Transit Tokens

After 186 years of use in the United States, the venerable transit token is no more. The last bus line has discontinued their use. These metal tokens are now taking a back seat to modern technology.

Graphic designers are inveterate collectors. Whether it be gathering visual inspiration, curating well-designed objects for display on a shelf, or collaging nostalgia into a notebook, we are visual hunters and gatherers. As a typographer, and designer who works with numerous public transit clients, I became fascinated by the humble transit token and the sheer variety of shapes sizes and designs.

And now, all across the country, cities and counties are writing eulogies to the transit token. 

Transit tokens in the United States date to 1831, when brass coins were minted for a stagecoach line in New Jersey. By 1897, the country had its first subway in Boston, and in 1904 the New York subway system was inaugurated and tokens were in high demand. Tokens were also produced for ferries, buses, and streetcars, 

It is estimated that from in New York from the 1950’s until the last tokens were retired on midnight April 13, 2003, over 300 million tokens were minted for the subway system. Despite their huge numbers, tokens are no more…

One characteristic of many transit token designs is that they feature cutouts, sometimes in the shapes of letters, to differentiate them at a glance from other coins. This and their unique, often folksy typography make them a joy to view for a designer and typographer and fun to collect.