Government Technology

A Smart Way to Pay


July 3, 2002 By

Are some subway riders in Washington, D.C., smarter than others? It may seem so thanks to the advantage technology has given riders who use SmarTrip, the farecard with a microchip. Instead of fumbling for change or a magnetic farecard, thousands of subway commuters simply swipe the plastic card across a reader on the turnstile and are on their way.

So far, riders have snapped up more than 238,000 SmarTrip cards -- representing about 30 percent of all trips taken on Washington's subway. But those numbers may grow once the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, better known as Metro, expands the use of its smart card to include buses, Metro parking lots and the regional commuter rail system. By 2004, riders will be able to use the card on Baltimore's bus, light rail and subway systems, too. In all, more than 15 regional public transit systems across Maryland, Washington and Virginia will accept payment with the card.

"We're trying to put together a regional fare system so passengers can go anywhere with the SmarTrip card," said Craig Maxey, Metro's manager of technology implementation. The reason use of the card is expanding so rapidly since its introduction in 1999 is quite simple, say transit experts. Riders love the convenience of smart cards, which can be used for all forms of public transit, as well as parking, and may eventually be used to purchase a morning cup of coffee, a magazine or a cab ride.

Circulation Growth

Public transit riders have been using smart cards for nearly a dozen years, but most card systems have involved small pilot projects. Today, however, nearly all the major transit agencies in the United States, and around the globe, have announced plans or have projects under way involving smart cards. Besides Washington and Baltimore, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced in December a $51 million plan to use smart cards on commuter trains. Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will replace its tokens and passes with smart cards by 2004 at a cost of $120 million.

In October 2001, Seattle's transit agency signed a $70 million contract with ERG Transit Systems to build a seamless smart card fare system covering seven transit agencies involving buses, commuter rail and the area's ferry service. Meanwhile, Atlanta has announced plans to spend $100 million on a new smart card system that will, for the first time, provide a regional fare system to the area's balkanized transit agencies. The Chicago Transit Authority is pilot testing the technology and expects to have 100,000 cards in circulation by December. In the latest announcement, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has approved an $84 million contract with Cubic Transportation Systems to build the largest smart card ticketing system in California.

Smart card fare systems have become so popular that an executive at Cubic predicted all future requests for proposals from transit agencies will require smart cards for ticketing systems. Steve Shewmaker, Cubic's senior vice president, said smart cards have become the preferred method for payment and collection at transit agencies around the world. "There's a couple of reasons why," he explained. "First, costs have come down dramatically. Smart cards used to cost more than $10 a piece. Today, the cost is less than $2 per card."

Second, smart cards are reusable whereas magnetic farecards are not. "Riders like the fact they can reload value onto the cards," he added. Also, if the user registers his card and then loses it, agencies will refund the value that was left on the card, something that can't happen with other types of fare cards.

Another reason transit agencies are embracing smart cards is their service value.

"Consumers expect higher quality of service, whether it's from their local retailer or their local transit agency," said Harriet Smith, a public transit consultant with ITS America.


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