Last year, I was among the many to grumble when SEPTA announced that they were phasing out tokens. First I grumbled something brusque, something to the effect of “about damned time” … then I grumbled something cruder and surlier over the rate hike that would ostensibly help to pay for the upgrades. This was the consensus among friends and coworkers as well. Everybody I talked to was tired of the haughty laughter of visiting New Yorkers, sick of the dinginess of seemingly every coin in circulation. Even as today’s patrons at Chuck E. Cheese were probably swiping cards in order to whack a mole or play skee-ball, millions of riders in the Philadelphia metro area were still forced to use the humble token.
As an everyday SEPTA rider, I rely on the curiously-striped coins which, for my particular commute, are more cost-efficient than a weekly- or monthly-pass. For those that don’t know, simply purchasing tokens can be an ordeal: not every station (including the one nearest my house) has a kiosk selling the coins and there’s no guarantee that a given kiosk will be operational or adequately stocked; whatever money you put into the machine will be converted into tokens and whatever’s left will be issued back to you as nickles (and don’t expect station cashiers to make change or break bills); even the free market is powerless to remedy the situation, as the customer service counter at my neighborhood grocery store infrequently has ten-packs available for sale. I pitied the token when I imagined a Philadelphia where things ran swimmingly thanks to computer chips, electronic readers, and the other sleek-sounding payment technologies being promised. Friends and I would soon be shaking our heads and scoffing, a little fondly, as we reminisced about out-of-service vending machines and clogged coin deposit slots.
But as I looked forward to the thrilling future of my transit routine, I began to realize that the present transportation system was not as dismal as it might seem. Instances of token-related frustration and were an anomaly. It took a minimal amount of foresight to ensure that I got the coins before the start of each work week. I began to reconsider my anti-token stance. Didn’t I admittedly enjoy making use of the small, anachronistic pocket-watch pocket on the right side of my pants (the perfect place for a day’s tokens)? Wasn’t I exhilarated when I dropped the coins in the slot in true buzzer-beater fashion and slipped into the train as the doors were closing? Surely I could’ve tapped a fancy card against the proper device as easily, but what about that particular ‘clang’ that accentuates the turnstile’s ratcheting clamor as I rush for your train? Might I actually miss my tokens, I wondered?
The word itself carries a certain currency (not to mention charm) that the mundane fob can only aspire to. Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when you hear of or read about a token is a metal or plastic disk used to operate a machine or in exchange for particular goods or services – an interesting piece of specie or a chintzy piece of stamped alloy that you try to pass off as a quarter, depending on how you look at it. But, of course, a token (from the Dutch teken and German Zeichen- ‘to teach’) is a far more abstract thing, too. It is also defined as a tangible representation, a physical metaphor, or a thing given or done as an expression of feelings. A token is a symbol.
So what does a SEPTA token symbolize beyond getting from one place to another? I’ve heard most express that this bygone coin embodies an inefficient and behind-the-times spirit. Such a statement usually then segues into a given rider’s account of a Bosch-like scene aboard the El or the Broad Street Line. In these instances, the token has become a rather specific symbol: an effigy. Getting rid of the token in favor of a cutting-edge payment system is being viewed by many as the solution to any number of problems effecting Philadelphia’s mass transit.
While this change might certainly improve ridership’s morale (and, in turn, lead to a more dignified and respectful ridership), it can hardly be expected to change anything past the turnstiles. The big transition will undoubtedly have its share of kinks and hiccups. Even with a state-of-the-art payment network, the major subways in the city will still be limited to up-down and left-right. And New Yorkers will always have a derisive edge to their laughs (especially if the punchline is any other city in the world). Obviously, this is an improvement that needs to happen. The token is a piece of 20th century technology and that was so 15 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about our city’s sexy new mass trans gizmos, but that eagerness needn’t include debasing the modest token, the dependable bit of regional distinction that’s gotten many of us where we needed to go. So don’t be surprised when a line of people snake out from a fare box as a confused citizen tries to fruitlessly tap a spent card against a reader, when someone in a rush to catch a train runs their smartphone over the scanner once, twice, third time’s the charm and just misses their eastbound train, when voices begin to grumble that “this didn’t happen when we used tokens.”