Automated fare media

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The Clipper Card is an automated fare medium used in the San Francisco Bay Area by seven of the region's transit agencies, including Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Photo by Flickr user sam_churchill.


Transit agencies have traditionally used cash-based fare systems, but cash is expensive to transport, count, and guard. It can also be inconvenient for riders to have to pay an exact fare for each leg of a trip. For these reasons, many agencies have introduced automated fare media by expanding fare payment to electronic, magnetic-stripe contact cards and more recently to smartcards.

A smartcard is a contactless, reusable, prepaid card that includes an embedded microchip to monitor fare transactions and stored balance. Payment is processed through a microchip using near field communications or radio frequency identification (RFID). Transit agencies view smartcards as a potentially revolutionary advancement due to their benefits, which include convenience, greater fare flexibility, operational cost savings, service enhancements, decreased fare-processing time, centralized fare collection, more efficient fare pricing, and greater capacity for data compilation of ridership and travel behavior.

Several U.S. transit agencies have also deployed mobile ticketing solutions. They include TriMet (Portland), San Diego, Boston, and Dallas. Riders can install applications on their smartphones.

Types of Systems

Automated fare media can come in a variety of formats and can even include credit and debit cards. One key point to remember is that there are two types of systems: open and closed. Open systems accept payment through fare media issued by an entity outside of the transit system, such as a bank or a university. Closed systems only accept payment forms issued by that system.

Transit-system management of fare collection can be a costly endeavor and there may be some advantages to outside management of the fare-payment system. However, with credit and debit cards, some of the advantages of prepayment will be lost.[1]

Interagency coordination

Automated fare media can be used to consolidate fare media among several agencies within a region. This has the benefit of making transfers between agencies more simple and straightforward for transit customers. The Bay Area's Clipper Card is a good example of several agencies working together to use a common payment medium.

Reducing vehicle dwell time

Automated fare media can reduce or eliminate the need for transit customers to pay in cash, a typically time-intensive process compared to electronic fare media. Many electronic fare media in use feature the ability to pre-load the fare card with passes or cash value.

The Federal Transit Administration notes:

Many transit agencies offer prepaid fare media, such as a season pass, stored value card, or ticket. If a driver is required to inspect passes, boarding can be longer than with payment in change. An electronic fare box with a card reader can reduce boarding time for pass holders.

Fare cards with a microchip, or smart cards, can allow transit agencies to offer a more sophisticated fare policy. Contactless smart cards need only be waved at a marked spot, and therefore can reduce payment time.[2]

Resistance to use of smart cards

There are many reasons why riders would choose to use cash for fare payment rather than smartcards or other prepaid fare payment. Reasons include the perception that the initial cost of obtaining the card will not be worth the investment, the fear of losing a pre-paid card’s value, concerns about privacy issues, and the convenience of cash for the occasional rider.[1]

New York MTA's Transition to an Open System

In May 2019, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)--the largest transit provider in the United States--began its transition toward an open fare payment system for the greater New York City area by launching a pilot of its new system, called OMNY. As of July 2019, riders on the 4 5 6 subway between Grand Central and 42nd Street, and Atlantic Avenue and Barclays Center, can pay their fare using a contactless credit, debit, or reloadable prepaid card, or a digital wallet on a smartphone or wearable device. All MTA-operated Staten Island buses also accept OMNY. Users must register for a new account to use OMNY but may also continue to use the MTA's outgoing payment method, MetroCard, until OMNY is in operation systemwide.[3]


Additional Reading

Iseki, H., Demisch A., Taylor, B.D., & Yoh, A.C. (2008). “Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Transit Smart Cards.”. California PATH Program, UC Berkeley.

This study examines the cost-benefit analysis strategies of three transit agencies prior to implementation of smart card systems for fare payment.

Federal Highway Administration. (2001). "Ventura County Fare Integration: A Case Study; Promoting Seamless Regional Fare Coordination."

This report by the Federal Highway Administration is a case study of Ventura County, California's transition to using several Intelligent Transportation Systems, including contactless fare cards, or smart cards. The report includes a description of the lessons learned from this multi-jurisdictional transition. Most importantly, the report outlines the institutional needs, the technical requirements, the methods for gaining customer acceptance, and lessons learned to make the program more successful.

Rainville, L., Hsu, V., & Peirce, S. (2009). “Electronic Fare Collection Options for Commuter Railroads.” Federal Transit Administration.

This 2009 study from the Federal Transit Administration describes the experiences of six commuter railroad systems that have begun using automated fare media, including 'contact' and 'contactless' fare cards. Case studies include San Diego's Coaster commuter rail line. Lessons learned are specifically tailored to commuter rail systems.