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?
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What role do developers play in open payment?

Earlier this year, I attended TransportationCamp East 2011, an ‘unconference’ on transportation and technology. In one of the sessions, on open payment, the most common question from developers was a simple one: how can I get involved? Many developers were disappointed to hear that there was no good answer; that while these systems are intended to be open, little work has been done to define specific interfaces.

Now that WMATA has released the Step 2 RFP for its New Electronic Payments Program, we have a clear view of what WMATA expects from the system. As much as WMATA has pushed the use of an open architecture for the NEPP, open data does not feature heavily in the specification. There’s an entire section in the Technical Specifications devoted to APIs—but it deals with the APIs that will be used for the various components of the NEPP to interact with each other as well as with other WMATA systems. Evidence from transit systems around the world shows that there’s a great deal of interest in developing apps which interact with their data. Rather than being bolted on after-the-fact, public APIs should be part of the NEPP from the ground up, and the system should be designed to embrace the efforts of outside developers.

What might these public APIs include?
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Open payment for New York: fraud prevention?

Over at Second Avenue Sagas, there’s a new post claiming that the MTA’s effort to replace the MetroCard with an open payment system will result in lower costs for the agency, and in particular a reduction in fraud. I don’t believe that this is the case, and in fact I would argue that the opposite is true. New forms of automatic fare collection simply engender new kinds of fraud. The elimination of tokens on the New York City subway eliminated token fraud, but the introduction of the MetroCard introduced new frauds involving the MetroCard. The same thing will happen with open payment—open payment systems have many benefits, but fraud prevention is not one of them. In fact, open payment opens a transit agency up to new kinds of frauds which cannot be perpetrated with the present system.
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Fare collection for PATH/NJT cross-honoring

PATH and NJ TRANSIT routes overlap in several areas, which provides convenience for riders when either service experiences a major disruption. For example, if there’s a problem in the North River Tunnels, NJ TRANSIT passengers at Newark Penn Station can instead take PATH to 33rd Street. It’s faster and easier than waiting for NJ TRANSIT to arrange a rail replacement bus service. When PATH has to suspend service to 33rd Street (as happened this morning), passengers can take NJ TRANSIT rail services to Newark Penn Station, or bus services to Hoboken. To ease the process, both agencies have a cross-honoring arrangement in place which they put into effect in the event of a major disruption. Now, as I understand it, the concept behind cross-honoring is that passengers pay the same fare they would if their service were not disrupted. It’s not a free ride, but you don’t have to pay any more than you would ordinarily. But how does that work in practice?
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