Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
It’s working in other parts of the world, so what’s the holdup in the U.S.?
By and large, the way Americans book and pay for city transportation has worked the same way for decades.
The process of buying a physical ticket to access public transit comes to us from a distinctly pre-digital era, yet it remains ubiquitous across the country. In an era of globalizing forces, city transportation systems have maintained their local color and variety. That creates complications when passengers want to switch from, say, a taxi to a bus to a light rail train and need different forms of payment for each. Or when somebody travels to a different city and needs to buy a whole new roster of ticketing options to do the exact same thing.
At the same time, many of the world’s great cities have charged ahead with modern updates to the way people travel. Japan’s Pasmo pass lets users hop on trains, the metro, buses, and taxis, and even go shopping with a single rechargeable card. Hong Kong’s eerily ubiquitous Octopus card covers all sorts of public transit options—trams, buses, ferries, trains—not to mention parking meters, shops, swimming pools, and “Chinese-style wet markets.” The Dutch OV-chipkaart covers all public transit nationwide. These technologies harness the power of RFID technology to speed up payments.
There are also opportunities to use those tiny computers so many people now carry around as phones. American researchers, nonprofits, and high-tech startups are currently pushing for digitally integrated transit systems for a more streamlined passenger experience, with promises of cost savings for both riders and operators, and other quality of life improvements. These early adopters have yanked the vision of universal fare cards and seamless urban transit out of the pages of science fiction and pulled it into our world.
For city travelers to efficiently navigate the many transit options available to them, they need timely and accurate intel. Joseph Kopser founded a company on the idea that more informed passengers will spur a more effective transit system.
Kopser’s Austin-based start-up, RideScout, gives users access to the full range of options available to them for getting from point A to point B. Maybe the subway looks optimal, but you’d get there faster taking a bus you’ve never heard of and switching to another one at an intersection you don’t recognize. The app shows all the options and lets the user decide.
Systems such as this have grown in recent years. Google Maps and HopStop plot out your route through multiple modes of public transit. RideScout includes a fuller range of car-share, bike-share, taxi, and parking options, but Kopser is aiming for something bigger: a full accounting of travel’s costs.
It’s hard for people to plan the way they move through a city because there are many possible values to prioritize and lots of shadow costs, he says. If you go by the cost of gas versus a bus ticket, your drive might look cheaper. But what if you factor in the value of your time spent driving when you could be doing other productive things? A smart app can step in to keep track of those different values and help you calculate.
“Some days cost is going to be more important, some days time is going to be more important, some days reliability is going to be more important,” Kopser says. “If we’re keeping track of all those expenses for you, then you’ve got a scenario where you’re able to see the real costs and then you can make more informed decisions.”
One payment to rule them all
The real savings will come from integrating this type of real-time transit data with a unified payment mechanism for all the various transit systems. This will save time and stress for riders (no fumbling for change to refill a fare card before the train or bus pulls out of the station), eliminate redundant payments for each mode of transportation, and generate a lot of useful data for transit agencies.
An early attempt at universal fare cards happened in Chicago back in 2009. Sharon Feigon ran a nonprofit car-share program there called I-Go, and she wanted her members to access the vehicles with the same fare card they used for Chicago public transit. The challenges she faced indicate just how hard this shift is to make.
“I always wanted to have this integrated fare card because it just made so much sense: you combine all the modes together,” says Feigon, who now directs the Shared-Use Mobility Center, a group pushing for accessible transit alternatives to car ownership.
Feigon got the Chicago Transit Authority onboard with the idea, but it turned out I-Go cards used a different frequency than the Chicago cards, so the two systems had no way to communicate with each other. Each system was designed by a different software provider in Germany using proprietary technology, and those companies were going to charge an overwhelming price to merge them. I-Go settled on a much simpler hack: CTA riders who signed up for the car-share would get an RFID sticker slapped on the side of their Chicago Card, and the sticker would communicate with the car-share readers.
The passengers saw benefits in ease of access to different modes of transit. It made it easier to pop off a subway and hop in a car-share without having to plan everything out ahead of time. But the obstacles Feigon ran into make it unlikely that future efforts will go the route of physically merging discrete fare systems.
We may not have to. Smartphones can act as secure ticketing devices, as shown by Portland, Oregon-based GlobeSherpa, which operates just such a service in 11 American cities. The app lets you book and pay for your whole trip across different types of transit in one place. They launched the TriMet Tickets app in Portland nearly two years ago, and it now has 170,00 registered users and processes more than $1.5 million in ticket sales per month.
“We’re really removing the archaic processes and tools used in the previous century to administer complex business, and we’re bringing it to mobile,” CEO Nat Parker says.
Unified mobile ticketing means riders no longer need to worry about having the right change for the bus, or having time to buy a train ticket at the station after hitting a major traffic jam. And there’s seamless transitioning between modes of transit. But the digitization creates a lot of savings for the transit agencies themselves.
The purveyors of public transit won’t need to spend as much money purchasing and installing collection machines, or hiring armored cars to collect the coin and cash deposited therein. Parker says the mobile approach even makes things easier for the ticket inspectors who make the rounds on trains. The current standard protocol for issuing citations to passengers who didn’t buy the proper ticket involves filling out a triplicate paper form by hand on a clipboard, and tearing off a slip for the rider. Now the officer can scan the mobile ticket and, if need be, quickly fill out the citation form digitally and print it on a portable Bluetooth-tethered printer.
Then there’s the data. When transit operators have a massive live stream of data on how many people are buying tickets, where they are, where they’re headed, it allows for much more responsive management. They can tweak bus routes based on how the customers actually buy bus tickets and ride. Granted, this approach can’t truly transform American cities until everyone has access to the critical technology.
“The challenge is while so many people do have smartphones, not everyone has smartphones,” Feigon says. “You’re going to get different communities that are not going to have the same thing.”
Working out the kinks
RideScout acquired GlobeSherpa this summer and is working on merging their products. That will bring the mobile ticketing to more cities; RideScout operates in 69 cities currently. But the proof-of-concept does not mean the rollout will be fast or easy. Variations in ticketing technologies across transit modes and across cities makes for a lot of work, and it takes time to get governments to come around to these things.
That’s perhaps why unified payment for city travel hasn’t already had the Internet-age makeover that longer-form travel has enjoyed with the likes of Kayak and Orbitz. For a flight across the country or overseas, customers now expect a one-stop shop for comparing prices, with the ability to book not just the flight but a rental car and hotel room, too.
“The fares are relatively low [for urban transit], so the cost of figuring out all this integration seems high compared to the cost per trip,” Feigon says. “But when you put it all together there are a lot of efficiencies.”
Then there is the question of political will. System-wide overhauls of ticketing infrastructure cost a lot of money. GlobeSherpa managed to circumvent that by easing in around the existing system, and offering the operators useful new tools for letting them set up shop. That lets the city try something new with very low overhead, and if it works they can scale it up later.
That localized approach to transportation refurbishment may be the best bet, given the current Congress’s record of absenteeism when it comes to infrastructure investment. But if there are ears willing to listen, Feigon has some economic arguments for universal fare cards: “To the extent that Congress is interested in efficiency and economic development, making our transportation system work really well is a good idea.”