Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
This year saw a wave of backlash against cashless retail, but what about when cities like Washington, D.C., want to move toward all-digital payments?
I hardly notice the quick succession of beeps anymore as my fellow commuters board the D.C. Metrobus, paying with a tap of their SmarTrip fare cards. But every now and then, I hear the clanking of coins being dropped into the fare-box, or I look up to see someone inserting a wrinkled bill into the slot, only for the box to spit it out.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says transactions like these slow down their buses, which recently received a D on speed and reliability from the Coalition for Smarter Growth. In 2018, WMATA mulled over whether it should make some of its express buses cashless to improve service. That, unsurprisingly, didn’t sit well with advocates for the poor who argue that eliminating cash payments discriminates against low-income and elderly riders who depend on the bus and are more likely to be unbanked or underbanked.
“A speedier bus should not be a result of leaving some of our residents behind," D.C. councilman David Grosso wrote in a letter to the WMATA in June 2018 after the agency proposed making one bus route cashless as part of a pilot test. In the letter, he noted that those who’d have to go out of their way to find a metro station or a CVS store that sells SmarTrip cards could face longer and costlier commutes.
That same month, Grosso and his fellow D.C. council members introduced a bill to ban cashless food retail in Washington. The backlash against cash bans continued to grow in 2019 with a number of cities introducing or passing legislation requiring businesses to accept cash. Supporters of such legislation say refusing cash is a form of discrimination against poor people and minority groups, who tend to face larger barriers to accessing banks. ACLU calls it a civil liberties issue, as unbanked people who want to patronize a cashless business would have to give up private information to banks to get a card.
But what about when the government makes some of its services cashless, citing security and faster service?
The public library system in D.C. is one agency that’s done just that. It has refused cash payments at its neighborhood branches since 2010, when the system began accepting Mastercard and Visa. (They do take money orders to pay fees for lost items, and cash is accepted at the main branch, although that location has been closed since 2017 for renovations.)
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, who became executive director of the library system in 2014, says that the decision was made to circumvent the district’s onerous policy on handling cash. “In order for us to collect cash from the 26 [library] locations, a library staff member, a library security person, and somebody from the city's chief financial office all have to be present to prevent malfeasance,” he says, calling the process both “comical” and a “colossal waste of time.”
But it’s not lost on him that such a policy seems to run counter to the library’s mission, which is to serve the city’s most underserved population. According to a 2017 FDIC survey, more than a fifth of D.C. residents reported being underbanked while 8 percent said they are unbanked. It found that rates for both categories were significantly higher for blacks compared to whites (the only ethnicities for which the survey broke out data), for non-college degree holders, and for those not in the labor force.
That’s why the library has a permissive fines policy, Reyes-Gavilan says. Users under 20 years old do not incur fines for overdue items, and librarians are generally willing to waive fines as long the book is returned. Services like printing are free, though with limitations. “The last thing we want to do is create barriers,” he says, adding that he’d like to move toward a no late-fee policy in the future. For now, the rules are in place to encourage users to return their books.
The library system’s transition was mostly seamless, largely because the end goal is to eliminate fines. But proposals to make mass transit cashless have been more controversial. WMATA moved away from their initial cashless boarding idea after the months-long pilot test that Grosso had objected to resulted in limited service improvements; the number of riders who had been using cash was not significant enough for a ban to speed up operations. They’re now proposing a 25-cent surcharge on express buses for cash-payers instead.
“It's a tactic to discourage [cash payments], and it's a regretful policy,” says Stephanie Lotshaw of the Transit Center, a foundation that works to improve public transit in U.S. cities. “If you're deciding to make the switch to cashless, you should create a system that accommodates people with a variety of needs, not penalize them.”
WMATA is not alone in their cashless pursuit. One of the latest agencies to consider shifting away from cash is the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston. According to the Houston Chronicle, they’re looking at a $100 million overhaul of their payment system making it possible for transit cards, smartphones, and other forms of contact-less payments to be used instead of cash payments. In New York City, meanwhile, express buses shuttling commuters from the outer boroughs into Manhattan started accepting fare-card payments only this spring, and soon, the Long Island Rail Road will no longer take cash for onboard ticket purchases.
In these cases—in which riders can still technically reload their cards using cash at transit stations or sometimes at retail stores—it’s a question of convenience and ease of access to government services, says ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. Mass transit, after all, is a battleground for equity, and how passengers pay is very much part of it.
Lotshaw, who co-authored a report on how transit agencies can create inclusive fare policies, sees the appeal of upgrading the nation’s many outdated fare systems. Not only would it make it more convenient for riders, but it would also allow operators to focus staying on schedule, instead of tracking payments. At the same time, she says the decisions need to balance revenue generation with the agency’s various other objectives. “You really have to think about who you are trying to serve, and what your riders need from the service,” she says.
Lotshaw points to NYC’s recent rollout of the OMNY system, which allows subway riders to pay with contact-less cards or their mobile phones. One thing she applauds the transit agency on was their effort to double the number of retailers that sell MetroCards from 2,000 to 4,000. “As [agencies] think about the convenience of going cashless, they also have to think about the investment it takes to deliver that kind of system and be inclusive of all of the communities that use it.”
That said, Lotshaw adds that the solution to better service isn’t always in the technology. Things like adding bus lanes, implementing all-door boarding, lowering—or even eliminating—fares for the poor, can result in dramatic improvements, and therefore, ridership. The perks of these strategies is that they don’t risk singling out low-income riders.