Greater Greater Washington

Imagine how transit fare payment could work in the future

One day, your SmarTrip card will be a memory. Instead, credit cards, mobile phones, or employer ID cards will double as fare payment devices, if WMATA moves ahead with an "Open Payments" system.


Photo by theqlabs on Flickr.

Several people have come to WMATA Riders' Advisory Council meetings recently asking to find out more about this process and this technology. Tonight, the RAC is hosting a member of the team working on this project to answer rider questions.

What if you bought a ticket to a Nats game, or a show at Arena Stage, and it came with a free round-trip ride on Metro to or from the nearby station? Since your credit card can double as fare payment, you wouldn't even need a special ticketcould the credit card you used to pay for the ticket also automatically get a special free round-trip loaded onto it?

If you get asked to appear on WAMU, they offer you a free parking pass, which you can print out and bring to the station. Why not also offer a free Metro ride to Tenleytown as another option? Imagine if an organization could send you an email, which you could open up on your mobile phone and which contains a special code your phone would recognize and use to add value to your stored fare?

Michael Perkins has been promoting adding more flexible passes like those used in the Seattle area. WMATA has said they need to wait for upgrades to the fare payment system to be able to consider this. Will the new system allow the Board to consider a wide range of options like Michael's?

In December, WMATA issued an RFP for the next generation of the payment system, and hopes to award a contract this summer.

WMATA got into trouble with the existing Cubic system because any change requires lengthy RFPs, bids, and custom programming that cost lots of money and took years. That limited their options for fare changes that could help riders.

With this new system, it's important to build in the flexibility they would need. The new contract should anticipate many of the possible innovations, and make sure that the vendor can provide those should the Board choose to pursue them. It should also make it relatively inexpensive and relatively quick to make other modifications we don't anticipate today.

Now is a good time for riders to give suggestions of what they'd like to see in the new system, or what issues might arise with features, usability, and more that staff should keep in mind as they pick technology vendors.

If you want to learn about the details of this process and give rider feedback on the decisions being made, come to the RAC's meeting tonight. You don't have to be a RAC member to ask questions or give comments. The meeting will start around 7:00 pm in one of the rooms at the lobby level of WMATA headquarters, 600 5th Street, NW.

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

Add a comment »

"Will the new system allow the Board to consider a wide range of options like Michael's?"

You should put this line in bold. The quote by the WMATA spokesman in the Examiner has me wondering. What are the criteria?

by Kevin Beekman on Mar 28, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

And what if I want to use.... cash?

Will I not be able to ride metro?

by DCArea2 on Mar 28, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

I still don't get how the credit card thing would work. Not all credit/debit cards have the PayPass/PayWave/ExpressPay/whatever feature, so I'm guessing that wouldn't work. Would you just swipe it like normal? Seems like that would cause a lot of delays at the faregates (how often do you see people swiping a credit card the wrong way?).

If you ask me, SmarTrip is pretty good. The software needs upgrading, but I like having the card. All those features you suggested could work just as well with SmarTrip. Get a free ride to an event with your ticket? You could input the code online and have it automatically credited to your SmarTrip.

Now, employee IDs with SmarTrip capability would be nice. Actually, the president of the student government association here at UMD said that he would get SmarTrip functionality integrated into student IDs. Sadly, that's never happened, and I don't know if it's his fault or WMATA's fault.

by Martin on Mar 28, 2011 11:00 am • linkreport

OK, here is a dumb question.

SmartTrip means I have, on average $20-$40 on my card at all times. (That's a lie, I keep a lot less, but this is about average for my friends. Goveterment workers seem to have more)

That money is a float. WMATA owns it and earns interest on it.

Use a credit card or debit card, and you're automatically incurring fees. Now, when I reload my card -- and use a card -- I'll use those fees too.

But isn't a credit card based system more likely to keep lower amounts on the card -- since they know it will be auto-refilled -- meaning less float for WMATA?

by charlie on Mar 28, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

How about developing a common system with most major transit authorities, so I can use my next-gen fare payment card in other cities when I visit?

by Steve S. on Mar 28, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

What about riders who don't have credit cars such as teenagers or low-income residents? Seems a bit unfair on them.

by Phil on Mar 28, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

Imagine how transit fare payment could work in the future

[I resisted this comment:] I'd rather not. I have zero trust that WMATA is capable of coming up with something intelligent.

