Transit riders in Washington and New York are inching closer to a world that doesn’t require a paper or plastic farecard to hop on a train or ride a bus.
In Washington, Metro announced Wednesday that it will begin a pilot program later this year testing a new electronic fare payment system at rail stations, on buses and at its parking garages. The transit agency said it had awarded a $184 million contract to Accenture, a management consulting and technology company, to replace the current fare system.
“The new technology will provide more flexibility for accounts, better reliability for riders, and real choices for customers to use bank-issued payment cards, credit cards, ID cards, or mobile phones to pay their Metro fares,” Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles said in a news release announcing the contract.
Riders will be able to continue using SmarTrip cards, but the goal is to also add other payment options including some credit cards, federal government identification cards and mobile phones. The new system will not accept paper farecards.
Metro spokeswoman Caroline Laurin said the new system is expected in place three to five years down the road, which means it should be fully implemented by 2019.
This follows news out of New York, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s MetroCard celebrated its 20th birthday this week. (It took a little work to get the hang of using a card after so many years with a token, the MTA notes: “Not too slow, not too fast and don’t lift too early.”)
To celebrate, an MTA board member reiterated what the agency has said before: the card has to go, with a new system replacing it by 2019.
“I was hoping we wouldn’t have it this long,” Andrew Albert, an MTA board member, told Newsday. “I think New Yorkers will be very happy when we can put the MetroCard to bed.”
A spokesman for the MTA told Skift that these cards will be replaced by a system that accepts credit cards or a tap from a smartphone.
There are clear reasons to accept fares without farecards, writes Will Oremus at Slate:
The benefits of ditching magnetic-stripe subway cards are clear enough: The move would save the MTA money by allowing it to ditch all those card-vending machines. It would get people onto buses and trains faster, because they wouldn’t have to waste time dipping their cards into a machine or repeatedly swiping them at a turnstile. Few New Yorkers would miss the experience of standing behind a beleaguered flock of tourists as they struggle to master the precise swiping motion necessary to get a finicky card reader to let them through.
Oremus also notes that there is one big potential drawback (for New York, though it also applies to Washington): lots of people waving their credit cards or phones around, which could provide easy targets for thieves. Thefts of smartphones and other electronic devices spiked on Metro last summer, prompting officials to urge riders to use extra caution when using such devices on the system.
For Metro, the pilot program will test the new fare system in 10 rail stations, on 50 Metrobuses and at two parking lots. In addition, 2,000 riders would test it to gauge how well the new setup performs. When the new system is fully in place, riders will see 1,000 faregates, 450 fare vending machines, 1,500 new targets for bus riders to tap, 160 new payment spots at parking garages and about 600 smartphones letting MetroAccess operators approve those trips.
This system will not take paper cards, continuing Metro’s shift away from this kind of fare payment. The rail system added SmarTrip vending machines to every station in 2012 as part of its move away from paper cards, which Metro has said take longer for riders passing through faregates and require more maintenance.
In an interview that year, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that the next big milestone for fare payment was moving to a next-generation system that let travelers pay with credit cards containing special chips or some other mechanism that keeps riders from having to keep transferring money onto Metro cards.
Changes in fare payment have also cropped up in other U.S. cities. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which operates in and around Philadelphia, is working on a fare collection system using cards as well as phones that it says will be completed next year.
The Chicago Transit Authority last fall began using its next-generation fare system, phasing out paper and plastic fare cards and replacing them with a Ventra card that must be tapped, rather than swiped, on a machine. This new method experienced several glitches, including problems that resulted in nearly 1 million free rides and some riders being admitted with cards not linked to the system.
But in Chicago, Philadelphia and other places (including, eventually, Washington and New York), the future may lie in the device we always have on us and increasingly use to pay for things or board flights: our phones. The CTA and its contractor have been testing a payment method that would let riders tap their smartphones or other mobile devices.