Home U.S. Transit SystemsWMATA Dispatches from DC: $184 million for an open payment system

Dispatches from DC: $184 million for an open payment system

by Benjamin Kabak

DC is moving forward with another fare payment system that far surpasses New York’s.

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?

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JJJ January 10, 2014 - 2:07 am

My only concern is that they think through EVERY situation now.

Can the system handle different prices by time? By distance? By user class? Passes? Discounts?

Too many times, a system wants to try an innovative fare approach but the collection system cant handle it.

Chris C January 10, 2014 - 3:54 am

Systems like Oyster here in London can do all that and more.

The biggest culture change that systems like that will require in New York is having to ‘touch in and touch out’ – otherwise how will the system know what to charge you other than the standard fare.

Bolwerk January 10, 2014 - 7:20 am

I doubt New York is changing. The passenger flow problems that would create border on insurmountable, and the political problems pretty much guarantee it’s unwanted.

Alon Levy January 10, 2014 - 2:24 am

Does DC’s preexisting system have any real problems, outside the must-reinvent-the-wheel managers’ imaginations?

Bolwerk January 10, 2014 - 7:17 am

Anything with little moving parts like printers and mechanical card feeders (?) probably has high-ish maintenance costs.

What I don’t really see is the riders benefiting much, in DC or here. I guess the MetroCard replacement should allow POP to be implemented better, but not much else.

SEAN January 10, 2014 - 11:17 am

One thing not mentioned is what ever Metro does – Baltimore’s MTA needs to be involved since the Charm card is an extention of Smartrip & was done that way intentionally.

Now the next logical step is to bring VRE & MARC into the fold. as Caltrain is part of Clipper in the bay area. This should set the pressident on how to do a multi-regional fare card system.

Bolwerk January 10, 2014 - 11:23 am

What’s the big deal about that? I wish the entire northeast region could settle on a common system, including Amtrak.

SEAN January 10, 2014 - 11:55 am

No big deal – just mentioning it for clarity. Although I do agree that regardless of wich card you normally use, it should be able to travel with you be it NYC, Boston Los Angeles or what ever.

Eric January 12, 2014 - 5:03 am

“and completely phase out paper farecards. Metro says that just 10 percent of riders still use those clunky cards,”

So why not just stop selling paper farecards? Those 10% of riders can start using the existing electronic cards. The only benefit of the new $184 million system is the ability to pay by credit card or smart phone, and why the hell is that necessary?

Ron January 10, 2014 - 10:08 am

The DC fare system needs to be replaced. It’s old, clunky, and a pain to use. To me, it’s worse than NY system. Their fare collection machines are ancient and horrible to use. Not all of them even use the startrip card. If you don’t have enough on the card, you have to use the “exit fare” machines to leave, which only take cash.

There are some new things they have tried to implement but are limited by the current system. Example: They implemented reloading fare cards online. You reload your card, the system then analyzes your patterns to pick the 3 (or so) stations you are most likely to use next. If you don’t use those within a certain time, the reload isn’t loaded onto your card. While this is probably fine for commuters, causal riders don’t really have a set pattern.

pete January 10, 2014 - 1:30 pm

It doesn’t have any real problems. Only a political fallout with Cubic http://transport.kurtraschke.c.....trip-myths

Larry Littlefield January 10, 2014 - 7:40 am

We’ve already had tests that must of failed, so they are behind rather than ahead. Better to get it right.

On the other hand, Bustime works. A boon for those with infrequent service.

Not that I would use it myself, since I don’t carry a cell phone, let alone a smartphone. But my daughter and friends were at a music venue in Red Hook on New Years Eve. I was concerned that they’d be standing around on the street for an hour until the next bus came by. But since the B61 is one of two Brooklyn routes on Bustime, they were able to see the bus coming, walk out, and get on.

D. Graham January 10, 2014 - 12:02 pm

The tests didn’t fail at all. The technology just wasn’t widely used on a customer end. This is where the MTA is doing it right. They are trying to get the banks to lead in the area of a swipe-less card technology, but banks still have security fears.

Larry Littlefield January 10, 2014 - 1:03 pm

I can understand those fears. There are IT security companies now offering projection from people who walk down the street and grab RFID info from passersby.

SEAN January 10, 2014 - 3:01 pm

So can I. It looks like the security breach at Target is more wide spread then first reported. Also I recall an interesting data theft story a few years ago that took place in Circuit City I think? The credit card terminals were stolen & replaced in some stores with identical looking units that allowed the criminals involved to copy everything about those cards & transfer the data on to blank ones. Makes the fears by the banks completely justified in my opinion since they don’t want to be held responsible if an even larger data breach happens & as we all know, it will. It’s just a matter of time.

Eric F January 10, 2014 - 9:46 am

From the picture, that looks way to easy to jump.

Michael_G January 10, 2014 - 11:04 am

I believe that is the wheelchair faregate. It looks somewhat similar to the current WMATA wheelchair faregate.

John-2 January 10, 2014 - 10:25 am

In a way, New York has a slightly easier option since the city is never going to go to a zone/distance-based fare system, which — given the destinations of most riders — would be extremely Manhattan-centric, rewarding those loving closest to the midtown or downtown business districts. That means any new system doesn’t have to have the same option or recording exit and time that WMATA has, and can continue to concentrate on simply recoding a flat entry point deduction from the card (the big problem will continue to be the MTA’s desire to get out of the business of handling cash and going to full electronic payment transfers, vs. limiting the options of their customers if they don’t want to use a smart card, or those new to the system seeking access).

