A Homeless Man's Unused Subway Card Empire

John Jones says he's made $20,000 reselling tossed Metrocards. Should that be legal?

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Reuters

The fare for a single ride on the New York City subway system is $2.25, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority doesn't sell MetroCards in multiples of that figure. Instead MTA vending machines offer cash-friendly, well-rounded options like $10 or $20, for which riders receive a 7 percent bonus.

It's great to get a $21.40 value for twenty bucks, but after nine rides at $2.25 a pop you're left with an awkward fare of $1.15. While you can refill your card at MTA machines, a lot people — either in great haste or great waste — simply toss the insufficient MetroCard aside and get a new one. According to recent reports, the value of unused (in addition to lost or expired) cards amounts to roughly $52 million a year

Enter John Jones, a homeless man who's spent the past decade collecting discarded fares and bundling them into a single $5 MetroCard that he then sells to people for $4. It's an impressive little scheme — more impressive, say, than his rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," found here — and Jones estimates he's earned about $20,000 over the years.

The only problem with Jones's enterprise is that, strictly speaking, it isn't legal. To be more precise: combining several insufficient cards into one larger Metrocard is fair (fare?) game, but turning around and selling these new cards is not, according to Section 1050.4 of the MTA Rules of Conduct:

3. Except for employees of the Authority acting within the scope of their employment or other expressly authorized agents of the Authority, no person shall sell, provide, copy, reproduce or produce, or create any version of any fare media or otherwise authorize access to or use of the facilities, conveyances or services of the Authority without the written permission of a representative of the Authority duly authorized by the Authority to grant such right to others.

The rule book caught up twice recently with Jones, who was arrested on November 30 and again December 2 on charges of unlawful solicitation, according to the New York Post. The Post reports that Jones is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday and that he plans to defend himself against the charges. "Of course finding something is legal," he told the paper, referring to the insufficient fare cards he finds strewn about the station.

The case of Finders Keepers v. Losers Weepers no doubt set a strong precedent, but something tells us Jones is going to need a more compelling argument in court this week. For starters, he might point out that what he's costing the MTA in revenue he's probably making up for in clean-up and card-printing costs. Then again he might draw an even stronger position from Malcolm Gladwell's recent description of Steve Jobs in the New Yorker. Gladwell describes Jobs not as a visionary so much as a "tweaker" — someone who recognized the "signature inventions" of an age and "refined and perfected" them:

The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.

Surely one must concede that Jones inherited the MTA vending system as it is and pushed and pulled (and rubberbanded) it toward a more perfect solution. Of course, clever as his idea is, Jones has a little ways to go before entering Steve Jobs territory. But, to continue the metaphor, the MTA also has a ways to go before turning its Xerox PARC-like vending process into an Apple computer. As the New York transit blog Second Ave Sagas argues, the authority could start by selling rides instead of monetary amounts.

Admittedly Jones has an uphill battle on his hands. Meanwhile the MTA has plans to reduce fare-card waste. In July the authority announced that it will be adding a $1 MetroCard surcharge beginning in 2013. The fee is intended to encourage riders not to toss away their insufficient cards, and the MTA expects generate some $20 million from the effort. The best defense for Jones, who also works to help the homeless community, might be to align himself with a project like MetroChange, a program that allows riders to transfer their excess card values into a central charity fund. That way, if some change is gonna come, in both senses of the word, at least he can still direct it his way.

Photo credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Reuters

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