Greater Greater Washington

Lucky riders can add value to their SmarTrips online

WMATA is rolling out the latest upgrade to the SmarTrip website, letting riders add money or passes to their cards online instead of having to go to the vending machines in stations.


Soon, you won't have to use these. Photo by MattHurst on Flickr.

The new feature is currently a pilot for 5,000 users, including 50 who asked to be included over Twitter. If all goes well, WMATA hopes to release it to everyone in a month, said spokesperson Dan Stessel.

Those with the feature enabled can log in to an existing account or, if they don't have one, register their SmarTrip card. Even if you don't have the feature, it's useful to set up an account to see your balance and get protection against losing your card.

Once users log in, those with the feature have a new link to add value, taking them to this screen:


Click to enlarge.

The site lets riders add between $10 and $200 in cash to the card, or add the 7-day bus pass. In the future, Metro will have additional passes for purchase including ones for other transit systems like Maryland MTA, PRTC, and more.

Because of the way the SmarTrips work, adding money to the card doesn't instantly update the card balance. SmarTrip cards store their value directly on the card, encoded on the card's chips. If you add $20 to your card online, WMATA's central servers know you added it, but the card doesn't yet since it can't communicate with the servers when it's in your pocket.

To update the card, you have to touch the card to one of the targets on a bus or rail faregate. Those targets all get a periodic download of all the transactions. When it sees your card, if it has a transaction in its memory for your card, it will add the value to your card.

It takes some time for all the transactions to get to the targets. The rail ones are wired into a network and get downloads periodically throughout the day, but can take up to 1 day to get them. The bus ones have to be updated when the bus is in the depot, so it can take an extra day.

The bottom line is that some people might add $20 to their card, then go to a rail station or bus soon after and get confused when their card doesn't yet reflect the added money.

In the long run, WMATA wants to switch to a different system that's more like your debit card: the balance is actually in a central database, not on the card, and when you swipe it, the terminal communicates with the credit card company to check your balance.

However, that takes some time, which is why credit card terminals have some delay. To let people touch their card to a faregate and go through right away, WMATA has to make sure this communication happens very quickly.

They also want to integrate it with credit cards that have built-in chips; it's possible you could just tap your credit card instead of a SmarTrip one day and have it charge your card for the ride, or charge you at the end of the month for all of your rides that month.

There's an RFP out now to design this system. Kurt Raschke has analyzed some of the technical details, and we're working on an explanation that'll be more accessible to those not familiar with payment industry jargon.

In the meantime, WMATA is working on additional upgrades to the SmarTrip site including the ability to enter a credit card and have it automatically reload your card when the balance gets low, like you can do today with E-ZPass.

Disclosure: I met with the site designers recently to give feedback on usability, such as layout of items, explanatory text, and more. A number of modifications based on my suggestions as well as others they thought of are reflected in the current interface.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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I'll pay cash, thank you. I don't need to have my credit card linked to my SmarTrip card so that the WMATA can electronically track every single trip I take on the metro.

by Alan on Jul 6, 2011 11:05 am • linkreport

@Alan

The Smartrip card itself already tracks every trip you take on Metro, without your credit card.

by wmataplusside on Jul 6, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

It's about daggone time. I should've started a twitter account and asked to be included in the initial rollout. I can't seem to keep a card for long...

by HogWash on Jul 6, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

@wmataplusside: If you purchase a SmarTrip card with cash, the WMATA knows when SmarTrip card is used to take a trip, but they do not know who used it. As soon as you link it to your credit card, the WMATA then knows more than just some anonymous person took a trip, they now know that you specifically took a trip, and can link your travel history to your name, address, phone number and all of the other purchases you made using your credit card. Who knows where that information might end up or how it might be used someday. So why take the chance, when you can simply pay using cash. And yes, I use only cash where ever I go. MC/Visa does not need to know every restaurant I ate at, every bar I drank at, every movie I went to, every item I bought at the store, etc. Cash works just fine, thank you.

by Alan on Jul 6, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

@Alan:
What's "cash"?

by Matt Johnson on Jul 6, 2011 11:38 am • linkreport

@Matt Johnson
I b'lieve he means "paper money"

@Alan
Is your Smartrip registered to protect its balance? Also, the paranoia is strangling me.

by wmataplusside on Jul 6, 2011 11:44 am • linkreport

@Alan you do realize that if the man wanted to track you all he would have to do is watch you enter or exit the system once, figure out the smart trip number of the card that was just swiped, and now they know its associated with you.

