PATCO open payment pilot to launch in September

The PATCO open payment pilot (previously covered here) will launch in September and run for one year, according to the new project blog.

The blog’s inaugural post includes a photo of the reload kiosks which are being installed on the system; the photo posted reveals Cubic’s choice of banking partner for the pilot: The Bancorp Bank, “one of the nation’s top five issuers of open-loop prepaid cards”. The kiosk doesn’t look like a Cubic product at all; given the nature of the project, I’d expect it’s an off-the-shelf product designed for reloading GPR cards.

As far as open payment is concerned, the pilot itself won’t be very open, as the project FAQ explains:

Can I use any bank card during the pilot?
No. Only the new PATCO Wave & Pay ANYWHERE Visa® Prepaid Card will be able to be used to pay for PATCO rides and parking fees.

Of course, this will change in the second phase of the pilot, when the system will be opened to all contactless payment cards and devices, but that isn’t mentioned in the FAQ.
The FAQ also contains an attempt to explain the motivation for open payment which ultimately falls flat:

Why is it called “open payment”?
It refers to the ability to pay for goods and services without being restricted to a single merchant. A “closed” payment system limits where you can make purchases. For instance, the FREEDOM Card is a closed payment system because money loaded onto your FREEDOM Card can only be used for transit purchases.

What that answer fails to account for is that it is in essence solving a problem which doesn’t exist. The real value in open payment lies not in transit agencies issuing open loop GPR cards rather than their own fare media, but rather in accepting contactless cards which riders already have, which is substantially more convenient. For riders who currently use a FREEDOM card, and who would have no other reason to use a GPR card, switching from a FREEDOM card (a closed-loop, card-based application) to a GPR card only brings more complexity (a third party, the card issuer, is added to the transaction), plus the risk of higher fees (though agencies have pledged to absorb such fees, whether that will hold up in practice remains to be seen). Riders just aren’t clamoring to be able to use their FREEDOM card (or other stored-value transit fare media, like the MetroCard, Oyster card, or SmarTrip) to pay for purchases at other merchants.

With all of that said, there is some value in the concepts being proven in this pilot. When the UTA rolled out its electronic fare collection system in 2009, they implemented a pure open payment system. If you don’t have some kind of contactless payment card or device, then you have to pay cash, unless you’re using a pass. Since the UTA’s AFC system is designed around open payment, issuing a conventional contactless smartcard using a card-based application (like the FREEDOM card, or PATH’s SmartLink, or WMATA’s SmarTrip) is not an option. Partnering with a card issuer to vend GPR cards in-system would permit riders who do not have any other contactless payment card or device to take advantage of the benefits of electronic fare collection and avoid having to carry cash.