A retrospective on 30 years of branded MetroCards

The art and institutions celebrated on the cards offer a unique perspective on New York City’s history and culture.

A commemorative MetroCard featuring The Notorious B.I.G. from 2022.

A commemorative MetroCard featuring The Notorious B.I.G. from 2022. Marc A. Hermann/MTA

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that the branded MetroCard program is coming to an end. It makes sense, since the MetroCard as a whole will go the way of the subway token when OMNY is fully implemented. But over the past 30 years, the MTA has made over 400 limited edition MetroCards, featuring New York landmarks, musical artists, TV shows, local businesses, universities and sporting events. As a collection, the branded MetroCards capture a slice of New York City history – the businesses that have come and gone, the big events the city has hosted, the fashion and media brands that make the city a destination and institutions that serve as its bedrock.

“Limited-Edition MetroCards are a fun and unique way for partners or advertisers to reach their audience,” MTA spokesperson Kayla Shults said. “MetroCards tend to be refilled, which allows our customers to ride with their favorite limited-edition card well past the timing of a promotion.”

Here’s a look back at how MetroCards have celebrated New York’s history and culture over the past three decades.

First edition

Grand Central (Courtesy of New York Transit Museum)

In January 1994, the MTA started with a set of four inaugural cards that featured, in different denominations, Grand Central Terminal, the city’s skyline, the World Financial Center and Times Square. This was the same month that MetroCard turnstiles opened at Wall Street after tests of the technology the previous year, so MetroCards were still relatively new at this point. The second set of cards featured the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations headquarters, while the third set included the World Trade Center, Guggenheim Museum, Empire State Building and Chrysler Building.

Sports icons and moments

Jackie Robinson (Courtesy of New York Transit Museum)

In 1997, groundbreaking Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson was honored on a MetroCard with images of his 1956 Topps card and riding the subway. There have been MetroCards celebrating the New York Rangers Stanley Cup Finals victory in 1994, noting the first Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees in 1997 and when the two teams met in the 2000 World Series, in addition to numerous cards about the U.S. Open in tennis and the NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall.

City institutions

Bronx Zoo (Courtesy of New York Transit Museum)

In 2008, the Bronx Zoo offered a discount admittance program with its MetroCard in the lead up to the release of “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” in November. Rockefeller Center had a “Then and Now” MetroCard in 1997 of the Christmas tree presentations from 1931 and today. Arts organizations like the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center each sponsored MetroCards in 2000, and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular was advertised in 2008 and 2009. And in 2020, the New York Public Library celebrated 125 years on its own MetroCard.

Storm recovery

The Rockaways (Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit)

After Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New York City region in October 2012, low-lying and coastal areas of the city were the worst hit and in desperate need of being rebuilt. A year after the superstorm, the MTA highlighted six areas to visit and “see the comeback” from the storm recovery efforts. Those areas included Long Beach, Coney Island and the Rockaways.

Musical notes

KISS (Marc A. Hermann/MTA)

While more of the musical artists have appeared on MetroCards recently, one of the early MetroCards, back in 1995, was for Anita Baker promoting her album “Rhythm of Love.” Then Virgin Records boosted Gang Starr’s 1998 album “Moment of Truth.” More recent examples included a series of David Bowie cards made with Spotify and another for Paul McCartney’s album “Egypt Station,” both in 2018. Some of the more popular MetroCards might be the Notorious B.I.G. from 2022, Kiss from 2023 and this year’s MetroCard of Ice Spice.

TV Shows

Mariska Hargitay and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (MTA)

This year, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” celebrated its 25th anniversary with a MetroCard featuring Mariska Hargitay. ABC used MetroCards in the 1990s to promote both “Spin City” in 1997 and “Dharma & Greg” in 1998. When CBS started “The Early Show” in 1999, the morning program got its own MetroCard to generate buzz. In 2018, HBO created a set of four “Game of Thrones” MetroCards. Showtime boosted the show “Desus & Mero” as “breaking the late night mold” in 2019. And Hulu has twice ordered MetroCards for “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” in 2019 and 2021.