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California Clearing the Way for Easy Contactless Transit Fares

Seniors riding the Monterey-Salinas Transit system can now use the Cal-ITP Benefits app to quickly confirm their eligibility for discounted fares, and then tap-and-pay with a credit or debit card.

Contactless digital fare system on bus
Part of making transit more convenient — and more equitable — is making it easy for riders to get the discounts they are entitled to.

A partnership among state agencies in California, and a local transit provider, has developed an easy-to-use app where seniors can quickly confirm their eligibility for their fare discount, and then simply tap their credit or debit card as they board the bus. The system automatically deducts the appropriate discounted fare from their account.

“Transit’s role in this project is to provide the vehicle — pun intended — that provides a link between lower income individuals and financial tools in the marketplace,” said Carl Sedoryk, CEO of Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST), a transit agency serving the California Central Coast and the first participant of the newly formed Cal-ITP Benefits web app.

The app, developed by the California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP) and the California Department of Technology (CDT), uses CDT’s digital ID technology. Officials believe the technology can be expanded to provide digital verification for other groups like veterans, students, low-income residents and other users of transit who often receive discounts.

“The Cal-ITP project was a great test case to leverage to securely verify identity and fare eligibility for senior transit riders in Monterey,” said Amy Norris, deputy director of communications at the California Department of Technology, in an email. “Because is used by more than 30 federal agencies including the Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs, it is a familiar Digital ID platform for a wide subset of people. We look forward to more partnerships to implement Digital ID technology to safely streamline access to state and local government services in California.”

The California Integrated Travel Project began as a six-month pilot last August to introduce contactless fare payments across a number of the state’s smaller transit agencies, using tap-to-pay systems, where riders could use their contactless-enabled credit or debit cards as well as devices like the Apple Watch. What’s more, built into the system is fare-capping, where each fare paid is kept track of, and once a rider has spent the amount needed for a monthly pass, the rest of the rides that month are free.

“Many low-income transit passengers do not have the ability to pay for monthly passes in a single lump sum. As a result, they end up paying with cash, which provides the least amount of discount,” said Sedoryk.

Riders who are unbanked are encouraged to use the Visa Cash App, which provides the same benefits of a reloadable debit card and does not require proof of identity or minimum monthly balances. The cards can be reloaded at a wide variety of retail locations like Dollar General or Rite Aid, or have paychecks direct deposited to the accounts.

Transit providers have been enthusiastic supporters of contactless payments for some time, often pointing to the added cost of collecting and processing cash. Plus, riders expect the technology.

“Recent studies have shown that 90 percent of North American transit riders expect to have a contactless payment system available to them, with two-thirds stating that they have strong expectations for this technology to be available,” said Sedoryk.

For now, the Cal-ITP Benefits feature is only available on the Monterey-Salinas system, however, Cal-ITP officials say they aim to make it more widely available, which can widen advantages, particularly when riders move from one transit system to another.

“As this comes online, the customer doesn’t have to reinstall. They can just travel. Which is not the case today. So we’re hoping that more and more transit agencies will sign up,” said Gillian Gillett, program manager for Cal-ITP.

Using technology to make it easier to access discounted fares is a step in the right direction toward improved transit equity, she added.

“A benefit that you can’t get, or that you’re overburdened to get, is not really a benefit,” said Gillett.
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 Yreka, Calif.