Finally: A Transit Ticket on Your Smart Phone

Boston's commuter rail embraces the next big convenience in mass transit.

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For several years now, the cutting edge of public transit ticketing has looked something like the Oyster card in London, or the Octopus card in Hong Kong. Forget low-tech paper tickets or – even worse – those little tokens that underscored the awkward role of transit agencies in literally minting their own currency. One plastic smart card could instead simplify ticketing across platforms, giving commuters access with a quick swipe to the subway, the bus, the ferry, commuter rail, park-and-ride garages and even coffee shops in transit stations.

"This was the vision a lot of agencies had," says Joshua K. Robin, the director of innovation and special projects with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston. "You saw Octopus and Oyster, and it made sense when they implemented those things."

But with the insanely rapid (and unanticipated) expansion of smart phones, such reusable cards are already starting to look outdated. Now it may make more sense to bypass smart-card infrastructure all together – including vending machines that can run $50,000 a pop – for the next next big idea: mobile ticketing that relies instead on equipment riders already own.

In November, the MBTA became the first municipal transit agency to introduce ticketing via smart phone. Earlier this week, the agency passed the million-dollar milestone selling single, 10-trip and one-month passes for its commuter rail system through the new app, offering a proof of concept for an idea that could expand soon to buses and metro service and other cities.

Boston has its own Oyster-like card, the Charlie card. But it proved particularly difficult to implement on commuter rail. Eastern Massachusetts has 200 miles of commuter rail, with 135 stations, most of them on open-air platforms that have neither ticketing kiosks nor entry and exit turnstiles. Riders instead hand over or pay for paper tickets with conductors on-board, or flash their monthly passes. For smart cards to work on commuter rail, conductors would have to walk through train cars carrying a portable, laptop-sized card reader.

"Any smart card system would have involved what I call an assortment of Star Wars toys and a lot of tapping," Robin says. The MBTA even toyed with the idea of some kind of sensing wand that conductors would wave at passengers, reaching across the three-seat rail cars. "It would have been horrible," Robin says.

Then there’s also the fixed infrastructure of smart card vending machines that would be required to make all of this possible. Just to expand that system to commuter rail throughout the Boston area would have cost around $50 to $70 million, between the hardware and network communications. And tack on maybe another $5 million for annual maintenance and repair of the machines. "The last thing we needed in the world," Robin reasons, "was more people with their butt cracks hanging out across Eastern Massachusetts fixing these machines."

Washington, D.C., learned this lesson the awkward way. In trying to eliminate paper tickets, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority began installing $12,000 SmartTrip vending machines in every metro station in the system last year, only to belatedly discover that the machines weren’t accessible to the visually impaired.

Mobile ticketing, on the other hand, entails the promise that your ticket office could be anywhere – or, rather, in your back pocket. When the MBTA surveyed commuter rail passengers last June about the prospect, about half said they’d be game to try it. And 76 percent of riders said they already owned a smart phone (up from 66 percent just the year before). The idea is similar to one many people are already familiar with on Amtrak or at the airport, scanning mobile tickets at the security gate. But most air passengers first buy their tickets on a computer before receiving them through email on a smart phone. With public transit, the phone could be the vending machine and the ticket.

MBTA’s app sells the tickets for future use. And then when riders are ready to activate and use the tickets, the app displays visually encrypted patterns on-screen for a conductor. Each ticket (or monthly pass) also comes with a barcode that conductors may spot-check with an iPhone scanner in the future. Already, about 12 percent of 10-ride tickets are being sold this way, with 6-10 percent of single rides and 7 percent of monthly passes. This chart shows the steady expansion of the program since it was introduced in November, through this week:

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

The MBTA signed a deal with the U.K. company Masabi last April to deploy the system (Masabi gets 2.8 percent of each transaction).

"If you think about transit projects you’ve heard of, usually it takes about six months just to formally say you’re going to actually do a project you’ve all agreed to do," Robin says. Mobile ticketing was entirely rolled out in that time. "Frankly, we spent more time talking about doing something with smart cards than we spent actually doing mobile ticketing."

In all, mobile ticketing could wind up saving transit agencies the sizable cost of simply selling and collecting fares (for all that money saved, the MBTA doesn’t anticipate needing to pass that 2.8 percent charge onto riders). The idea could also dramatically shrink the line at fare machines during rush hour, and make it possible for agencies to flexibly test new tweaks to the fare system. All of this will look slightly different on buses and subways, where you’ll likely swipe your smart phone in the future on a turnstile. But the concept and convenience would be the same.

As a final bonus, mobile ticketing will also create a vast wealth of ridership data that was never possible on transit systems with paper tickets or tokens. “Very few people know as little about their business,” Robin says, “as a commuter rail system does with a paper ticket.”

For now, the MBTA isn’t removing any fare options as it adds mobile ticketing. Plenty of commuters still don’t own smart phones, just as the rare rider still insists on paying with nickels and dimes. But mobile ticketing is an idea clearly built for rapid adoption. How long would you keep buying paper tickets when you see everyone around you on a commuter train flashing their smart phone screens?

Top image: SeanPavonePhoto/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.