For Public Transit Fares, Cities Are Going Mobile

by  Darren Murph | Jan 15, 2014
Fast train
Fast train / zssp/iStock

Anyone who's traveled on a major public transportation system in the United States is all too familiar with the woes created by swipeable metro cards. In New York City, the flimsy plastic passes sometimes require two or more swipes to work, and if you end up inside the wrong people-packed station, the wait to refill your card can take ages.

Granted, magnetic cards are still quicker than asking each rider to pay a cash fare in order to board, but now that we’re firmly planted in 2014, it’s time to start looking towards a superior alternative. This month, news arose from our nation’s capital that it, along with the Big Apple, are looking towards a future without a fare card. As smartphone penetration in the U.S. approaches 90 percent — and above that in major metropolitan areas — it’s high time to move to a more efficient model.

What’s the story? The downsides of conventional fare cards are many: they have to be manually reloaded at a kiosk; cannot be easily replaced if lost or damaged; and fail completely if the turnstile’s reader croaks. Both Washington, D.C. and New York City have plans to fully do away with fare cards by 2019, replacing them with a tappable scanner that would accept any number of tap-to-pay credit cards as well as taps/scans from smartphones. If you’ve ever used a mobile boarding pass to hop on a commercial flight, you get the picture.

Where’s it happening? So far, D.C. and New York are the two making the most noise. However, Chicago has already implemented its own next-generation card (Ventra), which can be tapped onto a turnstile reader. And Philadelphia has also put forth a less concrete plan to phase out dedicated fare cards. Overseas, hyper-connected cities such as Tokyo and Seoul have long embraced the tap-to-pay culture, but it’s just now bleeding over to North American locales.

What makes it tick? The technology behind practically every credit and debit card issued today (RFID) is also the same gadgetry that will allow readers to accept taps from transit-issued cards, phones, credit cards, and/or debit cards. No longer will you need a specific card to pay. Instead, you can use items that are already clanging around in your wallet. This will make life infinitely easier for tourists and business travelers: instead of having nine different fare cards from nine different cities in your purse, you can pay (in theory) with a single credit card regardless of where you go.

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