Harris County, Texas, Metro to Lure New Riders with Smartphone Payment System

By restructuring, officials estimate, ridership will increase by 20 percent, much of that coming from riders not dependent on transit, but willing to ride if it is convenient.

by Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle / July 2, 2015

(TNS) -- A new bus system will hit the streets in less than seven weeks, and with it Metro officials in Harris County, Texas, will roll out new ways to track buses and pay fares, all aimed at streamlining trips and luring new riders.

As Metropolitan Transit Authority officials planned for the new system – which will affect practically every bus ride in the region – they have also focused on offering new services. One of those, a system that allows bus riders to text a code listed at each bus stop and receive a reply with the time of the next bus arriving, will debut in August, at the same time sweeping changes come to Metro’s bus routes.

The second new feature, an application to allow riders to buy fares and display them on their smartphones, will be ready in October or November, said Denise Wendler, Metro’s chief information officer.

Officials last month approved a $244,090 contract with GlobeSherpa for the smartphone payment system. Wendler said it would take 60 to 90 days to unveil the first phase, available only to purchase regular fares and day passes. A second phase would enable riders to buy fares specific to park and ride and to pay with online tools such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

The new text and smartphone payment systems are intended not only to provide better service for existing riders, but to attract new Metro users, officials said.

A similar theory guided some of the changes to the bus system. New routes and schedules debut Aug. 16 on all local bus routes, after months of discussion and changes by transit agency staff, riders, community agencies and Metro board members. Bus ridership still lags 2007 use, a problem that many transit officials attribute to cuts in service and to an antiquated bus system that doesn’t reflect where people live and work.

Critics of the new system argue the changes displace many current riders in an effort to lure people unlikely to hop aboard because Houston remains a place where personal vehicle travel is faster and less cumbersome.

By restructuring, officials estimate, ridership will increase by 20 percent, much of that coming from riders not dependent on transit, but willing to ride if it is convenient. Increasing convenience, however, involves more than adding routes. Connecting riders to better information, such as text messages that say when the next bus is coming, reduces uncertainty.

Smartphone fare payment is also a factor, notably to attract younger and tech-savvy riders who might balk at carrying cash or tracking down a Q card.

At the same time, Metro is reverting to issuing paper transfers for cash-paying riders.

The challenge, officials said, is to avoid overwhelming current riders, future riders and Metro staff.

“It would have been nice to do it in all one fell swoop,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said. “We have so many things going on… I think it is important it is a coordinated effort and the messaging is precise.”

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

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