The MetroCard just hit the big 2-0 earlier this week, and while the MTA desperately wants to find a suitable replacement, the familiar gold-and-blue piece of plastic is likely to live to see 25. In fits and starts, the MTA has tried to find a way to bring on board something better, something with lower fare collection and maintenance costs, something that will survive the next two or three decades. But an effort that was restarted last year has yet to bear fruit.
Meanwhile, other transit systems are moving forward quickly with their own plans to find a next-gen fare payment system. Earlier this week, Washington’s WMATA announced that it will begin testing a new electronic payment program that, if all goes according to plan, will replace the current scheme. It builds off of the SmarTrip tap-and-go system and could give riders more options for paying their fares.
The WMATA opted to give the $184 million to Accenture, and while I’ll touch upon the problems with that decision shortly, we have details from a press release:
The new system will be designed to provide a state of the art system for Metro customers that enables them to continue to use SmarTrip cards, while expanding fare payment to chip-enabled credit cards, federal government ID cards, and mobile phones using near field communications (NFC).
“While Metro pioneered the tap and go system we currently use, by today’s standards that system is cumbersome and the technology is not sustainable,” said Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles. “The new technology will provide more flexibility for accounts, better reliability for riders, and real choices for customers to use bank-issued payment cards, credit cards, ID cards, or mobile phones to pay their Metro fares.”
Washington Metro will be among the first transit systems in the United States to use this advanced technology to enhance reliability, and make travel more convenient for riders. Accenture will help deliver the electronic fare management system by combining its transit experience with industry and functional management consulting expertise in mobility, analytics, customer service, payments, financial services, retail and marketing science. Accenture has successfully implemented similar technology in Canada and the Netherlands.
The driving goal behind this plan, as it is in New York, is to reduce the costs of ongoing maintenance and completely phase out paper farecards. Metro says that just 10 percent of riders still use those clunky cards, and the WMATA’s vintage fare gates will be replaced if all goes according to plan. The initial pilot will be implemented in 10 Metro stations — or around 12 percent of the system — and on 50 buses as well.
The choice of Accenture is not without its problems. As a WAMU report detailed, Accenture had some issues implementing a similar technology in Toronto back in 2012, but WMATA officials said they were confident the company could deliver. “Our procurement was very thorough and competitive. We looked at a ‘best value’ procurement and we felt that the partner we selected is going to work the best for Metro,” Metro CFO Carol Kissal said. “We considered their technical design, their history and their background, and all those things were factored in the decision.”
This, to me, is forward progress. While the Metro is much smaller than the MTA’s with many fewer stations, the nation’s second busiest subway system is moving forward with a fare payment system that isn’t only more advanced than New York’s but will lap us as well. Already, Metro has a tap-and-go system; now they’re moving further beyond any sort of swipe-based technology. Hopefully, we won’t be commemorating the MetroCard’s 30th birthday in 10 years, but who wants to take any bets?