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Fare Collection Made Simple

Dallas Area Rapid Transit uses the cloud to offer contactless electronic payments.

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As more people return to public transportation after COVID-19, riders in the Dallas, Texas region are enjoying a convenient, modern transit experience, thanks to a multi-option, account-based fare payment system that operates in the cloud.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has operated its GoPass Tap payment system since 2018. Based on the Pulse automated fare collection solution from Vix Technology and residing in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud, the system helps DART cut costs while providing flexibility, scalability, security, and resilience. At the same time, it offers riders an easy, contact-free way to pay their fares.

“Cloud infrastructure is a key component of our digital payment system,” says Dr. Julius Smith, vice president and chief information officer (CIO) at DART.

Flexible, all-electronic system

Covering the city of Dallas and 12 surrounding cities, DART’s 700-square mile transportation network includes 692 buses, 93 miles of light rail, commuter rail, paratransit service, and a 2.4-mile streetcar network. Before it implemented GoPass Tap, DART used a cash and paper ticket system to collect all fares. When DART set out to procure a more advanced, all-electronic payment system in 2015, the agency specified cloud-based architecture, since it was becoming the standard for modern fare collection, according to Riyad Alsaid, DART’s senior manager of revenue administration.

DART had two main goals for the new system, Alsaid says. One was to provide a contactless fare collection system that maximizes convenience for riders, improving customer experience and increasing ridership. In addition, customers would have more options to purchase tickets and easily use DART services. DART would also have the ability to customize special fare programs as needed — a difficult task with paper tickets.

“With an electronic system, you can develop special programs and pricing for the various types of tickets,” Alsaid says.

Vix and DART deployed GoPass Tap for buses and light rail in 2018. They added the streetcar system in 2020.

Tap and Ride

To use GoPass Tap, a rider buys a GoPass card at any of 900 retail locations in DART’s service area and establishes an account. Riders can add funds to their accounts at one of these retail stores, on a website, or through a mobile app. When boarding a transit vehicle, the rider taps the card on a device called a validator, which captures just the card’s serial number. Using that number to locate the rider’s account in a database, the Pulse system deducts the appropriate fare.

The card contains no information about the rider, and the account ledger resides in the cloud.

“In the case where a customer may lose their GoPass Tap card, they don’t lose their funds. As long as they register the card at our site their account funds are secure. They simply need to pick up a new card at one of our retail locations, add funds, and add the card to their profile.” Alsaid says.

DART is currently piloting a new option for the fare collection system that will eliminate the need to use cash or purchase a ticket at the Ticket Vending Machine. In this open payment system, DART uses Vix Whisper, a solution to accept fares via credit or debit cards equipped with near field communication (NFC) chips which enable tapping your card for transfer of payment.

A passenger who uses this option doesn’t even need to establish an account with DART. The rider simply taps the card on the validator, which collects data specified by the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard. The system uses that data to register the transaction in the rider’s Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover credit or debit account. If a rider has an electronic wallet tied to a credit or debit card, they can also conduct the transaction by passing their mobile phone near the validator. Even though DART’s riders can still also use the old-fashioned tickets to pay their fares, the transit agency plans eventually to phase out the paper option.

Why cloud is crucial

Riders could not enjoy the ease and convenience of electronic payment if DART’s fare collection system were housed in a local data center rather than in the cloud, according to Alsaid.

“You’d have latency in a system that requires real-time responses for NFC technology. Cloud systems provide a much more robust and reliable level of data and network security that are expected with EMV (Europay, MasterCard and Visa) payment services.”

Cloud architecture reduces costs for DART not only when it comes to securing credit and debit transactions, but in all aspects of the fare payment system. Since none of the Pulse or Whisper technology operates in DART’s own data center, the agency didn’t have to buy new hardware to support those systems. It also doesn’t have to dedicate resources to system maintenance.

“An on-premises system would have required more human capital, and more financial and physical resources, to support the fare payment system throughout the region,” Smith says.

DART can also scale the system up as needed without procuring and installing more hardware or enlarging its data center footprint.

Another benefit that cloud architecture provides is system resilience. “Because cloud environments are built with redundancy failover systems and the access to immediate memory, scalability is not a problem,” Alsaid says. That applies whether the system encounters an unexpected problem or operators need to take some of it offline for routine maintenance.

The cloud environment also helps protect DART’s entire IT infrastructure from malicious activity, Alsaid says. “It’s much more secure than being on a local server in a data center, which has more of a probability of being attacked by ransomware or a virus.”

In addition, the cloud environment makes it simple to collect data about payment activity in real time, which provides details on how riders use DART services. “We have the data to analyze where riders are tapping, giving us information to make better management decisions regarding services,” Alsaid says.

Climbing back

Before the pandemic, DART moved more than 220,000 passengers a day. Many of those riders were using GoPass Tap, with adoption increasing steadily month over month. Although ridership had fallen by about 50 percent as of the third quarter of 2020, it has continued to recover steadily in recent months.

GoPass Tap plays a significant role in that recovery, providing a safe, no-contact payment option that passengers can start using with very little effort. As more riders embrace the electronic system, DART is gradually returning to the revenue volumes it previously enjoyed.

Once DART finishes testing the open payment system and makes that option available to all customers, choosing electronic payment will become even more simple.

“It provides DART customers with the option to immediately board a service without having to purchase a ticket. If customers want to go cashless, now they can use GoPass Tap or App. It allows them to say, ‘I don’t need to apply for anything; I can take the service immediately,’” Alsaid says.

And riding public transit in the Dallas region will become even more convenient later in 2021, when DART rolls out a new alternative to its GoPass electronic payment card, also cloud-based. This will allow contactless payment with a credit or debit card or mobile wallet.

Beyond fare collection, DART uses cloud-based systems for several other functions, including e-mail, virtual conferencing, project management, and asset management. “Also, we’re starting a project to transition to a more modern, cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) application, particularly for human resources and talent management,” Smith says. “DART’s technology strategy takes a cloud-first approach whenever it’s appropriate.”