Good thing though to push it, David.

by Jasper on Mar 28, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

Personally I do not understand why transit agencies are so gung-ho about incorporating contactless credit/debit cards into their fare systems. I don't think incorporating them will increase ridership much (i.e. when you can buy a SmarTrip online or by mail the barrier to entry is very small, as we have seen with SmarTrip adoption among bus riders after paper transfers were eliminated.) What exactly is this population that is going to start riding transit now that they can use their MasterCard to pay the fare? I doubt they exist.

So #1, I don't think you're going to see much increase in ridership (and therefore revenue) due to credit card use.

#2, aren't agencies opening themselves up to a HUGE liability in the form of credit card fees with this plan? Charging small transactions costs more since credit card fees include a flat charge as well as a percentage charge. This is why you see lots of smaller stores with a minimum amount for credit card charges ($7-$10). So how would the open payments system work? Would they take your info and then just bill you monthly for a larger amount? Or is every $2 charge going to show up on your credit card bill individually and mean a transaction charge for the agency?

Personally I don't find having to use a SmarTrip card inconvenient, it just stays in my wallet. I'd rather have the ability to have it automatically reload using my credit card.

by MLD on Mar 28, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

@MLD; I agree. You could be intelligent and say, ok, you can only reload in $50 or $100 increments. However, I could see some people whining about that....

Right now I have that issue with ezpass. I have about $15 on it, which is something like $2 under the "auto-replishment" feature. My credit card on record was lost about two years ago and I've never bothered to update it. So I continue to get letters, about once a day now, from Ezpsss saying "please update your card". Each letter is 35 cents in postage. I've got about 100 now, and am amusing myself plenty with the knowledge how much this is costing them in postage. And they even have my email....

by charlie on Mar 28, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

I'd just be happy with a payment card that didn't break every six months.

by Cactus Jack on Mar 28, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

At first, using your cell phone to pay your metro fare sounds like a cool idea. But as I think about, I wonder if this means that your cell phone will inexplicably stop working and have to be replaced every six months or so, like a Smart Trip card? :-)

by Mike on Mar 28, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

But isn't a credit card based system more likely to keep lower amounts on the card -- since they know it will be auto-refilled -- meaning less float for WMATA?

Presumably, the auto-refill function will have some sort of minimum attached to it, like the way that EZ-pass works, or WMATA can make a special arrangement with the credit card processors to reduce the fees incurred on small payments.

I'd rather not. I have zero trust that WMATA is capable of coming up with something intelligent.

SmarTrip was one of the first contactless payment mechanisms implemented, and has been quite successful since then. If anything, fare collection is one of WMATA's biggest strengths, and our system is used as a model by other cities. In fact, almost every regional transit operator in the DC area (including Baltimore) contracts its fare collection services out to WMATA. Maryland's CharmCard is simply a rebranded SmarTrip.

Unfortunately, we fell prey to one of the early-adopter pitfalls (ie. non-standard RF cards), but as a whole, the system functions remarkably well, and WMATA have gradually been taking the necessary steps to support the new ISO-compliant RFID cards without any disruption to the existing system. This is a strong mark of innovation and competency.

Complain all you want about Metro. Our fare collection systems are top-notch.

by andrew on Mar 28, 2011 1:17 pm • linkreport

@MLD: Just a few reasons why transit agencies might like contactless credit card payments:
1. It gets the agency out of the fare collection business entirely.
2. It encourages casual ridership -- important in a system with so many tourists.
3. It wouldn't require hardware updates. Existing turnstiles, SmarTrip cards, and contactless credit cards are all ISO 14443 compliant.
4. The transit system can negotiate a pretty good deal on interchange fees, due to sheer volume and since card issuers are very keen on having their card be "first in wallet." Interchange fees are potentially a lot cheaper than counting out and moving mountains of coins.
5. As mentioned above, it opens up new avenues of flexibility. Hong Kong's MTR, a private company, actually moved in the opposite direction of #1 above and set up a profitable payments division, which undercuts credit/debit interchange fees; many convenience stores and the like accept Octopus for quick, small payments. (Transit benefits would make that difficult here.)

by Payton on Mar 28, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

@Mike, Cactus Jack: once I stopped putting my SmarTrip card in my wallet and then sitting on it all day, SmarTrip card life went from 9 months on average to going on two years.

