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.

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.
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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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“Next Bus Please”: three words that matter

Monday morning, I found myself riding a very packed Metrobus. After I got on, a few more passengers boarded—standing forward of the standee line. The bus operator continued on (in violation of 49CFR392.62) and then we passed several stops without picking up the passengers waiting at those stops. The passengers were understandably bewildered, and one made a rude gesture as the bus passed. There’s a clear problem here: a bus with passengers forward of the standee line is not a safe bus, and certainly not a bus that can accomodate more passengers, but how do we communicate this to waiting passengers? In New York City, bus headsigns are programmed with a “Next Bus Please” reading for use when a bus remains in service but is discharge-only until crowding is alleviated. This is a good first step (and one more agencies should adopt), but it’s only a first step.
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