How technology chips away at jobs

Subway token booth

We may still call them token booths, but none of them have tokens anymore.

Many in the technology world are dismissive of notions that technology costs jobs; part of that may be because jobs don’t disappear overnight. We hear on the news about mass layoffs; we rarely hear about steady declines caused by adoption of new technologies.

Just look at the fare technology of the New York subway system.

New York had subway tokens since 1953. (Before that, the turnstiles used coins.) About 50 million tokens were in circulation. Tokens required a lot of manpower. People had to create the tokens; people had to sell the tokens; people collected the tokens; people put them back in to circulation. The last subway token was sold in 2003, at 50 years old.

In an obituary for the subway token, the New York Times wrote:

Handling all those tokens — emptying them from turnstiles, delivering bags of them to token booths, counting them out to riders — is cumbersome and expensive, and transit officials have long looked forward to the day when most of their business with riders would involve exchanges of electrons, not metal and paper.

The token’s demise (and that of many of its handlers) was the result of technology. The MetroCard was introduced in 1994. It allows subway riders to load money on to reusable plastic cards. You can go up to a machine, insert your money and get a card with $40 on it. Instead of carrying a bunch of tokens in your pocket, it’s something small you can put in your pocket. There’s nothing nostalgic about it (at least for now), but it is simple and efficient.

It still requires people to maintain the giant fare machines. People are needed to take out the cash and put in more blank MetroCards. But as credit card usage increases, the machines need to be emptied less often.

Even the MetroCard is already slowly being replaced (with a bigger shift coming). With my EasyPayXpress, my MetroCard renews itself whenever my balance runs low. I no longer need to stop by a machine. Less wear and tear on the machines.


The MetroCard that fills itself.

MetroCards themselves are an endangered species. Increasingly, magnetic stripe cards are becoming a rarity for transit systems around the world. The mag stripe is giving way to contactless payments. Most systems use a proprietary card; some, like Chicago’s, can use any credit card (or phone) that has NFC capabilities.

With contactless payments and mobile phones, the people who print and distribute the blank cards will be in danger.

None of these changes will happen overnight; it took 10 years to phase out the subway token. It’ll be at least 5 more before the MetroCard is phased out. (The MetroCard is expected to die at the age of 30; the token lasted until 50.)

Every step has increased the convenience for most riders. Less time waiting. Fewer things in your pocket.

But your convenience is someone else’s paycheck


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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