which advocates for mass transit accessibility.

An auto-gate for a reduced-fair MetroCards, Oct. 24, 2020.
An autogate for a reduced-fare MetroCards, Oct. 24, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

An MTA spokesperson said the agency plans to revamp and speed the application process for riders who want to receive reduced-fare trips through OMNY.

Riders said they’d prefer earlier access to OMNY in subway stations.

“I don’t see any reason why they can’t quickly upgrade the autogates with OMNY readers at the same time they are upgrading the turnstiles,” said April Coughlin, who uses a wheelchair.

Jones expressed similar sentiments in blunter terms: “We’ll get to it later — really? Why the hell can’t we do that now?”

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