My advice is to only use paper fare cards. Also to be safe you should wear a disguise everytime you enter the metro.

by nathaniel on Jul 6, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

So does this mean that they will be adding rail weekly passes to Smart Trip cards soon? That is the one thing I am most anxiously awaiting and yet have heard nothing of the timeline.

by Ashley on Jul 6, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

@wmataplusside:
They still make paper money? I thought they phased that out around the time they got rid of vinyl records.

by Matt Johnson on Jul 6, 2011 12:06 pm • linkreport

For those of you in the pilot and skulking about - how is the security of the site? I can't imagine a more dangerous thing than an org like Metro bumping against Lulzsec or another hacking group, it's almost inevitable the date is going to be leaked.

by varun on Jul 6, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

Please, as if GGW editors and posters are old enough to remember Vinyl as anything but what DJ's use in clubs or their things their older siblings used to have.

My tinfoil hat is simple: I would not link my credit card to anything run by WMATA.

And if WMATA cannot ensure that money is loaded on a card until minimum of 24 hours later.... then why roll out anything at all.. unless you are testing it out on peeps who have the extra money lying around. How elitist.

by greent on Jul 6, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

@Matt

Naw, man. The fidelity is so much better on paper. You can see..no...feel every single crease and wrinkle, just like the engravers intended.

by andrew on Jul 6, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

@greent:
Actually, I own a record player and have a few records. Not everything made the jump to CD (let alone digital).

by Matt Johnson on Jul 6, 2011 12:18 pm • linkreport

It appears that adding passes doesn't work yet. When you pick a pass from the drop-down list, nothing happens.

by Roger on Jul 6, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

I always wondered how the buses managed to keep track of this stuff. Does that mean that each bus has a hard drive containing the balance of every SmarTrip card in the system, and that this information is somehow synced each night?

Auto-reload definitely needs to be implemented before this is rolled out on a wide scale, and would help make the 24-hour delay less of a big deal (or even simply allow auto-reload customers with non-expired credit cards to go negative until the reload transaction can be processed).

A decentralized system like this must be a nightmare to maintain and keep track of. (After reading Kurt's analysis, I've confirmed that it is, and that WMATA's RFP is awfully odd...)

by andrew on Jul 6, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson
Phasing out paper money would save lots of... money.

@paranoids
What if the system were run by a third-party, like say, Google or PayPal? Would it be any more trustworthy?

by wmataplusside on Jul 6, 2011 12:39 pm • linkreport

WMATA should go to the gold standard. It's the only way!

by Denny on Jul 6, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

@greent

The 24 hour lag is fine for people who don't ride everyday, know they're going to the DC area soon and want to have the empty SmarTrip that typically reposes in a desk drawer ready to go when they get to town. If you ride everyday, reloading the card in person is not as difficult.

by Lucre on Jul 6, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

Anything I can do without the use of cash, I am all about. I dont really have a problem with people tracking my purchases, or travel history. If it makes it easy to use and purchase services, great. Nothing really of interest what I buy and where I go. Not certain why some are so paranoid about this?

by JBike on Jul 6, 2011 12:47 pm • linkreport

Also, re tinfoil hat concerns, I'm a bit of a tinfoil hatter myself, but if I had my druthers I would never carry any cash at all. I hate having anything on me to be mugged for, or having to lie to spangers.

by Lucre on Jul 6, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

@andrew
I always wondered how the buses managed to keep track of this stuff. Does that mean that each bus has a hard drive containing the balance of every SmarTrip card in the system, and that this information is somehow synced each night?

The value is stored on the card itself, along with some information about the last trip I believe (so the farebox can calculate transfers). I'm pretty sure this is how every transit farecard does it - because it has to be fast. If every bus had to have a wireless uplink to check a central server for that information, the process would be far too slow for boarding a vehicle.

by MLD on Jul 6, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

I'm one of the pilot users, though as a SmartBenefits beneficiary, I (normally) rarely need to add money, and I haven't so far. I have been to log into my account, and it looks easy enough. Kind of surprising that this wasn't implemented long ago.

Also, I want to take this opportunity to gripe about Metro's SmarTrip card replacement. A few months back, I somehow lost my card. Because of my SmartBenefits participation, the card was registered, and it was painless enough to shut down the card. I elected to have a new card mailed to me, so I ordered one online, and the same day I bought a new card that I could have on hand in case I lost my new primary card (buses are a hassle now with a card).

Two weeks later, I still hadn't been sent a new card, and had had to plug in two weeks of $$ on what I had intended to be my backup card. So I call the SmarTrip help desk again, and they have no record of me ordering a new card. They can transfer my balance on the lost card to the card I do have, but they neglect to tell me that I'll have to go to one of the fare machines in a station to add the money. (For the last couple of months, my SmartBenefits money had been added automatically at faregates, and I had ass-u-med that was still in effect.)

