There are nearly 30 transit systems within the San Francisco area alone. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use one fare card for all of them? That’s just what a group of rail system CEOs had in mind when they approached the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) with the request to standardize fare collection systems more than one year ago.
There are several motivating factors for turning toward a standardized system. Installing a fare card system, even in a mid-size transit agency, is extremely expensive. “Big cities are spending well over $100 million per system to install a fare card system. The cost over the long run is pretty substantial as well,” says Tony Kouneski, APTA’s vice president of member services. “With standards, you can improve your ability to install these things and maintain them from a cost standpoint.”
Interoperability is another long-term issue to consider. Standards will enable transit agencies to implement regional passes that will allow customers to easily and conveniently transfer from one mode of transportation to another. “The ability to go from city to city using [one] fare card would be very attractive to many organizations,” Kouneski says. Standards are also a good idea from a maintenance standpoint. “Having an open architecture that doesn’t lock you in to one particular supplier in the future means you have much more control with standards,” he says.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has an interest in developing interoperability as well, says Thomas Parker, group manager for Bay Area Rapid Transit’s automatic fare collection. Parker is also chair of APTA’s Universal Transit Farecard Stakeholders group (UTFS), which is overseeing the standardization project. “[Standards are] something that the FTA feels will be beneficial to the consumer because the customer does not want to carry nine different cards to ride a system, especially in places like San Francisco where you have 28 to 30 different agencies,” says Parker. “If we were able to standardize a smart card solution for transit agencies, this would allow us to develop regional interoperability, which we have been struggling with for a very long time.”
“It’s crucial for all transit operators to agree upon standards that manage and monitor all of these new systems,” says Jane Matsumoto, universal fare system project manager for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “Interoperability is one thing, but recognizing that if we are going to pursue investing a lot of public money in expensive technology projects, we could all benefit from having standards established for the industry.”
Another beneficial outcome of standardization is the creation of a competitive environment in regard to manufacturers. “When you level the playing field and you give everybody the same opportunity to participate this creates competition,” Parker says. “When you create competition, you tend to make the costs cheaper and the quality better.”
Agencies, suppliers unite
The UTFS is composed of 33 U.S. rail agencies and a handful of manufacturers, and is then broken down into various committees.
“We’ve raised close to $400,000 from the transit systems and suppliers and a series of grants from the joint program office of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FTA,” says Kouneski. “So the federal government, the transit systems and the suppliers have all come together for this project, and APTA is coordinating it.”
“[UTFS’] focus has been supporting standardization in a way that [agencies] can retain both the customer’s desire for interoperability whether it’s between systems or even between suppliers’ gear within a single system that still allows suppliers to innovate,” says Jim Karam, senior VP for engineering and program management at Cubic Transportation Systems Inc.
The lack of standards helps to explain why fare collection systems in the U.S. are closed, proprietary, highly expensive and difficult to maintain, says Metavante Corp.’s Bastian Knoppers, VP for transit and card personalization. “With standardization, system capital and operational costs will decrease and customer convenience will increase with the end result providing increased ridership.”
GFI Genfare’s Kim Green, VP of sales and marketing, also supports standardization. “Being able to incorporate any of the smart card technology into our fare collection systems will be made easier with the adoption of industry-wide standards.”
When the standardization program was introduced to the leaders of the rail transit industry, one of their goals included guidance on how to buy a fare collection system that would serve more than one transit agency, says Thomas Peacock, APTA’s director of operations and technical services. “They wanted us to develop a decision-maker’s guide that would identify the key decision points for the procurement process,” he says.
Key points included questions about the type of fare card to choose, such as a true smart card versus a cardboard magnetic card. Other questions the transit agencies wanted clarified were whether the cards should include the ability to pay for things besides the ride, such as a newspaper.
Intellectual property policy
The second goal of the standardization project was the development of an intellectual property policy. “This industry has a history of proprietary designs and once a single company has you, you are kind of at the mercy of that company,” Peacock says. “When you want to change something, that company has to go in and change the software. Since there’s no competition, they can charge you pretty much what they want.”
In response, APTA’s UTFS group developed an intellectual property policy that states that if a company wants to participate in the standardization program, the customer must be allowed to use [the intellectual property] to get competition at no extra charge.
The last goal is the technical standards themselves, which mainly deal with the interfaces. “We want to make it so the transit system can buy vendor A’s card, or B’s card or C’s card, and they’d all work on the same reader,” Peacock says. “We are not so concerned how the components work as a black box, as long as when they have to talk to some other component in the system that they do it in a common way.”
The experts are determining how much information has to be stored, and how fast it has to be read. The new standards also aim to incorporate current systems. “There was also as much attention as possible being paid to legacy systems. If a transit agency has already invested a lot of money in a particular system, whatever new thing we do has to make it so that that was not a wasted investment,” Peacock says.
“We’ve finished with the intellectual property policy and we’ve put it out, and it appears that all the major vendors have agreed to play by those rules,” Peacock says. The guidance portion is close to completion, and the technical aspects have reached the halfway point. “So, if this all goes the way it’s supposed to, it will make the job of buying a regional automated fare collection system a lot easier and less mysterious.”