Greater Greater Washington

Metro will eliminate paper farecards in 2015

After four decades of use, the days are numbered for Metro's paper farecards. WMATA will begin to phase them out in late 2015. By 2016, the only way to pay for a Metrorail ride will be with SmarTrip.


Photo by David Notivol on Flickr.

The announcement that Metro will go paperless is no surprise. The agency stopped using paper bus transfers in 2009. Metro recently lowered the cost of SmarTrips cards to $2 and added a $1 surcharge on all trips paid using paper farecards, making SmarTrip less expensive for most riders.

Even more recently, Metro has allowed passes to be used on SmarTrip, and added SmarTrip dispensers in every rail station. With those pieces now in place and more changes coming, it's time for the paper farecards to go.

Why eliminate paper?

Metro is eager to phase out paper farecards because they create a lot of wear and tear on the system. The faregates use 1960s technology to process the paper cards. They have rubber bands and pulleys that are maintenance-intensive, and thus expensive to keep in operation.

Once paper farecards are fully phased out in early 2016, Metro won't have to conduct that time-consuming and expensive maintenance. The faregates won't be replaced immediately, but the farecard systems will be deactivated.

What will change?

Despite recent incentives pushing riders to use SmarTrip, Metro's machines still dispense two million farecards each month. Perhaps one explanation for riders' stubborn continued reliance on farecards is that they're easier to buy.

For a tourist first entering the system, buying a SmarTrip card means spending exactly $10 for a card at one machine (for $8 in value). If they only want to go one or two stops, there's no way to spend less. If they want to buy a day pass or add additional value, they have to use a different machine.

That won't be a problem after December 2015. Starting next October, Metro will replace the guts of the blue fare machines in stations. Right now they only dispense farecards. But starting in December 2015 they'll also dispense SmarTrip cards.

WMATA won't upgrade the older brown fare machines. The brown machines won't dispense farecards anymore, but passengers will still be able to use them to reload SmarTrip cards. Metro will keep the SmarTrip dispensers that are currently in stations, too.

By 2020, Metro will also have replaced all of its faregates through a separate effort. Along with that will come a second-generation SmarTrip. At that point, we'll be using an entirely new fare payment system.

But the fare machines won't require another retrofit, as they'll be able to dispense the new cards as well.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

Comments

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I have a question:

I use a MARC monthly pass with a transit link card, so it's the monthly pass plus unlimited trips on Metro. This is a paper card. Will this be changing over to SmarTrip as well?

As of now, the MARC conductors have no way of scanning a SmarTrip card.

by Paul on Jun 9, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

Could they not institute a buy-back system, whereby a person who didn't intend on keeping their card would return it to a machine, which would then return the balance of the card plus the value of the card ($2)?

This is the only public transit system in the world that I know of which will force customers to buy hardware such as this. My guess is that, on the margin, out-of-town riders will be turned off by it. Certainly those lost riders will be offset by higher revenues by those who buy more Metro fare than they need.

But is that really the model of public transit you want? It's like forcing a motorist to pay for medium distance on the NJ Turnpike, when all he wants to do is a quarter of the way.

by Local Cycler on Jun 9, 2014 2:44 pm • linkreport

If we're going to make it tough on out-of-town guests, then they need to create something like a "family pass" which you can buy on your SmartTrip card. Something like $20 gets up to four people (they each tap their smart trip card to the machine to active their particular cards) unlimited metro rail rides between Old Town, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Anacostia, Tysons, and Stadium-Armory or something like that.

by Local Cycler on Jun 9, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Once they institute credit/debit card payments, I guess people who don't want the card itself will be fine.

How about a system where you can build up a tab on your SmartTrip card, and then pay upon exiting, at an ExitFare Machine? That way, the small amount who pay with cash can do so, without having to buy more fare than they want to. And then return the Smart Trip card at the exitfare or something like that to get their $2 back if they dont wanna keep the card

by Local Cycler on Jun 9, 2014 2:51 pm • linkreport

Local Cycler - NYC doesn't use paper, and that's the biggest system in the country.

by JDC on Jun 9, 2014 3:00 pm • linkreport

1960's technology? I thought it was a magnetic strips -- that is why you could cut them up and create new ones?

by charlie on Jun 9, 2014 3:02 pm • linkreport

@Local Cycler: As of March 2013, the MTA now charges $1 for new MetroCards, not including value added. I'm sure there are many other systems that have an "equipment charge," if you will. In my experience, SmarTrip is a heck of a lot more durable.

by sproc on Jun 9, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

Maybe they could revise the initial card down to $5 which would be 2 dollars for the card and $3 for fare. If you buy a paper fare card for a round trip (I think that's a safe assumption) you'd already be out $5.40 so it would be fine. They should definitely have some kind of "recycling" program.

