SF Transit Riders Can Soon Pay by Phone

The new system will allow riders to use debit cards, credit cards or PayPal to buy Muni tickets anywhere and at any time.

by / January 15, 2015

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced it will soon allow riders of the city’s buses, trains and cable cars to purchase fares utilizing their smartphones. The pilot, which is expected to roll out this summer, is part of SFMTA’s efforts to improve the customer experience on the Muni system, said Travis Fox, chief information officer for SFMTA.

Fox said San Francisco is following in the footsteps of several other cities, including Portland, Boston, Austin, and L.A., which have recently adopted mobile ticketing applications that allow customers to pay by phone.

“We noticed that there are a number of agencies that have gone this route and we wanted to look at it, as well as a way to make it easier for our customers to pay their fare in a non-cash way,” said Fox. “About 50 percent of our customers still pay with cash, and anything we can do to make it easier for them to pay their fare and get onboard more quickly is a good thing all around.”

The software, developed by Portland, Ore.-based GlobeSherpa, will allow riders to use debit cards, credit cards or PayPal to buy Muni tickets anywhere and at any time. SFMTA inspectors will then verify fares purchased via smartphone through a separate app.

“With the app, tickets can be purchased in just a matter of seconds anywhere that there is cell service or Wi-Fi service,” said Fox. “They can then be activated anywhere or any time. It's really convenient for our customers.”

Fox said SFMTA is primarily utilizing existing technology for the pilot, so it will not require significant investment.

“GlobeSherpa has developed a mobile ticketing platform for other agencies as well, so we're getting something that we know has worked well in other cities,” he explained. “Certainly there are some things specific to San Francisco in terms of our fares or functionality we would like to add, but we're using the base of something that is already established.”

Fox said the primary cost will be credit card processing fees and a commission that goes to GlobeSherpa. But ultimately, the cost to collect mobile payments will be less than the costs associated with collecting fares via traditional means, which require workers to manually clean out and maintain fare boxes, maintain ticket vending machines, etc.

“The traditional way is, as you can imagine, incredibly resource-intensive,” he said.
The new app also has the potential to help improve traffic flow throughout the Muni system, explained Fox.

“If it results in getting customers on faster then that's great all around because that speeds up our service as well,” he said. “Everyone wins in that regard. Those who are traveling can get from point A to point B more quickly, and of course faster service allow us to run more efficiently as well. There are a lot of upsides.”

In addition to regular Muni riders, tourists that visit San Francisco will benefit from the new pilot as well. Tourists can purchase one-, three- and seven-day Muni passports via the phone app. They can also purchase multiple tickets on one device, resulting in less paper to manage as they tour the city.

“For example, if a family with two parents and two kids is visiting San Francisco, rather than fumbling with four different pieces of paper, they can have all of their tickets on one device,” said Fox. “From a convenience perspective, in terms of not having to get these paper passports for everyone in advance, and from a management perspective of having them in one place, I think it will be a real benefit for folks who visit San Francisco as well.”

Fox said SFMTA is currently in a requirements gathering phase. Once they have a working application in place and have completed the necessary internal legwork, they plan to test the application among their employees. Fox said that will likely happen in the next 60 days or so. After that, they plan to test the app with a small group of external customers before rolling it out to all customers this summer.

SFMTA is also in the process of determining the best way to market the new service to Muni  riders.

“We’re going to specifically target some of the locations where we have a lot of folks boarding with cash to help them understand that there is an easier way for them to board,” Fox said. “Then more broadly we'll leverage all the communications channels we have available -- our website, social media, etc. -- and we’ll also advertise in our stations.”

Fox said the new pilot also provides SFMTA a good opportunity to gauge the mobile payment adoption rate, and then consider scaling down traditional ways of collecting fees in the future should mobile payments prove both popular and cost effective.

Justine Brown Contributing Writer