@DCArea2: You've never been able to ride Metrorail with cash. You've always been required to purchase a farecard at a vending machine. The proposals I've seen still have vending machines that will vend a disposable version of a transit farecard. On bus, I assume we're still going to have cash fareboxes that can read contactless media, because the alternative is to place vending machines at 10,000 bus stops.

@Martin: this would only be for the credit cards that have contactless transaction capability. Smartrip is proprietary and is at the end of design life. We have to pick something to be its replacement. The integrated ID/Smartrip will work better when the "Smartrip" card is actually a standards-compliant card rather than a proprietary card.

@Steve S: The proposal materials I've read involve standards compliant cards being used as identification only, with all the logic, processing and storage happening on the server side (account based rather than card based). I assume that would mean that you can register any compliant card against your Smartrip account and use it. So if you had a ORCA card or a Oyster card, as long as those are compliant, you can register them with your online account and use them. At least, that's the goal as I understand it.

@Phil: What I've read is that WMATA would still provide new Smartrip cards for a fee, they would just be new technology cards as opposed to proprietary cards.

@charlie: Customers that don't respond to multiple mailings should have their accounts closed. EZ Pass should tell you the next letter is the last and the money in the account is forfeit if you don't update your account settings. That is assuming that an active credit card is a requirement for an EZ pass account, which I think is true?

by Michael Perkins on Mar 28, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

I've never had a problem with a SmarTrip card breaking, and it never leaves my wallet.

by Alex B. on Mar 28, 2011 1:45 pm • linkreport

I fully embrace the recommendation that WMATA needs to be looking at building a "fare enablement platform" that can be built upon and extended by outsider developers and companies.

In the '90s, only software firms like Microsoft, Apple and Oracle had Developer Programs.
In the '00s, you added services companies like Sprint, eBay and PayPal to the mix
In the '10s, bricks-and-mortar entities like BestBuy are getting into building Developer Programs.

Utilities such as electrical companies and mass transit systems should not be far behind. Companies that expand the reach of their services by engaging third parties tend to provide greater utility to their customers.

by Juan Felipe on Mar 28, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

@Payton
#2 is really the only positive that you've pointed out here that is correct, and I don't think it would encourage that much extra ridership. On the other points:
1. It doesn't get the agency out of the fare collection business - you will always have to deal with cash as there is a segment of the population that relies on transit who will not have bank accounts, will not have credit cards, etc.
3. The existing tech is already compliant (except for the cards which are NOT) but so what? This isn't a positive reason TO do it, it's only saying we COULD do it.
4. I have little faith in the agency's ability to negotiate better fees or the banks'/card companies' willingness to offer them. That said, I did some more reading and it does look like agencies that went this route bundle charges on a weekly basis to lower their interchange fees. But the reality stands that compared to the status quo (where people load money onto their smart cards in big chunks) you will probably see a shift towards smaller transactions overall, which means higher costs for the agency.

@broken smartrip complaints:
My SmarTrip card has sat in my wallet every day for over 4 years, and my wallet sits in my back pocket all day every day. I have never had to replace it.

And even more bizarre is that one of the SmarTrip cards that I use for guests (hardly ever gets used and sits on a shelf most of the time) only works intermittently.

by MLD on Mar 28, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

If this is all happening on the server side, there is going to be a longer delay for each transaction, no? I think that is why the Oyster card system said no to NFC devices.

And Michael, ezpass has policies, of that I am sure. Implementing them so they make sense -- and don't destroy customers -- is not so easy.

by charlie on Mar 28, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

I think this sounds great. The fewer cards and keys I have to carry, the better.

I wish they'd work with Giant so I could apply my "bonus points" to Metro fares they way I can to gas from Shell.

And, whatever they do, though, they should coordinate it with buses, parking, etc., in DC, MD, and VA, as well as MARC and VRE. It's stupid to have multiple, non-integrated systems.

by kal on Mar 28, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

Just glue and EZ-Pass to my forehead; it solves all my regional transportation problems.

Then the Feds can end their gas tax v. gas efficiency issue and just tax me by how many linear feet I travel daily.

by eb on Mar 28, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

How about other form factors for the smartrip as a start then everything else can come afterwards.

1 Key Fob/ wristband/ watch

2 Everybody use the same system Marc, VRE and all other transit in 70 miles.

3 Smartcard system similar to Japan, Hong Kong or South Korea

4 Ability to refund funds from a registered smartrip; it is done it other places so there is no reason why it can not be done here.

