SmarTrip-only bus pass will further disenfranchise riders

On January 1, 2011, WMATA will discontinue the paper 7-day bus pass, and replace it with a 7-day bus pass on SmarTrip. The 7-day bus pass first became available on SmarTrip in mid-October; this was actually the first time WMATA had made any pass available on SmarTrip. (By contrast, MTA Maryland’s 1-day, 7-day, and 30-day passes have all been available on SmarTrip since the launch of the CharmCard in September 2010.)

However, WMATA has done an exceedingly poor job of preparing riders for this change. First, they’ve yet to issue a single press release about the transition. There are notices posted at some bus stops, but that’s it. There is a notice buried on WMATA’s web site, but that hardly constitutes effective outreach. Second, it doesn’t seem as though WMATA has prepared any sort of transition plan—riders who are used to buying a $15 paper bus pass will suddenly find that they have to purchase a SmarTrip card, if they don’t already have one. Until now, WMATA has not sold zero-value SmarTrip cards, so bus pass users will have to purchase a card, then load their bus pass—and the stored value that comes pre-loaded on the card will be wasted.

What’s more, there’s a good chance that bus riders will not already have a SmarTrip card. For many passengers (including those with low incomes), SmarTrip cards are not a feasible option for fare payment. WMATA’s own research shows that Metrobus riders have a lower median income than Metrorail riders, and are substantially less likely to have access to a car, making them entirely dependent on mass transit for mobility. WMATA seems to have failed to consider that having to pay for a SmarTrip card—and then pay again if it is lost, the card fails, or there is some other mishap—may represent a real hardship for some of these Metrobus riders who now use the paper 7-day bus pass. Instead, their marketing materials assume that every rider already has a SmarTrip card.

Even for riders who are able and willing to use a SmarTrip card, there are still unanswered questions:

  • Why isn’t it possible to load a pass at a ticket vending machine? This is actually an easy question to answer; WMATA’s ticket vending machines are absolutely archaic—they’re basically descendants of the first machines used when the system opened. Over time, they gained the ability to accept credit and debit cards, sell passes on paper farecards, and add value to SmarTrip cards. However, little has been done to the basic design of the machines, and they’re showing their age. If WMATA is to add passes (particularly for the rail system) to SmarTrip, then we absolutely need modern touch-screen ticket vending machines which are capable of selling a variety of fare media without the glaring usability and accessibility problems which plague the current system.
  • Why isn’t it possible to load a pass over the Web, or schedule automatic reload? It’s harder to answer this question, because Cubic Nextfare, the software which drives the SmarTrip system, offers these features. The SmarTrip online interface was only rolled out recently, long after similar systems (like Oyster) made online interfaces available. For years, SmarTrip has lagged behind other systems using Cubic technology, which offer passes on smartcards, online and automatic replenishment and other features—for example, here in the US, PATH offers automatic reload for stored value and passes on the SmartLink card. I would therefore have to assume that the problem lies with WMATA, and not Cubic. WMATA has been accused of dragging its feet on SmarTrip features before, and this may be more of the same.

Update: WMATA has updated their press release announcing the availability of bus pases on SmarTrip to indicate that paper bus passes will now be available until January 29, 2011. Still no word on any of the other issues I’ve raised in this post; it will be interesting to see what happens on February 1. I am sure some riders are going to end up in a pickle when they find that the paper bus passes they’re used to are suddenly gone.