Transit fare media, technology, and fare policy – lessons from Europe

As WMATA moves forward on their next generation fare payment system (selecting Accenture to manage a pilot program), there are a few lessons to learn from transit operators around the world. During my most recent trip to Europe, I had the chance to use a number of technologies, showing the direction that operators like WMATA are interested in going with their next generation fare systems.

The wonders of technology:

Part of WMATA’s reasoning to replace the existing fare system is the need to accomodate a wider arrange of fare systems and fare structures. When WMATA experimented with their peak-of-the-peak rail fare surcharge, the additional coding to implement the fares introduced a noticeable lag for customers tapping their SmarTrip cards at the faregates.

At the same time, technology is not fare policy. Customers and advocates have been asking for unlimited ride pass products that mesh with WMATA’s distance-based fare structure. They’re now offering a ‘short trip’ pass available on SmarTrip cards, but it still doesn’t offer the full coverage of the rail system’s price points (no sense in getting this pass if most of your rail trips are shorter and thus cheaper), nor does it include bus fares. WMATA indicates that they’ve reached the technical limits of what the current SmarTrip card technology can do.

Beyond those current limitations, the NEPP is also interested in making SmarTrip cards useable for proof-of-payment systems. The DC area’s existing commuter rail operators currently use paper-based tickets, manually checked by conductors. Maryland’s Purple Line and DC’s streetcar introduce two more candidates for proof-of-payment in the regional transit mix – both of which would benefit from easy SmarTrip card connections to the existing faregate-based rail system. The NEPP’s goal is to provide the required back-end systems for all of these capabilities.

Two versions of the OV-chipkaart. CC image from Elisa Triolo.

Two versions of the OV-chipkaart. CC image from Elisa Triolo.

Consider the Netherlands. The Dutch don’t have a particularly large country, and they’ve managed to implement one single farecard for the entire country. The OV-Chipkaart (literally, ‘public transport chip card‘ – so much for cutesy branding) is used by all of the public transit agencies and private operators in the Netherlands, as well as the national rail operator, Nederlandse Spoorwegen. For all trips, regardless of mode (or the presence of faregates), you must check in to board/enter and check out to alight/leave. Transfers are handled automatically. Customers can load money onto the cards and pay as you go, or load pass products from any of the partner agencies (such as these examples from GVB in Amsterdam)

The use of check-in/check-out on all modes (including surface transport like buses and trams) is the kind of fare policy that takes advantage of the technology. It enables mixing different collection systems together (such as faregates and validator targets). The busiest national rail stations are equipped with fare gates (though most are locked in the open position for now), while smaller stations have simple pylons with validators. For surface transit without large stations, validators for check-in/out are located near all doors.

Fare media and fare policy are not the same:

Technology is part of the challenge, but it alone cannot overrule fare policy decisions. WMATA is an excellent case, where the technical capabilities of the SmarTrip platform limit the complexity and type of unlimited ride passes, but that doesn’t explain fare policy decisions that penalize transfers between modes. This is a policy decision, not one based on technical limits.

Integrating fares across a transit network is critical in shaping the behavior of users. New York has big ideas for infill commuter rail stations that could make better use of existing infrastructure for transit purposes, but without an integrated fare system (so that intra-city regional rail rides are cost-effective for passengers compared to the subway) the idea will never reach its full potential.

T+ ticket for Paris Metro and RER. CC image from josh.

T+ ticket for Paris Metro and RER. CC image from josh.

Consider Paris, where all transit is part of the same fare structure. From the passenger’s standpoint, there’s no difference between using the RER vs. the Metro within the city. The T+ ticket is easily available to visitors and makes use of the universal faregates shared by the Metro and RER. This unification of technology enables a unified fare policy, but the specific policies allow and encourage passengers to use RER services within the city.

Paris has a smartcard, branded as NaviGo. The first version was available only to residents, but worked for the Metro, RER and the Parisian bikeshare system, Velib (something New York is hoping to do with the MTA’s planned open payment system).

Oyster Card. CC image from David King.

Oyster Card. CC image from David King.

Consider London, where the addition of rapid transit service, branding (inclusion on the Tube map; use of roundel and other brand elements), and fare policy to legacy commuter and mainline rail infrastructure created the Overgroud. The Overground is now expanding, thanks to its success. London’s Crossrail project will share some of the same principles but with new tunnels akin to the Paris RER.