5 Vanity smartrip cards (easy way to make money) WMATA should release 5 designs for the smartrip card one should be the typical $5 price and the rest should be $5-10 more.

by kk on Mar 28, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

How about installing more SmartTrip dispensers at common stations like L'enfant Plaza, Rosslyn, Metro Center, Dupont and Chinatown

by Geori on Mar 28, 2011 4:45 pm • linkreport

On bus, I assume we're still going to have cash fareboxes that can read contactless media, because the alternative is to place vending machines at 10,000 bus stops.

It *would* be nice to place vending machines at the 10-20 busiest stops in the system, and make those stops cash-free. This would significantly reduce delays at busy transfer points.

Existing turnstiles, SmarTrip cards, and contactless credit cards are all ISO 14443 compliant.

Is this correct? My understanding was that the existing SmarTrip cards were NOT ISO 14443-compliant (hence the supply problem). My understanding was also that Metro were in the process of refitting faregates and vending machines with "Tri-Readers" that support both existing SmarTrip cards, and ISO 14443 devices (and had not publicly commented on the progress of the installation). Similarly, they were working on a substantial software update to properly support the new devices.

I've never had a problem with a SmarTrip card breaking, and it never leaves my wallet.

Going on 3 years with mine. Last week, I got a nifty "one-day-use" paper RFID access-card that looked very inexpensive, and could possibly be used as an alternative to existing MetroRail farecards. The awesome thing about ISO 14443 is that the market for products is huge, which drives down costs.

If this is all happening on the server side, there is going to be a longer delay for each transaction, no? I think that is why the Oyster card system said no to NFC devices.

Implemented properly, no. It might even be faster, since no data needs to be written back to the card. Presumably, if each station has a gigabit fibre link back to the mothership, latency issues should be virtually nonexistent. Alternatively, Metro could take a decentralized approach, and replicate the contents of the datacenter to a secondary node within each station. Account numbers + balances do not constitute a huge amount of data.

Buses will obviously be more difficult.

by andrew on Mar 28, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

I'm fairly certain I've had the same SmarTrip card since around 2004. Hardy little bastard. Only downside is that I registered it with a cell phone number I no longer have, so I haven't been able to access it online. I'm too lazy to call SmarTrip customer service.

by Martin on Mar 28, 2011 8:18 pm • linkreport

How can I provide comments to the RAC if I cannot make it to the meeting? Thanks for laying out the issue and reminding us of the meeting.

by Kelley Coyner on Mar 29, 2011 9:12 am • linkreport

Believe it or not, not everyone has, or wants to use a credit card. Why should someone pay interest to pay the fare? Also, not all riders have employee ID. The list goes on. Or, as one or more have asked: Cash? Why does Metro always have to tinker with things that are working, but make no changes to things that aren't?

by jckdoors on Mar 29, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

@jckdoors

When people say 'credit card,' I read that as merely a plastic form of payment. It could be a debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo, but a credit card doesn't necessarily require an attached line of credit.

by Alex B. on Mar 29, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

@andrew: Drat, I misread that press release on the Tri-Readers. You're right, the existing cards are not ISO compliant and the turnstiles are in progress.

by Payton on Mar 31, 2011 12:48 am • linkreport

The article said: "WMATA got into trouble with the existing Cubic system because any change requires lengthy RFPs, bids, and custom programming that cost lots of money and took years. That limited their options for fare changes that could help riders."

QUESTION 1: CONTRACTS -- Now do you really believe that negotiations with BANKs/Consortium Teams will be easier than today? The banking industry does not understand transit - particularly the bus rider population, demographics, etc.

QUESTION 2: HOW LONG WILL THE BANKING PEOPLE WAIT?
As soon as a "sexier" funding appears from the FEDS, they will dump transit.

Other Non-Transit Experience (Large) Firms did that with one shot investments and left many orphans: Boeing (Rail Cars in Boston, SFO), Grumman (NYCT Buses), Rockwell (Mobile Data Terminals) and on and on.

CharlieInPhilly

by CharlieInPhilly on Apr 22, 2011 8:54 am • linkreport

Do you seriously expect the entire system to remain antiquated, more expensive, and inconvenient because you don't want to use modern technology? The cost of additional equipment to handle cash and its ongoing maintenance is huge.

And what if I want to use.... cash?
Will I not be able to ride metro?

by KevinD on Jul 27, 2011 10:30 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or