Not paying fare before you enter the system is poor design, you will get people who don't have money or "forgot" to bring their wallers and you will get more fare evaders etc.

JDC you mean NYC doesnt use plastic?

by BTA on Jun 9, 2014 3:07 pm • linkreport

This is the only public transit system in the world that I know of which will force customers to buy hardware such as this.

Contactless cards have been the only option for paying fares on the Stockholm transit system for several months now.

by TimK65 on Jun 9, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

@ BTA - no I meant NYC does use plastic. I was responding to the commenter's claim that nowhere in the world forces riders to use plastic, versus offering them plastic and paper.

by JDC on Jun 9, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

"Contactless cards have been the only option for paying fares on the Stockholm transit system for several months now."

Sounds like the natives of Stockholm have fallen to the Stockholm Syndrome on accepting plastic-only farecards.

by Rise Up on Jun 9, 2014 3:29 pm • linkreport

The summary of the change in dropping the paper fare cards skips over a key point about being able to get a SmarTrip for less than $10. WashPost: " When the blue fare machines start dispensing them, Metro says, there will be a one-time $2 fee for the card, but the rider will be able to choose any initial fare value."

So a visitor will be to buy a SmarTrip for $2 plus the exact amount they need for their trip. But I still feel sorry for the visitor who has to figure that out using the fare machines for the first time. WMATA should update the fare machines with a touch screen interface with menus in multiple languages and the ability to select origin & destination stations to get the fare w/o having to make sense of the fare structure table (from hell). WMATA should also consider dropping the cost of the SmarTrips to $1 to be more tourist and visitor friendly. People will reuse the card even for a $1 fee.

by AlanF on Jun 9, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

@ Alan F - the Metro press release announcing the contract for replacement of the current system seems to contemplate what you're wishing for: http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/PressReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=5637

"Similarly, fare vending machines will have large, intuitive, multilingual displays and be fully ADA-compliant."

by JDC on Jun 9, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

Ah I see, well having just looked at my subway card I see it is plastic but its not a contactless system so it seems more akin to paper farecards than smartcards really.

by BTA on Jun 9, 2014 3:59 pm • linkreport

I'm guessing there will be a fare card-less payment system soon too, where people can just swipe their credit cards or NFC enabled smart phones at the fare gates too. Not sure how I feel about the loss of privacy and all of the extra plastic waste the changes in the article will involve.

by aaa on Jun 9, 2014 4:03 pm • linkreport

@ BTA - the issue is that plastic cards, whether contactless or not, do not require the moving pieces that the current paper farecard system requires. If you've ever seen them working on a broken faregate, 99.99% of the time it is not because the electronic system is down but because one of the dozens of rollers, printers, or pulleys has broken and needs repairs. I think there are more than 2,000 faregates in the system, and that is a lot of work keeping 1970s mechanical systems working. The ones that Metro has and will have in the future, require minimal upkeep by comparison. I assume NYC's faregates require some level of maintenance because the readers physically read the magnetic strip, but the contactless systems require much less.

by JDC on Jun 9, 2014 4:06 pm • linkreport

aaa - Metro's next generation system is intended to keep supporting SmarTrip cards, but also allow payment via NFC devices like phones, credit/debit cards, as well as government-issued IDs for all of the federal govt. employees.

by JDC on Jun 9, 2014 4:07 pm • linkreport

The new Chicago Ventra system is Google Wallet compatible so I paid for my transit on my last trip to Chicago by swiping my phone and never got a farecard. Receipt was in my email for work reimbursement and was the easiest thing I've ever done.

by Evan on Jun 9, 2014 4:20 pm • linkreport

One why not go to a system like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong; it works like a smartrip card so it can be used for transit but can also be used at stores for purchases that way you wont have tourist or simply someone that comes to DC a few times a year with a waste of plastic that they were forced to pay $2 for.

Or simply give refunds on the balance provided a card is registered or you have the receipt like damn near every transit system not in the USA. Not giving back refunds on unused balances is just plain and simple greed.

@ JDC Forget government /federal employees why not just put them in all state issued id's in DC & Maryland (Virginia would be a stretch since most of the state is nowhere near DC) that would cover almost everyone in the area.

