ERIC KONIGSBERG and SEWELL CHAN; C. J. Hughes contributed reporting. New York Times
A widespread malfunction blocking the use of credit or debit cards to purchase MetroCards from subway station vending machines continued for the second straight day, delaying commutes and sending thousands of frustrated riders back to the street in search of automated teller machines or change for a $20 bill.
And so, for at least the morning rush, a segment of New York City reverted to a time when only cold, hard currency had currency.
Paul J. Fleuranges, the chief spokesman for New York City Transit, the arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that runs the subways and buses, declined to speculate on the cause of the breakdown, but said ''it was a systemwide outage affecting all or close to every'' of the 2,245 machines. He characterized the problem as unprecedented in its magnitude.
''By magnitude I mean to say three outages in three consecutive rush-hour periods over two days,'' he wrote in an e-mail message, adding that the malfunction involved ''some sort of communication problem between the machines and where the transactions are ultimately processed.''
Asked about complaints that riders had improperly had their credit or debit cards charged without receiving a MetroCard in exchange, Mr. Fleuranges declined to say how many such cases occurred, but he promised that their accounts would be refunded within 10 days.
The problems were most severe during morning commute hours on Monday and Tuesday, and during the early evening on Monday. The machines appeared to be functioning well during the middle of the day on Monday and Tuesday after teams of repair technicians had been deployed.
''There may be some stations that haven't been rebooted, but we are processing credit/debit transactions,'' Mr. Fleuranges wrote, saying that most machines seemed to be working again by 9:45 a.m. Tuesday.
The malfunction raised questions for riders about not only the efficacy of the MetroCard machines but also the larger notion of the American commercial culture's movement toward an increasingly cashless existence.
''This is ridiculous,'' said Susan Choung, 34, who as part of her commute uptown from the Union Square station had planned to buy a 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard for the month of August for $81. Ms. Choung said she does not carry much cash ''because I fully expect these kinds of machines to always be working.''
For inconvenienced riders throughout the region, tales of woe involved lines that snaked through station plaza areas toward the entrance stairs, a lot of frenzied dashes to neighborhood bodegas in search of change for big bills, and angry exchanges with transit workers who by many accounts were not informed for hours that there was a systemic problem with the machines.
''This morning at the Astor Place station, I had two clerks who told me to insert my card differently, even though customer after customer was stuck with the same problem,'' said Torrey Whitman, an administrator at New York University School of Law. ''One of the clerks took the card out of my hand, put it into the slot in the machine and let it sit there, as if that would work. Of course, we all know that you dip your card, and what more or less that dipping action involves.''
Holland Behrens, an art historian on the Upper East Side, said that she had spent a fruitless hour and a half tangling with a moody machine at the East 86th Street station on Monday night. And to get downtown for work on Tuesday morning, she resorted to buying a single-ride ticket for $2.
''So you've got to wonder if the M.T.A. is doing this because it needs to raise the cash,'' she said. This was at the Union Square station, during her lunch break, as Ms. Behrens dipped her MasterCard -- with expert aplomb, or so it appeared -- two dozen times into a machine with no success.
The problems highlighted not only the extent to which New Yorkers depend on credit and debit cards for basic, everyday purchases, but also the changes in buying patterns as the MetroCard, introduced in 1994, gradually supplanted the token, which was phased out in 2003. Now, few riders pay the base fare of $2; most buy cards of at least $7 (making them eligible for a 15 percent bonus) or unlimited-ride cards.
In May, unlimited-ride MetroCards accounted for 50.1 percent of all fares, compared with 35.7 percent for pay-per-ride MetroCards that included the bonus, 7.5 percent for full-fare MetroCards, 4.5 percent for cash fares on buses and 2.3 percent for single-ride paper tickets. Problems with the machines are not uncommon. In early 2004, according to the transit agency, workers were called to fix the vending machines about 800 times a day -- although some of those calls were for the same machines.
Meanwhile, the agency has continued to experiment with other forms of cashless fare payment. In 2006, New York City Transit began a pilot project at several East Side subway stations that allowed riders with a MasterCard PayPass to tap or wave the tag at the base of designated subway turnstiles, altogether obviating the need for a MetroCard. That experiment was deemed a success and extended into this year.
The machines -- 1,645 of the 2,245 accept cash along with debit and credit cards -- and station booths are not the only ways to obtain a MetroCard. There are 4,713 retail merchants authorized to sell the cards. Those enrolled in employer-based pretax transportation benefit programs can get MetroCards by mail.
In May, the last month for which statistics are available, machines sold $161.9 million in cards in 14.1 million transactions. In the first five months of 2008, there were 63.6 million transactions, an increase of 13.4 percent from the same period in 2007, perhaps accounting for some wear and tear.
Cash accounted for about 70 percent of all transactions, but because many of those sales were for lower-value MetroCards, it represented only 38 percent of total sales in May. The average amount of each sale was $25.55 for credit cards, $20.32 for debit cards and $6.24 for cash.
But if many New Yorkers increasingly use plastic to purchase plastic-coated paper, it is perhaps worth noting that New York's emergency preparedness plan instructs residents always to keep a roll of singles at home (though that might not have helped people who discovered the problem only upon reaching the subway station).
The notion of a cashless society is a favorite of futurists and mega-trend spotters, some of whom imagine the liberating aspects of a single personal-identification card or chip that might soon replace everything in a bulging wallet.
But what happens when the machines rebel?
''Well, you always need a backup form of payment,'' said Lisa Bodell, a business consultant who wrote an article in The Futurist last year envisioning such a device -- she called it the NYCitizen card -- as how New Yorkers might conduct personal transactions by the year 2020.
''So if one day the subway machines won't take your card, maybe you've got a chit you can put into a machine -- kind of like an old subway token -- that works anywhere,'' Ms. Bodell added. ''Everybody gets one, in case of emergency. And then it gets mailed back to you.''
Marti Nusbaum, a visitor from Florida who was waiting to buy a one-day, unlimited MetroCard at the Times Square station on Tuesday, said she had little use for cash. ''When I go to the A.T.M., I'll just get $20 and it lasts all week,'' she said. ''You know why I prefer using a credit card? Because with my credit card I spend more freely when I want to have fun.''
''Now, I have a shopaholic daughter who's 15,'' she added. ''She's off in Chinatown right now. Fake bags, you know it. Dolce & Gabbana.''