A man to catch a Houston Metro rail train, October 3, 2008. Reuters / Richard Carson

The notoriously car-centric metropolis embraces smartphones to make bus and light rail more user-friendly.

When Houston makes waves in transit circles, it’s usually for something like expanding its Katy Freeway to 26 lanes. But the city’s new mayor, Sylvester Turner, has been using his first months in office to change that impression.

A few weeks ago he made a splash by declaring that widening the city’s roads only makes congestion worse. And on Monday morning, the city took another step toward rethinking its commute, unveiling a mobile fare card system that lets riders board Houston METRO buses and light rail with tickets purchased right from their phones.

The idea is that, to encourage more transit ridership, the city should do everything it can to reduce the barriers to entry. One of those barriers is the logistics of acquiring the ticket. For someone visiting from out of town, there’s a learning curve for understanding how to navigate the purchasing system. For regular commuters, the hassle of scrambling for change or waiting in line to refill a card could mean the difference between catching a bus and being on time to work or not.

Similar mobile ticketing apps are already in use in Austin and Dallas, and San Antonio has put out a request for proposals to build one of its own. Many other American cities have gotten on board with this technology—GlobeSherpa, the company that built Houston’s app, operates in nine others—but Houston is one of the largest, most rapidly growing, and most automobile-dependent.

The METRO Q Mobile Ticketing app allows users to search transit routes through the city, much like Google Maps or any number of other programs. The difference is that once the customer selects a route, they can purchase it instantly within the app. The program will then produce a digital ticket that the user shows to the bus driver or train attendant in order to board. That approach comes with the benefit that Houston didn’t have to invest in expensive new card-reading infrastructure, says GlobeSherpa CEO Nat Parker—METRO just had to train their staff in reading the security features in the animated tickets.

The app lets the METRO offer special event tickets, like for the upcoming rodeo. It will also help out Houston’s large community of park-and-ride commuters, says Joseph Kopser, CEO and co-founder of transit tech company RideScout, which owns GlobeSherpa. Now people driving in from outside the city can book on their phone and just hop from their cars directly onto the bus or light rail.

“Here is a car-centric city with a reputation for people loving their cars, but in reality they’re recognizing the sprawl of Houston has caught up with them and they’ve got to have a better way to get around,” Kopser says. “Making it easier to use all the different modes, like mobile ticketing, is a big way forward in all that.”

The launch of mobile ticketing builds on Houston’s dramatic reimagining of its bus system last year to provide greater coverage to the people who use transit, for no additional cost. That move proved that a transit agency doesn’t have to raise fares to provide better service. The mobile fare card program shows that you can provide better service simply by making tickets easier to buy.

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