Two whatever happen to the DC One Cards, how about getting Maryland to do something similar that can be used on all buses, trains, lightrail etc in the state. Also with the concept have all DC & Maryland Drivers Licenses and ID Cards as smartrip cards

by kk on Jun 9, 2014 4:39 pm • linkreport

@JDC, thanks; I had forgotten about the January press release for the new fare technology. So the Metro will get improved fare machines, but it will as part of the 2017 to 2019 upgrades.

From the posts here and others that I have read, there is a lot of confusion about the technology and NFC changes coming. Appears that many think the SmarTrip card will go away and that they will have to use a credit/debut card or phone to use the system. If one does not want to be "tracked", the option will still be there to buy a SmarTrip card with cash and reload it with cash.

BTW, the NYC MTA swipe cards are considered obsolete and long overdue for replacement with contactless cards and NFC technology.

by AlanF on Jun 9, 2014 4:39 pm • linkreport

@Local Cycler

"Once they institute credit/debit card payments, I guess people who don't want the card itself will be fine."

Accept all who don't have credit/debitcards, prefer to use cash or from a foreign country and don't want to use their cards here

by kk on Jun 9, 2014 4:42 pm • linkreport

WMATA should also consider dropping the cost of the SmarTrips to $1 to be more tourist and visitor friendly. People will reuse the card even for a $1 fee.

The problem is that people are allowed to go negative on their smart trip cards. If you make the price of a card $1, every megacommuter is going to buy a new $3.10 card for each trip, enter the system, take a really long trip that racks up a $5.90 fare, leave the system with -$3.80 on the card and buy a new one each trip.

by Richard on Jun 9, 2014 5:09 pm • linkreport

@kk
One why not go to a system like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong; it works like a smartrip card so it can be used for transit but can also be used at stores for purchases that way you wont have tourist or simply someone that comes to DC a few times a year with a waste of plastic that they were forced to pay $2 for.
The system in Chicago can do that:
https://www.ventrachicago.com/howitworks/

by MLD on Jun 9, 2014 5:15 pm • linkreport

The fares based on distance traveled, the rush/non-rush shifts in fares, the paper vs. plastic decision. It's all horribly confusing for all but the most regular of riders.

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 9, 2014 5:32 pm • linkreport

I hope WMATA will devote some of the maintenance money they save by eliminating the old mechanical farecard system to better maintenance of the SmarTrip readers. I thought my card wasn't being read because it's so old, but when I used a brand new card it had the same problems. I always take my SmarTrip card out of my wallet because there are other RFID cards in there, and it still fails to register a lot of the time.

Some more positive feedback, like a beep, would also be helpful (albeit obnoxious) -- when going through a fare gate that's still open from the previous rider, it's sometimes difficult to be sure whether your card has been read or not, and the lack of any feedback for the blind must violate ADA.

by jimble on Jun 9, 2014 5:34 pm • linkreport

@jimble - that is a very valid point re: beeps. The new system is wholly replacing the current technology, including the system that manages all of the transactions. The gates, readers, and guts will all be new and the current issue you identified should be reduced or eliminated.

by JDC on Jun 9, 2014 7:05 pm • linkreport

@ MLD

Except that the Ventra card you link to is just a Prepaid Mastercard more or less while the Ocotopus card is not a Prepaid (insert CCA) card though it was eventually link with Union Pay it did not start out that way and not be used everywhere Union Pay is.

by kk on Jun 9, 2014 7:19 pm • linkreport

@ MLD

Not to mention all of the damn fees associated with it being a prepaid card

by kk on Jun 9, 2014 7:22 pm • linkreport

Two whatever happen to the DC One Cards, how about getting Maryland to do something similar that can be used on all buses, trains, lightrail etc in the state.

You mean like they already have?

http://www.mtacharmcard.com/

by Richard on Jun 9, 2014 7:52 pm • linkreport

@ Richard

The One Cards are also an ID which the charmcard is not it has your picture on it correct ?

The Charmcard is just a damn smartrip with a different coat of paint on it.

by kk on Jun 9, 2014 7:58 pm • linkreport

according to an article in the Toronto Star, WMATA will be using the PRESTO system which was developed by Ontario Govt. for use on their systems. (All the rail transit systems use it.)

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/transportation/2014/01/15/washington_metro_subway_buys_presto_system.html

by Richard Layman on Jun 9, 2014 8:14 pm • linkreport

Boston gives away Charlie Cards; riders add value. Easy for tourists - cards and fare machines at the airport - and transparent and user-friendly.

