FutureStructure

Bay Area to Test ‘MuniMobile’ App

San Francisco's Muni is hoping to reduce delays for California commuters.

by Michael Cabanatuan, San Francisco Chronicle / November 16, 2015
San Francisco Muni Train flickr/Shawn Clover

(TNS) -- By the time Adam Farken, a tourist from Charlotte, N.C., had finished wrestling with the Muni ticket machine at Powell Street Station on Friday, punching buttons, inserting credit cards and scratching his head, he was ready for the future, which officially arrives Monday.

That’s when members of the general public can start using their smartphones to pay their Muni fares. Mayor Ed Lee and the Municipal Transportation Agency are expected to announce the launch of MuniMobile, an 18-month experiment in mobile ticketing.

“I’m a traveler, so I would use it,” said Farken, a project manager. “I love phone apps.”

Municipal Transportation Agency officials are hoping many of the Muni riders who pay cash — many of them tourists, Bay Area day-trippers and occasional transit riders — will download the free app and begin using it to pay their way, cutting the lines at the fare boxes and ticket machines and allowing Muni to reduce its cash-processing costs.

“We have a great fare system in Clipper, and more than half of our riders use it,” said Ed Reiskin, MTA transportation director. “But that means nearly half of our people pay with cash. And that slows boarding.”

18-Month Test

During the 18-month test program, Muni riders will be able to purchase single-ride and cable car fares as well as one-, three- and seven-day passports, which tourists often queue up to buy at Muni kiosks and retail outlets.

Sammy Jalil, 35, visiting from Cali, Colombia, had just visited the Muni kiosk near the Powell Street cable car turnaround. He said he’ll use the app in the future.

“I will do it,” Jalil said. “I prefer to use the app. It’s more comfortable. You can use it anywhere.”

The MuniMobile app is free and works on iPhones and Android phones. After downloading the app, Muni riders create an account, choose the type of rider (regular adult, senior, disabled, youth or paratransit), then choose a fare (bus or rail, cable car, or passport). Then they go to checkout and pay using credit card, debit card or PayPal.

The app deposits a ticket in the user’s account, where it’s intended to be used as a flash pass to be shown to fare inspectors, cable car conductors or station agents, not tapped on the Clipper card reader. Before boarding, riders call up the colorful digital ticket on their phone. Once activated, it shows a Muni bus rolling past Sutro Tower. It displays the ticket’s expiration date and time, and the colors turn gray once the ticket expires.

PayPal officials said Muni is one of only a handful of transit agencies that let riders use their service to pay fares. Reiskin said PayPal is an important addition because the service offers people without credit cards or checking accounts a way to set up an account and pay their Muni fares.

“For us, this is another example of digital payments being something you don’t have to use cash for,” said Anuj Nayar, a senior director at PayPal. He pointed out that Uber, Lyft and Chariot also accept PayPal payments.

Mayor Ed Lee said the app is a way the city’s booming tech sector can aid public transportation.

“We are creating a world-class transportation network for our residents, workers and visitors, with more service, new vehicles and now the best in technology,” he said in a statement. “Our city’s investments in our transportation network and tools like MuniMobile will make Muni easier to board, more efficient and reliable for our growing city and ridership.”

One group the new Muni app won’t accommodate is FastPass users. They’ll have to continue using Clipper cards to pay their way — for now.

“Eventually, it could be added.” Reiskin said. “We’re starting small and simple. I’m certain future versions could have more (types of fares and passes) on them.”

Open to Improvements

Reiskin said the agency hopes to learn from the 18-month experiment and improve the mobile app in future versions. As the first Bay Area test of a mobile payment technology, it could also lead to a regional pay-with-your-phone system.

The app, tested over the past couple of months by 200 volunteers, was developed by GlobeSherpa, a Portland, Ore., mobile ticketing company, at a cost of $95,000.

Muni riders shown the app Friday predicted it would be a success in a city filled with tech workers and a region in which mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous.

“It would be more convenient,” said Teraesha Blake, 18, a frequent Muni rider, as she waited for a train at Powell Station. “I have my phone with me 24-7, and people download apps for everything, so why not?”

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.