WMATA’s paper farecards could be smarter

WMATA’s paper farecards have remained mostly unchanged since the system opened. Now, a stored-value farecard is still better (by leaps and bounds) than tokens, or cash, but could it be better?

First, about the paper itself: WMATA could use a heavier, coated stock, so that the paper farecards would be slightly more durable. Even better would be a thin plastic card, like the MetroCard (but I don’t know if the Odyssey can issue cards like that, or just paper). Anything would be better than the existing paper farecard—it’s thin, flimsy, and I often see people pulling crumpled farecards out of their pockets and wallets and then having problems with the faregates.

So, what benefits would an enhanced paper farecard—one based on modern technology, and usable on trains and buses—bring?

  • Transfers: Since WMATA stopped issuing paper transfers, the only way to get a transfer—whether rail-to-bus or bus-to-rail is to use a SmarTrip card. While that may seem like a reasonable incentive to get people to buy a SmarTrip card, there’s no technological reason why an enhanced paper farecard couldn’t support rail-to-bus and bus-to-rail transfers, as well as a future rail-to-rail “walking transfer” between Farragut North and Farragut West.
  • Excess fare payment on buses: This is something which the MBTA does with the CharlieTicket, and it’s a great system. If you overpay your fare on a bus, the farebox spits out a card good for the excess fare. Considering that these fareboxes accept bills up to $20, that might be a substantial amount. You can use the card directly, transfer the value onto a smart card, or mail it in for a refund. (Of course, if you had a SmarTrip card, you could have used the farebox to add value to your card—but what if you haven’t got a SmarTrip card, or what if it dies?)
  • Security: A couple of years ago, there was a scandal involving cutting up farecards and (essentially) trading in the same farecard multiple times; this led to WMATA restricting the maximum value of a traded-in farecard to $7.00, to mitigate fraud. A newer, smarter farecard could protect against this sort of fraud—although unfortunately the CharlieTicket isn’t that much more secure (but at least there the attack requires a little more sophistication). That said, modernizing the paper farecard has the potential to offer better fraud protection, even if such precautions weren’t taken in Boston with the CharlieTicket.

Everything that is described here is feasible with the hardware that WMATA already has (although as I recall the farecard vendors dispense farecards off of a roll; that might have to be reworked particularly if the enhanced farecard were plastic). Every GFI Genfare Odyssey farebox has a magnetic stripe reader and the ability to dispense and write to a magnetic stripe card. WMATA doesn’t use either of these features, but they’re there.

Finally, people may wonder why, when contactless smart cards are the future, we’d worry about paper farecards. The simple answer is that the SmarTrip card isn’t the answer for everyone. You still can’t get a SmarTrip card at every station, nor can you get one for free. There are retail sales outlets throughout the area, but right now if you just show up at a bus stop with no SmarTrip card and no loose change, there’s no good option. However, for those who are convinced that magnetic stripe cards are old technology, there is a way forward: a limited-use contactless smart card. From the linked article, I would assume that the Port Authority is planning to finally eliminate the QuickCard and replace it with a limited-use version of the SmartLink card. WMATA could do the same, replacing the existing paper farecard with a limited-use contactless smart card which would offer the features of the SmarTrip card with the availability of a paper farecard.

One thought on “WMATA’s paper farecards could be smarter”

  1. The reason why there have been no improvements to paper cards is WMATA does not want to make them better; their goal is to eliminate them.

    You’ve also not mentioned one more important reason to eschew their smartcard scheme; some people do NOT want a dossier kept of their travels; one willing distributed by WMATA without court order or warrant.

    And while you can buy one for cash initially ; just try and exchange a dead card so as to recover the balance.

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