Metro trains arrive at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station in Washington D.C.
Metro trains arrive at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station in Washington D.C. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Washington D.C. transit officials announced plans to update the payment system for rail and bus with a great new app. But if they don’t go further, this writer says, the speed of transit innovation will soon leave them scrambling.

Last month, Metro, the local public transportation network in the Washington D.C. area, announced that passengers will be able to use an app on their smartphones to ride bus or rail by 2019. Metro spokespeople presented their planned mobile app as a game changer that would bring innovation to Washington’s transit system, much like the Hop pass has to Portland and Ventra has to Chicago.

But is it enough?

Metro is the third-busiest transport network in the United States after New York and Chicago. On an average day over a million people in the Washington D.C. region ride the bus or rail. More than 90 percent of Metro’s passengers have been storing funds in a green, plastic fare card known as SmarTrip, tapping it on a scanner when boarding a bus or entering a Metrorail station. SmarTrip has worked pretty much the same way since 1999, when it became the first “contactless card” in an American transit system.

Without offering much detail about how the SmarTrip app would work, in last month’s announcement, a Metro official promised the forthcoming app would be “remarkably elegant in its simplicity.”  That sounds great, but before we pop the champagne it’s worth noting what was missing from the announcement.

Metro’s plans emphasized that a passenger’s existing SmarTrip card would effectively migrate to a mobile phone with the same features, functionality, and behind-the-scenes technology to keep track of payments and trips. While this may make for an easier transition, it may also limit Metro’s ability to innovate and compete in the rapidly evolving world of urban mobility.

Urban commuters today can choose from a number of modes like bikeshare, scooter share, and ride hailing that didn’t exist when SmarTrip launched 20 years ago. Transit agencies are starting to experiment with incorporating these modes into their own networks. Will the new SmarTrip mobile app allow passengers to buy tickets for these new services—or others that don’t even exist yet? And will it enable innovations that can improve transit riders’ user experience, like loyalty programs or partnerships with merchants near a transit stop? Metro has given no answers, and when asked, declined to make a public comment.

Without clarity on these questions, it’s hard to see how Metro’s mobile app will prepare SmarTrip for an increasingly competitive and multimodal future.  If, as it appears, Metro plans to layer its app on top of existing SmarTrip infrastructure, no new features like loyalty programs are likely. SmarTrip’s closed backend system also makes it difficult to create a multimodal ticket and distribute payments to other providers, stifling integrations. It looks as if Metro might be confusing a quick-fix approach to innovation with a long-term strategy.

To be fair, between pressure from a hostile Trump administration and ridership declines in almost every bus system in the United States, transit agencies don’t have it easy right now. As in most cities, bus ridership in Washington declined last year, and Metro cast much of the blame on private mobility services—especially ride hailing.

A sensible response to these competitive pressures is for transit authorities to find ways to improve the quality of their product. That’s where the current push for mobile ticketing comes from. Transit agencies in cities including Chicago, Portland, and Seattle have already made mobile ticketing available to commuters, while those in Boston, New York, and Baltimore recently announced plans to do so.

The benefits could be significant. Mobile ticketing reduces the time a bus spends waiting for passengers to board, which can consume 20 percent of a trip. A study in Arlington, Virginia, found that boarding a bus with a mobile phone is a little quicker than using a fare card and three times faster than using cash. Meanwhile, busy passengers can buy a ticket with their phone anywhere instead of waiting in line at a transit stop. Transit agencies relying on mobile payments can also save money that would otherwise be spent processing cash, distributing smart cards, and managing their occasional malfunctions.

These immediate benefits of mobile ticketing are substantial, but the long-run benefits can be even greater if transit agencies use the smartphone’s potential to improve commuters’ user experience. For instance, agencies could send push notifications and discounts nudging riders toward less congested routes or departure times, easing peak congestion and allowing systems to recover faster from disruptions. They could also create loyalty programs to reward passengers who consistently use transit, much as intercity modes like airlines and Amtrak do. They could even earn much-needed revenue from merchant partnerships with retailers located along a passenger’s commute (“First beer is free today if you stop at Uncle Sam’s Pub on the walk home from your transit station”).

Better yet, a mobile ticketing system can use application programming interfaces (API’s) to integrate with fast-growing mobility providers like ride hailing and bikeshare. That means transit riders could buy a single ticket from an origin to a given destination using both transit and a private service. Uber has already announced plans to become a multimodal platform, but are transit agencies (or the rest of us) comfortable with a private company shaping passengers’ mode choices?

Such integrations with mobile ticketing are in their infancy in the United States, but the future may look more like Finland, where locals can use the Whim app to seamlessly plan and pay for travel across public transit, bikeshare, or private car share, or taxi services.  

Finland has the advantage of being a small country that can force public and private participation in its platform, but the first signs of similar integrations are sprouting in American cities. In the Bay Area residents can use local transit’s Clipper card to get a Ford GoBike and Chicago’s Ventra mobile ticketing system is expanding to accommodate the Divvy bikeshare system. Transit advocates in New York are calling for the upcoming overhaul of MetroCard to enable integrations with the CitiBike system as well as private mobility providers.

Unfortunately, Metro’s announcement of the new SmarTrip app didn’t mention any of these long-run opportunities to innovate its service or connect with other mobility providers. And, if it is simply a mobile app with the existing SmarTrip infrastructure, it may not be able to.

Replacing SmarTrip with a more flexible and interoperable system may cost more up front than the price tag for Metro’s plans to move the existing SmarTrip farecard into an app, but it could attract more riders for years to come through an improved ridership experience.

As in any field, innovation in public transportation becomes more powerful as it addresses deeper problems. Building a mobile platform from scratch could position Metro as an agile and integrated backbone of the Washington region’s mobility network, providing creative benefits to transit riders and connecting them with the new private services rapidly emerging in cities. It is disappointing that Metro seems to be missing that opportunity. Let’s hope other transit agencies don’t.

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