Vancouver’s Compass Card and open payment

Translink, the regional transit authority in Metro Vancouver, is in the process of deploying a new fare collection system by Cubic. Central to the system is a new contactless farecard, the Compass Card. The Compass Card will give transit riders in Vancouver an easy way to pay their fares across all of the modes of transit that Translink operates.

As Translink’s FAQ explains, though, there’s more to the system than just the Compass Card:

Q: Will people still be able to pay for fares in cash or by credit/debit card?
A: Customers who still want to use cash can purchase a Compass Card or Compass Ticket at vending machines in stations. Vending machines will also accept debit and credit cards as payment for cash fares. Buses will also still accept cash. Customers can also use their contactless credit card on buses or at the faregates by simply tapping their credit card in the same manner as the Compass Card (don’t forget to tap off). However, customers will be strongly encouraged to use the Compass card for the pricing discounts, convenience and flexibility they offer.
from FAQs – Compass Card and Faregates

This is somewhat of a sharp contrast with the practice in other North American cities who have been contemplating open payment, where there has been a very explicit objective of getting the transit agency out of the business of issuing fare media, and making contactless credit and debit cards the primary means of fare payment. In these proposals, the needs of unbanked and underbanked riders are often addressed through third-party vending of closed-loop (or, in some cases, open-loop GPR) cards.

But in Vancouver, the roles seem to be reversed. The Compass Card and Compass Ticket (presumably either a magnetic strip ticket or limited-use contactless smart card) are being marketed as the primary means of fare payment under the new system, with greater emphasis on the reusable Compass Card. Open payment isn’t even mentioned as such; there’s just a passing mention that riders “can also use their contactless credit card on buses or at the faregates by simply tapping their credit card in the same manner as the Compass Card”, and that’s it.

Conceptually, what Translink is doing with the Compass Card and open payment is similar to what I suggested when Transport for London launched its open payment initiative: open payment may be a boon for the many infrequent riders who will flood the system during the Olympics, but for commuters who ride every day, an Oyster card will remain the best fare medium.

Of course, this approach is also cheaper, at least from a per-transaction perspective—when a rider in Vancouver uses their Compass Card or Compass Ticket, there are no credit/debit interchange fees to pay as there would be if they’d used a contactless credit or debit card.

No trip = no fare; it’s only fair

On Friday, the Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock column featured a complaint from a Metrorail rider whose SmarTrip card was charged even though they’d entered and exited at the same station—in fact, they never went anywhere.

The rider entered the system at Foggy Bottom, intending to travel to Friendship Heights. With Metrorail delays mounting, due to both regularly-scheduled track work and a sick passenger, they decided to give up and seek alternate transportation, and that’s when they found that they were charged, even though they hadn’t actually gone anywhere.

Here’s what the Post’s Robert Thompson had to say about the rider’s plight:

For riders to get their money back when they give up in disgust and leave the same station, Metro officials would have to declare that extraordinary circumstances existed and authorize free exits at the affected stations. If free exits were routinely available, it would be easier for fare evaders to cheat the system.

Local bloggers and transit advocates routinely accuse Thompson (and the Post’s other transportation writers) of being shills for WMATA. I’d rather not use such strong language, but this is one case in which Dr. Gridlock should have stuck up for Metro riders.

There’s no need for WMATA to “authorize free exits”, or do anything that would encourage rampant fare evasion. On the contrary, all that is required is a simple change that ensures the fairness of the fare collection system for all: if a passenger enters and exits at the same station within a reasonable period of time, they should not be charged.

Riders should be free to change their mind and exit the system without being charged even if no “extraordinary circumstances” exist. There might be a major disruption, or there might not—either way, if a rider changes their mind, in a reasonable period of time, then let them out without charging them.
Continue reading No trip = no fare; it’s only fair

Journey history as open data, and cooperation with developers

Last April, I blogged about Chromaroma and its use of Oyster journey data from Transport for London. Since then, I’ve continued to hold up Chromaroma as one of the best examples of what can be done with journey data, in spite of a lack of cooperation from the transit authority.

When I first covered Chromaroma, I pointed out that they were screen-scraping the Transport for London site in order to retrieve Oyster journey histories, and I discussed some potential options for avoiding what is an inherently inelegant process, including the use of OAuth for authentication, and the definition of a common format for journey history data interchange.

Now that I’ve proposed the development of a system based on journey data, I’d like to revisit how Chromaroma has been doing.
Continue reading Journey history as open data, and cooperation with developers

Automating transit alert selection using fare collection data

Last week, WMATA launched its new MetroAlerts service, which greatly extends and improves the previous alert system, and adds alerts for bus routes. With the addition of bus alerts, the service provides real benefits for riders, allowing them to get targeted updates on the routes they use.

But this service, and others like it, still require riders to manually designate the rail and bus routes and rail stations they use, in order to receive targeted alerts. Some systems also allow riders to further customize their selection of alerts by time period. The end result is that riders are presented with a screenful of choices, when all they really want to know is if they’re going to get to work on time.

So, how can we simplify the process? One approach, which I’ve been considering recently, is to use data from a transit agency’s fare collection system to infer a rider’s travel patterns, and automatically select alerts which would affect their usual trips.
Continue reading Automating transit alert selection using fare collection data

Open payment: just how did the New York pilot fare?

Last Thursday, Fast Company published an article which revealed some statistics from MTA New York City Transit’s involvement in the 2010 tri-agency regional open payment pilot. This is the first time the agency has shared statistics from the pilot—and so far, the agency’s partners in the pilot, the Port Authority and NJ Transit, are keeping quiet.

At first glance, the stats look miserable: in such a large and tech-savvy city, how could so few people have used the open payment pilot? But as Fast Company points out, when you look at the released data, there are “few angles that offer apples-to-apples comparisons”. In fact, there’s a lot to keep in mind when considering the pilot’s performance.

The first point to consider—one which Fast Company does a good job of highlighting—is the small scope of the trial, considering the size of New York City’s subway and bus networks. In the subway, the only stations equipped for the pilot were those along the Lexington Avenue Line. While the Lexington Avenue Line may be the system’s busiest, there were still plenty of subway and bus riders left out of the pilot.

Beyond that, the pilot wasn’t just about convincing riders to give up their MetroCards. As the MTA’s Aaron Donovan explained, the point of the trial was not to convert huge numbers of riders to open payment, but simply prove the technology could be made to work in the harsh transit environment of New York City. As Donovan described, the pilot proved the viability of a regionally interoperable system, as well as that the system could be operated securely, and that the equipment would indeed stand up to the physical environment.

The next point to consider is that market penetration for contactless credit and debit cards, along with NFC-enabled mobile phones, is still generally poor. Worse, many associate contactless payment not with convenience and speed, as the industry would prefer, but rather fraud and “hackers stealing your credit card number right through your wallet”. The fraud concerns aren’t entirely unfounded; Kristin Paget’s recent demo has shown that. Logically, the risk of fraud shouldn’t stop people from using contactless payment cards—but who ever said consumers are logical?
Continue reading Open payment: just how did the New York pilot fare?