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How Contactless Ticketing Is Increasing Convenience for Transit Travelers

Transit systems in Portland, Ore., and Chicago make fare payment increasingly effortless for travelers.

In cities like Portland, Ore., and Chicago, mass transit riders no longer have to fumble through multiple tickets or smartphone apps as they board the region's network of buses, trains or streetcars.

Instead, payment systems for these various transit providers are gravitating toward cloud-based technology, making the payment and management of the rides one seamless swipe for users. 

Riders in Portland now have access to Hop Fastpass, described as “an electronic fare system,” where riders use contactless-payment devices, such as their “Hop Card,” to pay for fares on multiple transit systems in the area (like TriMet and C-TRAN buses, Portland Streetcar, MAX Light Rail, WES Commuter Rail and C-TRAN The Vine rapid transit).

“It marks a significant shift to a thoroughly modern system designed to make paying fares easier and more convenient while offering riders additional benefits,” said Tia York, a public information officer with TriMet, the provider of bus, light rail and commuter rail service in the Portland-Vancouver region.

Nat Parker, CEO of Moovel North America, the software company that created the Hop Fastpass app, said it's a regional fare-collection system, "which means as opposed to sort of toggling between different apps for each system, you have one stored value account that can allow you to hop-on and hop-off of these different services."

While Moovel created the app, Innovations in Transportation Inc. (INIT) built the new electronic fare system and created the back-end capabilities for Hop Fastpass.

The Portland Hop Fastpass system was launched systemwide several weeks ago, with Hop cards available in grocery stores and other outlets. Hop readers also accept contactless credit/debit cards and. TriMet riders can also tap via their smartphones using a mobile wallet, such as Apple Pay.

For riders, Hop Fastpass offers not just an easy flow-through system, but the opportunity for cost savings as well.

“With Hop, every time fare is paid, the tap goes toward a day-pass or month-pass,” York explained. “After paying for two trips in a day, a day-pass is earned, and the rest of the rides are free until the next day.”

The new system also includes the concept of "fare-capping," where once you've tapped through enough rides to add up to the cost of a monthly pass, the rest of the rides that month are free. 

“Fare-capping provides a distinct benefit to people who don’t have to front $100 bucks lets say, to purchase their monthly pass,” said Parker. “And instead can just work up to that as they ride. So I think that’s really a very advantageous feature of the system for the public.”

The fare-collection trend in transit today is a movement that puts the rider’s account on the cloud, to be accessed via a connected device. It’s what Parker calls an “open-loop” system. It’s a move away from, say, the transit fare card that has your balance stored on the card itself, known as a “closed-loop” system.

“Whereas in a system like Clipper in San Francisco or the TAP card in Los Angeles, the value of your account resides on a chip in the card itself,” said Parker.

Instead, a system like the Hop Fastpass takes that data off the card, or mobile device, and places it in an online cloud.  

“Today, with the technology innovations in cloud computing … we use the [Hop] card as just a credential, or a token, that signifies an account that’s resident in the cloud,” Parker explained. “So you don’t actually store the value on the card. The card is just a unique identifier for your account in the cloud.”

In Chicago, metro riders use the Ventra mobile app, a similar system that allows customers to plan, manage and pay for their journeys across three transit systems from their mobile devices. The app offers riders a wide range of functionality, including the ability to add transit value, set up auto-load features, check balances, see transit purchases and travel history, as well as benefit from real-time notifications. The Ventra app reached 1 million downloads in October 2016. It has now passed the 2 million downloads milestone.

“In one simple dashboard, Ventra app users can pay for transit rides, review scheduling and arrival information, maintain their card balances, manage their user accounts,” said Sushil Rajendran, vice-president and general manager, Central Region, for Cubic Transportation Systems, the company that developed Ventra. (Moovel has also worked with Chicago Transit Authority to develop its mobile ticketing platform on Metra, the region's commuter rail network.) 

Trends show the “smart cards” Parker describes may also be on their way out as riders gravitate toward mobile apps like the Ventra app in Chicago, rather than carrying the card.

“While we have account management apps where you can add value to a card, we think that card can stay in your work briefcase, or in your purse as a backup, should your phone die,” said Parker. “But really, the primary customer experience should be that you can check your arrival time on your phone. You can walk up to a turnstile, walk up to a bus, and literally just tap that phone as you would at a Whole Foods cashier, using Apple Pay and Android Pay.

“And so that’s where we’re really focused. We’re working with both Apple and Google to facilitate that,” said Parker.  

Systems like Hop Fastpass or Ventra represent the forefront of transit, say officials.

“In 2010, our general manager, Neil McFarlane presented his team with a challenge: bring fare payment into the 21st century. After more than five years of development as well as internal and external testing we officially launched July 17, 2017,” said York at TriMet in Portland. “Hop was delivered on time and under its $34 million budget.”

And overall, a multi-modal fare payment option is an investment in a city's riders, said Rajendran at Cubic. “Public transit is a life-enabler — whether that means getting to work on time, traveling to visit friends or family, attending a once-in-a-lifetime concert or show, or just running your everyday errands. All of these tasks are greatly improved when the journey is smooth, free of stress and well-thought-out by the city.”

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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