The Bitcoin Diaries Day 3: Getting from A to BTC

There are many wonderful things about the New York City subway system.

It covers a significant portion of the city and it’s finally expanding to some neglected areas, all of its lines run 24 hours, and considering the insane number of people it transports every day, I would say it’s reasonably clean and efficient — but maybe I have very low standards.

The one aspect, however, that continues to baffle me is how one of the most heavily trafficked mass transit systems in the world still requires its riders to use disposable Metrocards (for now) as opposed to the much more efficient smart cards used by cities such as Washington DC and London.

I figured the inability to fill up an NYC Metrocard online might present a challenge to my ability to get around the city using Bitcoin, and it did — but not as significantly as I imagined.

This is thanks in large part to a service called Bitfare. Bitfare provides mass transit fares in exchange for Bitcoins in 10 U.S. cities including New York. For most of these cities the process is very straightforward: The user submits his smartcard ID and the amount he’d like to load onto the smartcard. Then Bitfare quotes a price in Bitcoin. The user sends that amount to the Bitfare address and the money is loaded onto the card almost instantly.

New York City is slightly more complicated because the people who run Bitfare have to mail the Metrocard to the user. Bitfare has monthly unlimited Metrocards already on hand, but that would have cost me $113 (or 0.16 BTC) for something I did not need. Luckily, the person who runs Bitfare offered to have an associate in New York City buy me a $20 Metrocard and mail it to me. I expected this to take a while, but the Metrocard was in my hand 2 days from the initial transaction.

The great irony is, for all my worrying over transportation, it’s not real a priority to me. I work from home and almost everything I need is in my neighborhood — in walking distance of my apartment. The one exception to this is that my girlfriend lives in Harlem (for the non-New Yorkers, that’s very far away). So I at least needed to get a Metrocard so I can see her. I’ll actually be taking her on a Bitcoin Date for Valentine’s Day – but more on that later this week.

Nevertheless, my experience researching Bitcoin transportation only further confirms my assertion from yesterday that Bitcoin is currently only useable for urban dwellers. For people who rely on cars as their primary transportation, your Bitcoin options are limited. There is a service called CoinFueled that sells gas cards for Bitcoin, but as for getting the car itself it’s unlikely your local Honda dealership is going to take Bitcoin.

The same may not be true, however, for high-end dealerships. In December an Orange County, California Lamborghini dealership sold a Tesla Model S for $103,000 or 91.4 BTC. That same dealership then sold a Lamborghini Gallardo for $209,000 or 216.8 BTC. It didn’t really cross my mind to ask Jane to float me that money so I could get around the city for a week, but maybe if I do this again we can get a Kickstarter going.

Jokes aside, you may be noticing another pattern in these posts: Living on Bitcoin isn’t exactly cheap. Many of you commented on this yesterday and you’re absolutely right. The Bitcoin lifestyle is not really conducive to a working family. To start with, Bitcoin merchants are typically geared toward upper middle-class, tech-savvy individuals. Secondly, these Bitcoin services often have slight surcharges associated with them (I had to pay an extra $5 for my Metrocard). Lastly, Bitcoin’s volatile nature means you can lose hundreds of dollars in a matter of hours without purchasing a single thing. Put more simply: If you’re a single twenty-something with minimal responsibility you can get by with Bitcoin. But if you’re trying to support a family of four, I’d probably stay away from it, at least for now.

Other Posts in the Bitcoin Series:

Jumping Into the Bitcoin Bubble
The Bitcoin Diaries Day 1: On Obtaining Bitcoin
The Bitcoin Diaries Day 2: You Will Not Starve on Bitcoin

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Zach Tomanelli

Zach Tomanelli