So a week goes by, and I keep feeding money in, growing crankier, and I call the SmarTrip help desk again and they explain how to add the money. Which works fine, and now I'm happy as can be on the WMATA end. Unfortunately, there's been a breakdown on the SmartBenefits end, and that might not be resolved until the beginning of next month, which would mean three months of struggling to get back to normal with a stupid SmarTrip card.

Had this been a lost credit card, I would have expected everything to be made right and a new, functioning card in my hand in less than a week. Had it been a lost gym card, I could have gone to the gym and had everything resolved in a matter of minutes. It's exasperating that this wasn't something that could be resolved just as quickly. I hope that as WMATA looks to upgrade the SmarTrip system that they can take a look at their replacement-card business process and see what they can do to improve, and work with their SmartBenefits partners to make that process far simpler for both agency reps and card-holders as well.

by Matt W on Jul 6, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

Oops. That should read "buses are a hassle now without a card."

by Matt W on Jul 6, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

Is there any word on the SmarTrip replacement? I thought WMATA only had enough remaining cards stockpiled to last another year or so from now.

by Gray on Jul 6, 2011 1:01 pm • linkreport

"And yes, I use only cash where ever I go. MC/Visa does not need to know every restaurant I ate at, every bar I drank at, every movie I went to, every item I bought at the store, etc. Cash works just fine, thank you."

What about your tinfoil purchases? I assume you buy in bulk . . .

by dcd on Jul 6, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

@ Lucre: from your comment, i am assuming you are a metro only person. Try loading the card on a (moving) bus - it is not as simple as one thinks (if the dang box is working). So again, how elitist.

@Matt: yes, you have your fancy "old" collection of special music that wasn't translated into the current medium. Meaning: you are old enough to know someone who actually used vinyl while you have it as a special treat. I have a functioning 8-track player to boot along with the Bee Gee's 8-tracks. Good times.

by greent on Jul 6, 2011 1:08 pm • linkreport

Tee hee, that post makes me sound so much older than I am.

Stop chucking my wood!

The woman in you brings out the man in me, It's the woman in you And the finer parts of your anatomy

by greent on Jul 6, 2011 1:12 pm • linkreport

"And yes, I use only cash where ever I go. MC/Visa does not need to know every restaurant I ate at, every bar I drank at, every movie I went to, every item I bought at the store, etc. Cash works just fine, thank you."

Your life must be so carefree if this is what you're worried about. What do you do if you need more cash? Feed your card into the ATM? Fill out a paper form at the bank? Either way, the man still knows what bank you use, what your signature looks like, what PIN you use, your face (from the cameras), etc.

by Sam on Jul 6, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

Hmmm, tommorrow's mornign roundup:

Gray Pulls Support For Underground Dulles Metro Station

http://dcist.com/2011/07/gray_pulls_support_for_underground.php

by greent on Jul 6, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

In defense of @Alan. I use smart card but choose not to register it. No, I am not paranoid that someone is tracking me real time. It is where that information goes and what is done with it. I remember when people thought email was TOTALLY private, or you could post something to a site because it was small and no one you knew would stumble across it.

by beatbox on Jul 6, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

@Sam: of course my bank knows who I am, where I live, who my checks come from, how much I withdraw and when. But that is all they know. They don't know where I spend my money and what I spend it on, and they don't need to know. For everyone who feels comfortable with the name, date and time of every restaurant, bar and store they patronize being recorded in a gigantic database for all of eternity, with no control over how that information is used, please continue using your credit cards. Meanwhile, I'll use cash, thank you.

by Alan on Jul 6, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

@Alpert: Disclosure: I met with the site designers recently to give feedback on usability, such as layout of items, explanatory text, and more.

Please, tell them to add a password reset/forgot your password to the login page. If you cant log in you get the message "If you cannot access your account, please call our SmarTrip® Regional Customer Service Center at +1-888-SMARTRIP (+1-888-762-7874) for assistance." ....that threw me 10 years back in time....

not a paranoid here, but if an website cant handle a password reset, and needs an operator to manually access your account, i dont think I can trust them with credit card info ...

by RE on Jul 7, 2011 8:34 am • linkreport

About 10 minutes ago I logged in to my account just to see if I was one of the "lucky chosen ones". At that time, I was not, but just a minute ago I received an e-mail from WMATA saying that I had been randomly selected to participate in the new program.