SEAN January 10, 2014 - 11:51 am

The subway & intracity busses may not have a zone based fare structure, but to get the most out of an electronic fare collection system on NYC’s scale requires zone capability to worke semelessly on NJT, LIRR & Metro-North. San Francisco figgured it out & we can do the same. However as I said a few days ago, we just have a lot more moving parts. There needs to be an agreement on what the system will look like since the coverage will be on such a massive scale.

As an example…

Railroads – tap on tap off
PATH – tap on
Bee-line/ NICE – tap on
NJT bus – tap on tap off in MOST cases
NYC subway/ bus – tap on
CT transit & other local bus carriers – tap on

This assumes that fare structures stay as is.

Tsuyoshi January 10, 2014 - 10:34 am

It would seem to me that the MTA should just adopt a system that is already in use and successful at another large system, like Tokyo, Moscow, or London. Why reinvent the wheel? Is there some kind of “buy American” law we’re dealing with here?

Larry Littlefield January 10, 2014 - 11:50 am

The MTA is holding out for the financial sector to create a pay by chip standard, so it would in effect not have to invent anything at all. Just use the same payment system as every other business, with the banks just handing over the money.

The equivalent of swiping your credit or debt card for each ride (or each month), but with a tap rather than a swipe.

The whole apparatus of collecting and distributing money and maintaining machines could go away, save for some residual system for those without bank accounts. Even for them, the check cashing places could offer pre-loaded cards as a service.

In this case I think milking the Metrocard and swinging for the fences makes sense.

D. Graham January 10, 2014 - 12:06 pm

I agree 100,000%! In doing so they will save the maximum amount of money possible! Then they can have a developer come in to create an account management system for the unlimited purchasing masses.

Joe January 10, 2014 - 2:04 pm

Um, there IS a standard. Lots of bankcards and credit cards use it already. I have a RFID chip in my AMEX that I use all the time at stores. I even used it when I was in Chicago last week for the subway—I just tapped it on the turnstile and it worked perfectly. It’s not the rocket science the MTA is making it out to be.

SEAN January 10, 2014 - 3:21 pm

Yes it’s not rocket science, but the real issue is one of scale. The RTA in Chicago has got Ventra up & running on Pace & the CTA, but they are planning to add Metra to the system soon. As I said above, it’s the number of moving parts – in this case Chicago has only three wich is easier to deal with vs NYC, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Joe January 10, 2014 - 5:45 pm

So the MTA can roll out the new system on NYCT first. It’s not as if LIRR, MNRR or NJT are currently accepting Metrocards.

D. Graham January 10, 2014 - 5:58 pm

The problem is more that these technologies trend like hash tags on Twitter. Here this year, obsolete in 2 years. The matter is the more of future proofing the technology selected as the next form of fare media. NFC hasn’t exactly taken off in cell phones. Why? And if the MTA makes it a part of the overall fare media will it catch on and remain a relevant technology that won’t begin to cost them money in the long run?

SEAN January 10, 2014 - 8:09 pm

So the MTA can roll out the new system on NYCT first. It’s not as if LIRR, MNRR or NJT are currently accepting Metrocards.

You need to think big picture. It would to have comprehensive fare system that works on all modes. So Metrocard currently works on bus, subway & the Roosevelt Island tram. That was good enough in 1997, but it’s 2014 & in transit tech that’s several lifetimes as you know.

Joe January 13, 2014 - 12:39 pm

No, the credit card chip standard IS NOT NEW and is not going to change anytime soon. It’s a complete and implemented standard and can be supported with off-the-shelf equipment for many years to come.

Manny January 10, 2014 - 8:40 pm

They have tap and go in Stockholm with the swinging plexiglass gates. Works great.

Dela G January 11, 2014 - 12:26 am

Why not use the swinging plexiglass like MARTA does in Atlanta??? I absolutely love the way their system ran and I used it last week for the chick fil a bowl

Matt Mitchell January 14, 2014 - 12:15 pm

There are three different technology issues being conflated here: none of them depend on the other.

First is the open payment system. This is the real game-changer. Right now, WMATA, NYCTA, and other transit agencies are locked into cards that are good only on their own system and sometimes neighboring systems. Open payments means you can bring any compatible credit or debit card and use it directly at the turnstile or farebox, without stopping at a vending machine first to get a card and load value on it. Or you can use a chip-enabled cell phone or ID card as your farecard if you register it with the transit agency. The farebox transmits the card info to a back-end server, and the back-end determines whether it’s a stored value card or a credit/debit card and validates the transaction, sending the OK back to the farebox.

Related to this is where transactions are processed. Up until now, real-time communications links have not been fast or reliable enough to allow a bus or trolley farebox to communicate with a central payment server. Now they are, and that is what’s making open payments feasible now.

The second technology is the type of card (mag stripe or NFC). NFC is more secure, and also more flexible (lets you use a cell phone or work ID or other device). However, the hardware is more costly, and there is a lot of resistance from merchants to change over from mag stripe to RFID because they’d have to pay for the equipment. So the card issuers have been slow to convert. But it’s happening, and transit may be the app that finally drags the rest of the industry in to NFC. There’s no reason you couldn’t put a swipe reader on an open-payments farebox alongside a chip reader.

Third is the kind of faregate. It’s also entirely separate from the open payments issue. In fact, SEPTA is using (and refurbishing) its existing turnstiles for NPT, and (groan) they’re adding old-fashioned leg-breaker turnstiles to the Center City rail stations instead of modern faregates.


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