EZ Pass for Transit

by @jehiah on 2010-08-02 01:38UTC
Filed under: All , Transit

I think it’s time for another change in transit fares.

The NYC MTA introduced the MetroCard in 1994 and added 7 and 30 day unlimited cards in 1998 (later adding 1 and 14 day cards). The goal of the metrocard was to promote higher ridership, faster boarding, allow for free transfers, and to resolve problems with gaming of tokens. In order to spur adoption of the MetroCards the MTA also subsidized them by giving a ‘discount’ for buying the card (ie: you pay for $20 and you get an extra 15% worth of rides). Arguably the MTA met all those goals and made the right move to completely phase out tokens in 2003, but not before spending 9 years with dual payment systems.

Today the MTA is talking about changing the structure of unlimited cards by changing ‘unlimited rides’ to ‘a large number of rides’ for the 7 and 30 day cards, and they are talking about eliminating the 14 day cards, and the subsidies of MetroCards that were originally around to speed adoption. Part of this is to, once again, combat the gaming of people sharing unlimited ride cards, and part of it is to simplify the number of MetroCard options. The other big part is to squeeze out every last cent of revenue as city and state governments are failing on their duty to fund transit.

At the same time, the MTA is partaking in a trial of expresspay technology in partnership with NJ Transit and Mastercard. Express pay technology is a hot topic in transit as many agencies are switching to, or exploring their options. Many of the added features with expresspay technology, are the same that came with the MetroCard in 1994 just pushed to their maximum extent. One of the obvious benefits is faster boarding (especially on busses) as expresspay cards are contactless. Another is working towards a system that can unify fare payment systems across bus, subway and commuter railroads. Additionally by using persistent cards the MTA would lower their costs with re-stocking machines with MetroCards which are often used only for a few rides, and are seldom refilled.

Many other transit agencies are also exploring express pay technology. Maryland MTA is exploring the CharmCard to speed and unify payment across some of the Baltimore/DC Area, Agencies in the San Francisco Bay area are using the Clipper (formerly confusingly known as Translink), and WMATA in DC has a SmartTrip card which works across some agencies in Northern VA as well. Like the NYC MTA, with each of these cards transit agencies are trying to consolidate fare payment across multiple transit agencies and modes of transportation to lower the barrier to ridership.

In NYC the MetroCard already works with the Roosevelt Island Tram and the AirTrain to JFK, but the MTA has not expanded the MetroCard to replace payment systems on it’s commuter railroad systems, or allowed neighboring transit agencies or private bus companies to integrate with it.

Key to almost all these integration plans is the need for a cash balance on a card so that agencies can agree on what fare amount to transfer. This is the biggest reason i think NY should do away with unlimited fares. Removing unlimited fares would give a completely cash backed balance that could be used on all MTA systems.

One key hurdle to adoption of these cards is agencies themselves. The MTA completed adoption of the MetroCard in 2003 when they finally stopped accepting tokens. Change is painful, but leaving systems in limbo for 9 years and accepting multiple payment forms is even worse. As an example I purchased a TransLink card for my last trip to San Francisco, only to find out that after years of rolling it out, I still could only re-fill the balance on that card at select Bart Stations. Similarly in DC you can’t purchase a SmartTrip card at any Metro station where you can use it. Why not? simply put, that would make sense.

All the agencies I mentioned above should simply stop accepting paper stubs and single use cards, expand the number of locations with payment vending machines. Add them in grocery stores, Deli’s and bus stops; anywhere you can find an ATM add a transit card vending machine. Agencies should also expand usage of their payment systems to private companies. The MTA should allow MetroCards to be used as payment for Cabs, the Hampton Jitney, private busses to NJ, ferries etc.

As has been pointed out by others, this sounds like a credit card system for transit, and indeed it should sound more like a check card system, where instead of needing a bank account, it’s just a cash backed card with no identity tied to it.

If the MTA’s smart, taking a 2% transaction fee from partner agencies might just help balance the budget even when the NY State legislature re-appropriates dedicated funding.

With it’s scale, The MTA truly has the opportunity to start the EZ Pass of transit cards. They should go for it.

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