London’s smartcard, Oyster, takes advantage of the system’s technical ability to simplify a complicated fare system for users. Capping daily fares at the price of an equivalent day pass ensures that passengers using pay-as-you-go (particularly visitors) won’t get stiffed. It helps those unfamiliar with the system, demystifying the fares and zones. Like other unlimited use products, it encourages use of the system.

Buying a fare card:

As great as these products are, they’re not always easy to obtain. The Paris NaviGo isn’t marketed to visitors. In other cities, cards are available through ticket vending machines, but those TVMs likely won’t accept American magstripe credit cards. We can hope that recent fraud will speed the transition to pin-and-chip credit cards.

Beyond just chip and pin, American transit agencies like WMATA and New York’s MTA are looking for using contact-less credit and debit cards to collect fares directly. Even London is looking to end the Oyster card as a separate fare media, meshing the daily fare cap, only tracking based on the use of bank-provided cards.

Concerns for Future Technology:

Each of the European fare card systems has plenty of criticism. However, none of the problems with London’s Oyster card seem as severe as the issues with Chicago’s new Ventra card (replacing the older contactless Chicago Card). Ventra’s rollout has been plagued with errors, but the more concerning are Ventra’s wide range of hidden fees. From a system under the transit agency’s control, such fees are alarming – but it’s hard to see how you could avoid similar fees in a fully open payment system – such as London’s proposal – where the banks are issuing the fare media.

There’s also a concern about the ability of transit agencies to continue to offer useful unlimited ride pass products if they turn over the production of all fare media to banks and other payment providers. Good technology can’t magically craft good fare policy, but the two are linked.

3 comments to Transit fare media, technology, and fare policy – lessons from Europe

  • charlie

    would be interesting to see if the EU has a harmonization regime, or if it is done on a national level for these cards.

    After this last round of breaches, I would not be shocked to see legislation pushing for higher security in the US. The chip/pin combination would not be amendable to transit use.

  • Alex Block

    I’m not sure if there is a legislative push for harmonization, or if it is just from ISO standards. The NYC and London plans for Open Payment (and WMATA as well) are looking to use a card reader that would interface with anything – cards, phones, etc.

    I also won’t be surprised to see the US move to Chip and PIN, but I don’t think you’ll need legislative action to make it happen. The store owners are the ones that will bear the brunt of new equipment, and the card issuers won’t want to bear the burden of more fraud – that’s the pathway for broad agreement to implement the change. Target’s CEO has already come out in favor of it.

    As far as the impact on transit use, I do think the concerns about fraud might (and probably should) limit the use of NFC on a credit card. However, for transfering that to a farecard (like SmarTrip), that is fine – same with a phone, where the user has the ability to turn it on/off. I think some transit agencies thought this might get them out of the business of issuing fare cards, and I don’t think that will be the case.

  • charlie

    Yes, I was referring to a legislative move, or a move by the credit card industry to stop legislation by adopting chip+pin.

    This is what I could find from the EU (2011?)

    Based on the preceding assessment of options and in consideration of the results of the analysis undertaken to date, it is considered that the EC might reasonably implement a programme of measures, along the lines of those set out within the Do-minimum scenario, to encourage greater adoption of smart ticketing within public transport.
    These actions are designed to provide strategic leadership in the development and roll out of smart ticketing. The nature of the actions that might be undertaken include:
    – Conducting detailed assessments of schemes, identifying and facilitating the sharing of best practice;
    – Setting out ‘model’ scheme designs, business cases and model agreements between partners;
    – Engaging with key stakeholders, and supporting relevant research into new technologies, seeking / supporting technological convergence;
    – Providing incentives to stimulate further public and private investment and delivery;
    – Ensuring the right ‘tools’ are available (scheme architecture, standards and specifications) and encouraging their use.
    The approach taken and the effectiveness of the funds directed towards these actions should however be reviewed, after a period of say 3 years to confirm the appropriateness of this approach.
    Subject to the results of this later review, the EC might wish to reassess / reconsider the merits of the additional (Do-
    something) actions set out within the report. The nature of the additional actions that might be taken include
    – Providing additional funding for schemes that conform with the Vision and Plan to speed up the development of integrated smart ticketing schemes, in particular schemes which include the delivery of relevant, enhanced user data / information
    – Developing model Framework agreements for the supply of services and equipment
    – Including smart ticketing requirements in all newly let franchises

    Something to said for a functioning federal goverment instead of one that pushes money out to states.

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