Perhaps one of the world’s most iconic subway systems, New York City’s humble subterranean transport network has been immortalized in films, music videos and hit TV series alike. Despite being one of the world’s most used systems, however, its ticketing and customer balance processes lag behind some of its counterparts in other cities across the world. Still centred on paper tickets, known as Metrocards, its two billion annual users are left wanting a more seamless experience in a city that moves at an unparalleled pace. Looking to speed things up at the points of congestion – namely at ticket vending machines and station entry barriers – two native New York brothers have been working tirelessly to create a technological solution.
“The core problems Metroki sets out to solve are congestion, mobility and overall commuter convenience,” says New York-native Jeffery Flores, 30, about the app he and his brother Roger, 26, have created.
Seoul was the first city to implement a smart-system for transport transactions, introducing the Seoul Transportation Card (now known as UPass) over 20 years ago, in June 1996. Since then, numerous transport authorities have implemented similar schemes, with varying complexity.
Back in 2003, London, for example, introduced the Oyster Card system which allows commuters to top up their travel balance from thousands of machines and corner stores across the city, and access stations with a simple wave of their NFC-enabled card. The same technology lets card carriers check their balance at any Oyster Card location, and the hardware installed – not only on the Underground, but across railways and bus routes in the British capital – has allowed for the same payment processes to be conducted via contactless credit and debit cards.
While the New York Metro Transit Authority’s (MTA) Metrocards, which can also be used on buses, are smart to an extent – the thin plastic tickets can be reused for a year before expiring if the user tops up the credit – the system is somewhat lacking when compared to other global cities. “New York City has been slow to integrate new technologies within its transport network. It seems the migration to a new system could be costly and timely,” says Roger Flores, and the two brothers note that only being able to recharge or check the balance of Metrocard at the handfuls of – often faulty – machines at subway stations creates a bottleneck. Meanwhile, as new Metrocards only cost a US $1, it’s not unusual for a commuter to be in possession of several cards at any given time, and with limited ways to tell which one has the right balance, precious New York minutes can be lost every day.
Meanwhile, the inefficiency of the current Metrocard swipe-to-access system at the subway gates recently made global headlines when presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was filmed swiping her plastic card five times before being able to pass through the barriers. The 10-second delay Clinton suffered is characteristic of the average New York subway experience and if we assume that just half of the 5.6 million commuters that enter through MTA turnstiles daily are faced with the same setback, over 7,000 hours are wasted every day.
Looking to solve what seems to be minor grievances, the Flores brothers soon realized that a tech solution that could integrate payments, balance information and ticketing could efficiently streamline the commute process for New Yorkers from the minute they step outside their doors. Working on their app independently since 2015, a stroke of serendipity gave the brothers the opportunity to finalize their project and take it to the big leagues: in April 2016, the MTA announced a request for proposals for a “systems integrator to design, furnish, install, test, integrate and implement an account-based new fare payment and collection system based on open bank card payment industry standards,” as part of its plan to go Metrocard-free by 2021. And Metroki is designed to do just that.
“The Metroki App simulates transactions allowing commuters to refill a fare card, check the balance and combine two fare card funds,” explains Jeffery Flores. “They needed a component where it was a wireless payment, and we fit that particular niche,” says Roger. “The [New York City] subway barriers are not equipped to receive NFC signals yet. However, we built Metroki to work with transit systems that are equipped to receive NFC payments,” continues Jeffery, hinting at plans to take Metroki worldwide.
While many cities which already have the hardware in place to receive wireless payments are transitioning to accept e-wallet mobile payments, such as those facilitated by Apple Pay and Android Pay, the Flores brothers hope that Metroki’s unique features will encourage users to centralize their travel transactions onto the app. “With our patented geo location feature, commuters will receive [localized] rewards and fare account management options. They will be able to save on fare payments by giving them the specific pass discounts instead of paying per ride on Apple Pay,” says Jeffery.
Since submitting Metroki to the MTA’s request for proposals, the Flores brothers have joined 2020 Startups NYC – one of the many startup accelerators that are characterizing New York City’s growing culture of tech entrepreneurship (there are over 15,000 tech or tech-enabled startups listed on the City-commissioned digital.nyc). Mentored by the organizations managing director Mark Gold, Metroki has already seen the benefits of working within the vibrant ecosystem only a city like New York can offer. “Since working with Mark [Gold] and the 2020 Start Up Accelerator, we have gone through a re-branding phase. We were also linked with several industry leaders that help us as our mentors. It provided us with a learning ecosystem in which any startup can flourish in. This has been a huge help,” says Jeffery. “We have also gained tremendous amount of support around the world in bringing this app to the market,” says Roger. “Mark helped us enter an IBM Smart Camp Challenge, in which we were one of the top three finalists.”
With an idea to save what many New Yorkers consider their most precious resource, time, and the MTA considering fare rises despite a budget surplus, it seems like an innovation like Metroki will be well received by both commuters and the City. “We are still waiting to see who the MTA will work with. However, we are confident that we will partner up with other agencies in the country and around the world in providing end to end payment solutions for transit systems,” says Jeffery, who had undertaken a few coding courses prior to his entrance to the app world. Meanwhile, Roger, who has a long background in business-to-business sales, is buoyant with the energy and opportunities available in working within the NYC startup ecosystem: “I would tell entrepreneurs to see the vision with full faith. The truth is, what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve. Stay on the path and you will reach your goal.”
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