When I moved to Beijing the summer after graduating from college, my biggest problem with the city wasn’t so much the language barrier as my lack of fluency with its urban transportation infrastructure. There were bike lanes larger than the roads they bordered; a byzantine system of huge highways that ended in estuaries of tiny, spidering alleys that were impossible to navigate without a hand-drawn map; and a comprehensive system of buses that would have been highly useful had I been able to identify where the stations described on the signs actually were. (Stops in Beijing are much more likely to be named in the poetic and abstract, like “Safe Forever Village,” than the literal, as in New York’s “14th Street,” a label that at least hints at geography.) Then there was the subway.
Thanks to my job at an art magazine under the auspices of China’s equivalent of Conde Nast, I was set up with an account at a national bank and a debit card that I used to withdraw my salary in stacks of pink, Chairman Mao-bedecked 100 Renminbi bills that mostly paid for bowls of noodles and large bottles of Qingdao. Rounding out my wallet was a subway card pass that gave me access to a shining wonderland of public transit. Compared to New York’s dirty, shrieking system, Beijing’s subway is so polished that eating off the floor would probably be more hygienic than dining at many street-side food stalls.
The closest stop to my apartment was surfaced entirely in white marble. It had floor-to-ceiling glass doors inside the station that separated riders from the tracks and silenced the subway’s eternal noise. Just tap the magnetized card to the entrance gates and you’re whisked off to another part of the 3,000-year-old city. One thing, though: Since fare prices are partially determined by how far you go, you have to tap the card again to get out at your final stop, or the futuristic gates won’t open. Jumping turnstiles is not something you do in the People’s Republic.
This currency is so easy to ignore that riders left $500 million on expired New York bus and subway cards over the course of 2000 to 2010.
Returning home one day, I walked out of the subway car, flipped open my wallet, and broke out into a cold sweat. Though I had used it to get on the train some hours earlier, my pass wasn’t there. I was stuck. Sure, I had money in my wallet, but that wasn’t going to help me here—it was the wrong currency entirely.
SUBWAY PASSES ARE ONE of the most common forms of non-bank money that city dwellers interact with on a daily basis, though it’s easy not to think of them as such, since we tend not to notice the transaction until something goes awry, as it did for me. The cards represent a store of value that’s added to and taken away each time a rider swipes or taps it to get on board, creating a currency solely devoted to the subway and useless elsewhere. This currency is so easy to ignore, in fact, that riders left $500 million on expired New York bus and subway cards over the course of 2000 to 2010.
The single-use currency that we might call the subway-dollar used to be more literal. New York City switched from regular coins over to purpose-designed subway tokens in 1953, when a single ride cost $0.15—in other words, the monetary value of one token. The tokens survived until 2003, when a token’s value had grown to $2 (a rise that beats the inflation rate, which would have put a 2003 ride at $1.31). MetroCards, now the only method to pay for subway travel, were introduced a decade earlier.
MetroCards are designed to be as frictionless as possible. The single, quick swiping gesture of moving them through the scanner (no need to worry about pulling them out to exit) and the cheap, shiny paper they’re printed on reinforce the idea that these aren’t really money—they’re more like credit cards than dollar bills. Last March, however, New York decided to make its MetroCards feel more like the money they represent by making them scarce. Rather than making the cards seem infinite by replacing them for free, getting a new card now costs riders an extra $1. It’s a kind of tax on new subway-dollar adopters.
That added tax has netted the MTA $24 million in fees and saved it $3 million in card stock costs, the organization recently reported. Eighty-nine percent of MetroCard sales are now refills rather than new purchases. It might cause the MetroCards to seem slightly more intimidating, but it also makes them more stable as currency, as the tokens once were. Over time, perhaps the scarcity will cut down on that $500 million left on abandoned cards and keep that money flowing around the economy.
In Washington, D.C., flimsy temporary tickets are used by non-resident subway riders. In Boston, there are plastic cards that store money, called CharlieCards after the fictional subway rider star of the 1959 song "Charlie on the MTA,” who couldn’t afford the fee to get off the train and was trapped there forever. In Bangkok, there are digitized discs that act as tokens for the raised railway, a high-tech coin hybrid. What all these tickets have in common is that they’re also forms of money, and as with all money, we should keep our eyes on it.
TRAPPED IN THE BEIJING subway station with nothing but Mao-bills, I roamed around until I found an attendant in a booth. I tapped on the glass separating us and he emerged, standing on the other side of the gates that blocked me from the outside world. I tried to explain my predicament in middling Chinese, but he was having none of it and just stared back in bewilderment. Was I destined to become the Charlie of China?
I patted pockets and rummaged through my bag, finally turning up the missing card at the very bottom. Holding it aloft, I tapped it and sauntered through, giving a triumphant thumbs-up to the guard, who remained confused at the fuss. It was as good as money in the bank.