Do NOT require links to Google or any other online payment/tracking system. That's okay as an option but should not be required. Not everyone engaged in a legal activity - riding Metro - consents to be tracked and data-mined.

by Willow on Jun 9, 2014 8:49 pm • linkreport

My Smarttrip card from 2001 still works. A special commemorative edition marking Metro's 25 years.

by kob on Jun 9, 2014 9:49 pm • linkreport

@ Paul - I have been told that they will embed a SmarTrip chip in the paper Transit Link Cards. Apparently other transit systems already do something similar. TLCs will still exist with the new fare system.

by Brian on Jun 9, 2014 11:17 pm • linkreport

@jimble - are you sure you're not bending the card? I see many people take their card out of their wallet, hold it between their thumb and forefinger and then press it to the contact pad, slightly bending it in the process which screws with the little chip inside the card. Instead, you should hold it on the edges.

by 7r3y3r on Jun 10, 2014 12:15 am • linkreport

Do NOT require links to Google or any other online payment/tracking system. That's okay as an option but should not be required. Not everyone engaged in a legal activity - riding Metro - consents to be tracked and data-mined.

I'm not aware of any transit system in the US that requires that you register your card or connect it to anything else. It seems very unlikely that you would have to register your card.

by MLD on Jun 10, 2014 8:18 am • linkreport

@7r3y3r: thanks for the tip, I'll give it a try. Not sure that would explain why my card fails on some fare gates but works on others, though. The readers on buses also seem much less finicky than the ones on the fare gates.

by jimble on Jun 10, 2014 8:57 am • linkreport

@Richard, "leave the system with -$3.80 on the card and buy a new one each trip". The maximum negative balance on SmarTrip that you can leave the station with was reduced to -$1.50 with the price drop to $2 for the card. If they reduce the cost of the card to $1, they could reduce the max negative balance to 75 cents. Although that could complicate bus trips and so on. But I expect WMATA will leave the SmarTrip card cost at $2 because visitors and tourists making 2 trips or less during their visit is a small subset of the ridership.

by AlanF on Jun 10, 2014 9:12 am • linkreport

an advantage of the SmarTrip card is it is a forever card (unless it demagnetizes). You pay $1 for the MetroCard in NYC, but it only lasts for a certain period of time. Many times, I've intended to use the cards when returning to NYC and they've expired.

by Richard Layman on Jun 10, 2014 10:07 am • linkreport

The face design of the cards could be altered frequently, or special designs could be issued around special events (Inaugurations, Fourth of July fireworks, Marine Corps Marathon, etc.). Tourists will feel less "ripped off" if it looks like a souvenir of a visit to Washington.

by Paul on Jun 10, 2014 2:03 pm • linkreport

The face design of the cards could be altered frequently, or special designs could be issued around special events (Inaugurations, Fourth of July fireworks, Marine Corps Marathon, etc.). Tourists will feel less "ripped off" if it looks like a souvenir of a visit to Washington.

They've done that in the past to a limited extent, but they could really stand to be much more proactive about it. I personally have a Van Gogh Smartrip that they did to promote the Van Gogh Repetitions exhibit at the Phillips. I went out of my way to get that card as well. If you make the new machines so that tourists can even choose the design they want, they'll mind the $2 even less. Get all the local museums and whatnot to advertise special exhibits, (as with my Van Gogh card), have a series of different DC Landmarks... There are wide and varied possibilities.

by Zeus on Jun 11, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

Metro should do a lot more than just replace the guts of the fare machines -- they should replace them completely. The interface design is woefully inadequate for all the things they do. I can't tell you how many visitors/tourists I've seen struggle to figure out how to use them, and for good reason.

Most big cities now have modern farecard machines with big, friendly, full-color digital displays. They're easy to read, support a wide variety of languages, accommodate people with disabilities, and can display more than three menu options at once. Metro's current fare machines fail on all those fronts.

This is the perfect opportunity for Metro to start fresh with something easy to use. I really hope they do, instead of trying to cram next-generation technology into those baffling old monoliths.

by JewdishoowarySquare on Jun 26, 2014 11:32 am • linkreport

Okay, now I'm seeing JDC's comment about the "large, intuitive multilingual displays" and feeling a little better. About time!

by JewdishoowarySquare on Jun 26, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

Local Cycler.....The Atlanta MARTA system forces riders to buy a paper card, and it carries (I think) about a one dollar surcharge, which does not count as your fare. You can keep reloading this paper card, but it expires after a certain date. For short-term tourists, you've just contributed to the Atlanta economy and received nothing in return.

by Long Time Orange Liner on Jul 6, 2014 6:27 pm • linkreport

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