PATCO open payment pilot launches

This week, PATCO and Cubic launched an open payment pilot on the PATCO Speedline, a rapid transit line which connects Philadelphia with southern New Jersey. This project, the third open payment program to be launched in the US (after the trials in New York City, and the UTA’s new fare collection system), is the first to include a prepaid card as an option for unbanked riders. Central to this program is a Visa prepaid card issued by The Bancorp Bank. The card can be used to pay transit fares in the same manner as PATCO’s existing FREEDOM Card, but, as an open-loop general-purpose reloadable card, it can also be used anywhere contactless cards are accepted—including other transit services.

The PATCO Speedline doesn’t operate in isolation; at one end it’s connected to SEPTA services in Philadelphia, and at the other end it’s connected to NJ Transit services, including the River Line and Atlantic City Line. Yet at present, there’s no integrated electronic fare collection where these agencies’ services connect; there is a discounted SEPTA fare available to PATCO Speeedline riders, but that requires buying a ticket from a PATCO ticket vending machine. To provide the best rider experience, applicable discounts should be applied automatically—and that requires that riders be able to use the same electronic fare media across the various systems.

As a matter of fact, open payment isn’t an absolute necessity for transit agencies to offer an integrated electronic fare collection system; after all, it’s now possible to travel from Quantico, VA to Hunt Valley, MD using only a SmarTrip card. However, providing that level of integration for SmarTrip requires that every participating transit agency use Cubic Nextfare (which as a practical matter also means using hardware from Cubic), and that all of the data be managed centrally. With open payment, that level of central coordination isn’t necessary.

Now, other agencies in the Philadelphia area, including SEPTA and NJ Transit, can deploy their own open payment systems, from vendors of their choosing, and they’ll be able to accept the same cards that are accepted on the PATCO Speedline as part of this pilot.

SEPTA has launched an informational site on their open payment plans, while NJ Transit continues to operate their part of the tri-agency trial that was conducted last year with MTA New York City Transit and PATH, so there is a very real possibility that riders will soon be able to transfer between all three agencies using a single card.

However, like all new programs, there are some downsides; one is that the pre-paid card being offered as part of the pilot is a legitimate financial instrument. Unlike conventional stored-value cards for transit, like MetroCard, SmarTrip, and Oyster, the pre-paid card for the pilot is regulated in the same way as any other bankcard. The pilot program’s Web site therefore contains the following disclosure:

Obtaining Your Card: The USA PATRIOT Act is a federal law that requires all financial institutions to obtain, verify and record information that identifies each person who opens a Card Account. What this means for you: When you open a Card Account, we will ask for your name, address, date of birth, and other information that will allow us to reasonably identify you. We may also ask to see your driver’s license or other identifying documents at any time.

This is bound to make some riders squeamish, and fortunately for them, the FREEDOM Card (PATCO’s existing stored-value smartcard) isn’t going away any time soon. This is not the farecard for someone who wants to show up at a station, put a few dollars on a card, and ride; for them, the FREEDOM Card remains a better option. I’ve raised this issue before, and I’ll point it out again here: transit authorities should always offer a means of fare payment that doesn’t involve accepting a third-party issuer’s terms and conditions. In practical terms, this means sticking with a closed-loop card (one which is not a financial instrument), like SmarTrip, Oyster, and PATCO’s own FREEDOM Card.

As I’ve covered previously, this is a one-year program; for the first six months, only the prepaid card will be accepted, but the intention is that the program will be opened to all contactless cards in the second phase. After that, no firm plans have been announced, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the program is extended, as NJ Transit has done with its open payment program—after all, the necessary hardware and software development has already been accomplished.