It’s easy to forget that subway tokens were only discontinued in 2003, as it feels much longer since New Yorkers have fished through their wallets for a token. As children, we regarded tokens with such awe. One hallowed, albeit cumbersome, object was the key to transporting you anywhere in the city within a train’s grasp. At some point in the midst of the transformation to MetroCards, that magical aura was lost, now lying in the realm of memorabilia (token jewelry, anyone?) and fond-yet-distant memories.

In the subway‘s infancy, it only cost five cents to get on a train, and in the pre-token days you would just insert a nickel to pass through. In 1948 the fare was raised to ten cents, so the New York City Transit authority re-outfitted the turnstiles to accept dimes. It wasn’t until the city increased the fare to fifteen cents that they encountered a problem. The lack of a fifteen cent coin led to the creation of the subway token.

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From Hoof to Rail: the History of Mass Transit in NYC

a New York City subway token

The release of the 1970 token was met with a fare increase to thirty cents. By the end of the decade the far went up to fifty cents. The 1970 token was designed to be larger than its 1953 counterpart.

A celebratory limited edition token was released in 1979:

1979 subway token
1979 subway token

The 1980 token was released in tandem with a fare hike to sixty cents. The 1980 token introduced the first major change to the initial token design, with a stamped “Y” in the NYC inscription rather than a cut-out “Y”.

1986 subway token
The 1986 release of the “bull’s eye” token saw a fare increase of one dollar, and the elimination of the NYC inscription.

The “bull’s eye” token saw a few  variants, the one shown is the last one, lasting from 1992-1995. One of the other variants, released in 1988, had the words “Archer Ave Extension 12-88” in  lieu of the “Good for one fare” slogan to celebrate the opening of the Archer Avenue Extension in Queens.

five subway tokens
This last version of the token came out in 1995 with the pentagon cutout and a fare hike to $1.50.

This final design was used until tokens were phased out in 2003. The center was cut out in the shape of a pentagon. The MetroCard was introduced in 1994. The New York Transit Museum has a collection of “slugs” that were used by riders to avoid payment of fares, including foreign coins, washers, amusement tokens and tokens from other fare systems.

slugs used to avoid payment of fares

For more than a decade, the MTA has been planning to completely phase out the MetroCard with options to pay by tapping your credit card, debit card or MTA card linked to a bank account. All subway stations and buses are now equipped with contactless readers that let you utilize your contactless bank card, smart device, or OMNY card at the turnstile, bypassing the need for a MetroCard vending machine. Overall, the days of the MetroCard  are numbered.

The subway agent booths seems to be going the way of the token and the MetroCard as well—disappearing. For now, you can buy vintage NYC subway tokens at the MTA Transit Museum Store (or on E-bay).

 On February 3, 2022 at 12 p.m., join the MTA veteran and transportation historian Andrew Sparberg, author of From a Nickel to a Token, for a crash-course on the history of mass transit in NYCConversation will be led by Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer Justin Rivers, and Peter-Christian Aigner, Director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. This event is free for Untapped New York Insiders (join now and get your first month free with the code JOINUS).

third avenue el

From Hoof to Rail: the History of Mass Transit in NYC

Next, read about the top 20 secrets of the NYC subway!