Maybe it was a coincidence, but if you are interested in participating in the new program you might want to log in to your account and then check the e-mail address that is registered with your card 10-15 mins later. Again, maybe it was a coincidence.

by Chris on Jul 7, 2011 10:04 am • linkreport

@Chris

Got the same email a little while ago but my account doesn't allow me to add value online, typical.

by AM on Jul 7, 2011 11:02 am • linkreport

@AM

I got that email at around 10am today, but can't add value online either. Go WMATA's IT people!

Here's the text of the email, in case anyone's interested:

To SmarTrip® Account Holder

You have been randomly selected to participate in a pilot of several new system functions. These functions will enable you to use your credit card to purchase stored value and passes for your SmarTrip® card or your Charm card. You will also be able to save your credit card information to use for future purchases, and to print detailed receipts.

The next time you log in to your SmarTrip® account, you will see several new links on your account pages. For example, on the page with the header "View Card Summary", you will see the following changes:

- A shopping cart icon on the left side of the screen
- A new group of links under the heading "Online Purchases" on the upper right section of the screen; and
- Within the text in the middle of the screen, there are links to "Add value" and "Add Pass".

Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the new functions, and the steps that you will need to follow to load your purchases onto your SmarTrip® card or Charm® card.

These new features are intended to make it more convenient for you to manage the balances on your cards and avoid the lines at ticket vending machines.

We encourage you to take advantage of them. If you have questions, or experience any problems when using these new features, please contact the Regional Customer Service Center at 1-888-762-7874.

Your SmarTrip® Account Team

by Alex on Jul 7, 2011 12:22 pm • linkreport

How complicated is it to allow users to add money online that you need a pilot program? Starbucks has been doing this for years. Of more interest to me is whether I can call a number to add more money to my card.

by snowpeas on Jul 7, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Alex

I spoke with someone at SmarTrip around 1:00 PM today, and they indicated that for my account, the features would be available tomorrow morning at the latest.

This said, if WMATA (or anyone) sends out such an email indicating new website functionality, one would expect that those features be available immediately. Otherwise, they should have waited to send the email.

by JPJ on Jul 7, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

@snowpeas

To be fair, WMATA's got a bit of a harder job than Starbucks. As others have written above, SmarTrip balances are stored on the cards themselves, while Starbucks cards are just a reference to a database.

This makes a great deal of sense for this application: they need to be able to accept these cards on buses, which (as anyone with an iPhone can attest) may not have a working wireless network connection all the time, and SmarTrip has to work quickly every time, or people won't use it.

However, it also means that updating the balance remotely requires a fair amount of work on the backend. They need to see the card at a station, recognize that its balance needs updating, and perform the update on the fly, all without taking noticeably longer than a normal SmarTrip tap. With WMATA's legacy faregates, this entails significantly more work.

As others have written above, the eventual solution to this problem is to store card balances in a database, as Starbucks does. But there are substantial obstacles to overcome to achieve this goal.

by Alex on Jul 7, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

Why not just add more stores where you can add value to smartrip cards. For example if they added Starbucks, McDonalds, Subway and 7-Eleven to the current CVS, Giant, Safeway you pretty much cover every area WMATA serves.

Why not just license Smartrip to who ever wants to accept it and have it be similar to card systems in Asia.

by kk on Jul 7, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

To SmarTrip® Account Holder

You have been randomly selected to participate in a pilot of several new system functions. These functions will enable you to use your credit card to purchase stored value and passes for your SmarTrip® card or your Charm card. You will also be able to save your credit card information to use for future purchases, and to print detailed receipts.

The next time you log in to your SmarTrip® account, you will see several new links on your account pages. For example, on the page with the header "View Card Summary", you will see the following changes:

- A shopping cart icon on the left side of the screen
- A new group of links under the heading "Online Purchases" on the upper right section of the screen; and
- Within the text in the middle of the screen, there are links to "Add value" and "Add Pass".

Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the new functions, and the steps that you will need to follow to load your purchases onto your SmarTrip® card or Charm® card.

These new features are intended to make it more convenient for you to manage the balances on your cards and avoid the lines at ticket vending machines.

We encourage you to take advantage of them. If you have questions, or experience any problems when using these new features, please contact the Regional Customer Service Center at 1-888-762-7874.

Your SmarTrip® Account Team

by TGEoA on Jul 8, 2011 2:50 pm • linkreport

I haven't gotten an e-mail, but I just logged in and saw an option to add value . . . so I did. I wonder if I will get the e-mail later today.

by Gray on Jul 8, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

The email wasnt accurate as to how to access your account. It should have mentioned that you need to specify to select a card.

Kind of a pain if you are managing multiple cards.

by TGEoA on Jul 8, 2011 3:06 pm • linkreport

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