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Tech Supplements the Larger Mission for Memphis Transit

Tennessee's Memphis Area Transit Authority has contracted with Chicago-based to develop a cashless fare payment system. The upgrades play into the larger plan to reduce traffic and improve service.

by / October 31, 2019
The Memphis Area Transit Authority has contracted with Chicago-based to develop a cashless fare payment system. (Shutterstock)

A major Tennessee transit agency is making the move to include cashless payments for rides on its buses, trolleys and para-transit vehicles.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) will begin the process of developing the technology to enable mobile-ticketing via smartphones, new vending machines that accept card payments, loadable “smart cards,” which set up fare-management accounts, and other advancements. 

“These upgrades will enhance the passenger experience and provide options to passengers that they may not be able to take advantage of today,” said Gary Rosenfeld, chief executive officer at MATA.

Rosenfeld added, the upgrades will include on-board Wi-Fi, a feature which will improve vehicle tracking, allowing riders to know more precisely when their vehicle will arrive at a stop.

The technology upgrades would affect the fare collection system, planning tools and the asset management system, said Rosenfeld. MATA is contracting with, a Chicago-based Web-design and app development company for the $9 million project.

MATA covers a service area of 280 square miles, across 44 routes. The region is home to nearly 707,000 residents. Ridership in 2018 reached 6.6 million, according to statistics held by the American Public Transportation Association, down 4.8 percent from the year before.

MATA, like many transit agencies around the country, has struggled with declining ridership. In September, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris proposed a $30 million service improvement plan, known as Transit Vision 3.0, which would provide $10 million a year in new funding by imposing a $145 fee for registering a third or more personal vehicle. Today, MATA’s budget is about $56.8 million, according to city documents.

The additional investment in transit is designed to grow ridership, and grow the economy of Memphis by increasing access to jobs through affordable transportation, officials say. 

“We will all enjoy the benefits of clean air, reduced congestion, and a reduction in poverty. This sustainable investment in transit helps achieve all those objectives,” Harris said in a statement at the time.

One goal related to service improvements would create about eight high-use and high-frequency routes with wait times of 15 to 20 minutes.

Efforts like these — making buses faster, more affordable and frequent — can have a more profound impact on ridership than some of the more “sexy” bells and whistles like on-board Wi-Fi, wrote Steven Higashide, director of research at the TransitCenter, a research and advocacy group, in his 2019 book, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run and Win the Fight for Effective Transit.

“More people choose buses when they are a useful option for them — when it’s reasonably fast, affordable and convenient,” Higashide wrote.

That said, transit officials in Memphis say riders expect payment options other than just cash, which is the case today.

“We always are looking for ways to increase ridership and this technology should generate new interest in public transit from both the passenger community and  the business community,” said Rosenfeld.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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