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Contactless Payment on the Rise Across California Transit

A commuter bus service along the California Central Coast installed the tap-to-ride fare payment technology on all of its buses, with other transit services in other parts of the state doing the same. The pilot project is part of a state effort to increase convenience for transit riders.

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A rider on the Clean Air Express commuter bus, serving the Central Coast in California, taps a credit card to a reader for fare payment. The new tap-to-ride system is part of a contactless fare-payment project being made available across several transit agencies in the state.
Submitted Photo/ Santa Barbara County Association of Governments<br/>
Paying the fare on a number of California transit buses and trains is as easy as grabbing a coffee from Starbucks. Fares on the Clean Air Express, a commuter service traveling up and down Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, can now be paid by simply tapping a credit or debit card on the reader as riders board.

“The differentiator for what we just launched … is not just the contactless, but it’s the implementation of the regular retail experience that everybody’s been used to for 15 years, where you can tap-to-pay,” said Scott Spaulding, director of rail and transit at Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), which operates the tri-county transit service.

The contactless fare-payment system, known as the California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP), is part of a six-month pilot, made available via a partnership with the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). Tap-to-pay systems are also being deployed on the Monterey-Salinas Transit system, Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District and Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) light rail.

“With this type of fare collection, California transit systems can transition away from the current ‘closed-loop’ method that only accepts cash or agency-specific fare cards to an ‘open-loop’ model that accepts contactless credit and debit cards and mobile wallets on smart devices like phones and watches that can be used throughout different transit systems and anywhere else that accepts contactless payments,” explained Marty Greenstein, assistant deputy secretary for communications at CalSTA, in an email.

Technology upgrades, like the contactless payment system, are explored as part of an overall mission to add convenience to service to the commuter bus experience, said Spaulding.

“Technology is something we’ve tried to do, even with our extremely limited budget, whenever we could,” said Spaulding, calling attention to services like Wi-Fi which have long been a part of the Clean Air Express experience.

“It was expensive. It was certainly optional,” he remarked of the Wi-Fi technology.

“We’ve always tried to create the best experience possible for the customer, to be able to draw someone out of their Ford Escape, who’s driving 60 or 70 miles to work,” said Spaulding. “On all those levels … we try to compete for market share.”

Ridership on the commuter coach service dropped some 70 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Service levels were reduced from 13 round trips to nine round trips. Ridership has been slowly increasing and is now back to about 50 percent of its pre-COVID-19 ridership, said Spaulding.

And developments like the contactless fare system — introduced about three weeks ago, and described by Spaulding as “bulletproof” in its rollout — are likely to live beyond the pilot phase.

“I have a hard time seeing us not continuing this, somehow in some shape or form,” said Spaulding. “It’s a modernization of how people pay their fares. And I can’t see us taking a step back in time and saying, no, this doesn’t work.”

Tap-to-ride systems have been rolled out in Boston, New York, Miami, Sydney and London, among other cities.

“There’s no need for riders to stop to purchase or reload an agency-specific fare card or juggle exact change when boarding; passengers can just tap and ride,” said Greenstein. “What’s more, customers can pay as they go to earn bulk-ride discounts that were previously only available to riders who could afford to pay upfront for a daily, weekly or monthly pass. In other words, riders can now pay the price of a pass as they go — but never pay more.”

The California Department of General Services has issued an RFP to help make it easier for transit providers in the state to acquire the needed hardware and software to support contactless payment systems. And Cal-ITP has set up the CA Mobility Marketplace as a one-stop resource to help with the procurement process.
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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