Transit mobile payment roundup

This is almost a month behind, but there were two fairly quiet announcements in October on transit payment integration with mobile phones:

  • NJ Transit and Google have announced a partnership to accept Google Wallet for fare payment as part of NJ Transit’s ongoing open payment program. Riders will be able to use their Nexus S phones with the Google Wallet app just like they would use a contactless credit or debit card to pay their fare on select NJ Transit bus routes and AirTrain Newark.
  • Nokia and MTA Long Island Rail Road have announced a very limited pilot in which 20 LIRR employees will use Nokia NFC-enabled phones. It’s not clear if this actually involves open payment; as it’s described, the employees in the pilot will tap their phones on NFC tags when boarding and disembarking, but no fares will actually be charged, at least in the first phase of the pilot. After this initial phase, the trial will be opened up to riders on the Port Washington Branch, the LIRR’s shortest line. But even then, the implementation won’t be quite as convenient as installing the Google Wallet app and getting on board; the article mentions “riders’ preregistered pay-as-you-go accounts or weekly or monthly passes”. This is an important contrast with the NJ Transit trial: once a rider loads the Google Wallet app, they don’t need to register separately to use the app to pay their NJ Transit fare.

The interesting point about the NJ Transit trial is that it’s based around existing standards for contactless payment; there’s nothing particularly specific to Google or NJ Transit happening here. All the Google Wallet software does is emulate a contactless credit or debit card; this is unlike using an NFC-enabled mobile phone to emulate a closed-loop card like SmartLink, SmarTrip, or Oyster.

This is, after all, what open payment is all about: paying for transit should be just like paying for groceries. The transaction that takes place when a Nexus S user taps their phone to the faregate at the Newark Airport AirTrain station is more or less identical to the transaction which takes place when I use my contactless American Express card to pay at the grocery store. This use of open standards reduces implementation time and cost; rather than developing NFC-enabled apps for many transit authorities, all phone makers have to do is support contactless payment by emulating a contactless card, and they’re set.

It’s less clear how the MTA LIRR trial is intended to work; there are very few details available, but it doesn’t seem to be an open payment trial in the conventional sense. It seems as though rather than installing active equipment at stations (which would require power and data connectivity), the LIRR would rather install passive tags at stations, and use the phone to read the tag and send the transaction data to a central server for processing. Of course, whereas riders on NJ Transit who have any contactless card or payment device can use it to pay, on the LIRR riders would have to have a supported NFC-enabled phone. Then again, mounting a few passive tags is a lot less expensive than installing platform validators and providing power and data connectivity at all 124 stations on the LIRR.

2 thoughts on “Transit mobile payment roundup”

  1. What is your take on the use of SMS messaging for mobile ticketing as it is being marketed by Unwire? Seems viable for commuter rail, requires relatively little hardware and would be available to anyone with a cell phone and text messaging.

    1. Unwire’s offering looks fairly compelling; it’s closer to the mobile boarding passes airlines have been using for years than some of the fanciful NFC plans being talked about. It’s something I could certainly see Amtrak, or maybe a commuter rail operator using. I don’t see it being convenient enough for mass transit, though; in that environment only the tap-and-go of NFC or open payment will do.

Comments are closed.