The introduction of smart card systems is giving transit agencies a much-needed facelift when it comes to fare collection. This story will discuss how projects in Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles are faring with their transitions from old-school systems, as well as special project considerations and outreach programs.
As the operator of the nation’s oldest subway, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) offers up its new CharlieCard system as a perfect example of how an antiquated fare system with brass tokens has been completely modernized.
As of December 2006, all subway stations, buses and Green Line trolleys had been converted. The entire system has more than 3,000 field devices in service today, including 500 fare vending machines equipped with smart card and magnetic readers, 600 fare gate consoles and 1,530 validating fareboxes on buses and Green line vehicles. Work still remains to be done to gradually introduce the more sophisticated features during the balance of the year.
Such system-wide changes do not happen easily. Many hours were spent during the period between 2001 to ’04 in developing the fare system strategy, finalizing equipment design, developing training and completing other critical internal tasks.
Because the MBTA offers a variety of transit services using different modes with distinct operational characteristics, this played heavily into the development of how its automated fare collection system would need to operate.
Very close attention had to be given to address the transition aspects — readiness for conversion to smart card-based system with a graceful changeover. Planning for customer outreach efforts was a critical ingredient.
In early January, the CharlieCard became available — at all subway stations, in every bus, on every light rail vehicle, at all MBTA Pass Sales offices and in a growing number of retail sales merchant locations.
The strategies for transitioning to a new system dictated the need to begin with magnetic fare media and later aggressively introduce smart cards. The issue of providing means for the occasional rider also required this approach as disposable smart card tickets were not considered to be a feasible proposition at the time.
The CharlieTicket (magnetic ticket) was introduced first because it enabled all monthly pass holders to simply use passes in the old swipe readers at unconverted stations and in the ticket transport of the new fare gates in the converted stations. CharlieTickets could also be purchased at fare vending machines (FVMs) using cash, credit or debit cards.
The CharlieCard (smart card) was introduced to all employees in conjunction with a major push to get all reduced-fare ID customers, such as seniors, converted to CharlieCards with photo IDs early in the program.
The push is on to convert the vast majority of riders to smart cards. Magnetic tickets will continue for the bus and rapid transit riders, as well as other modes where automated fare collection is not fully implemented. It is estimated that about 1.2 million CharlieCards have been provided free to customers as part of the outreach program and the rapid conversion from CharlieTicket to CharlieCard.
Public outreach started early during the design phases and continued through equipment production and implementation phases. It is now culminating with a very aggressive campaign as conversion from CharlieTickets to CharlieCards as the automated fare collection system.
In spring of 2004, the MBTA convened a series of focus groups to solicit feedback from riders on the screens and screen flows for the new system’s FVMs. This began as the conceptual design process and continued on to the final design segment.
Focus group participants — typical riders, employees and ADA community representatives — were asked to perform several mock transactions using various forms of payment, including paper money, coins, tokens, credit cards and debit cards. This was also a good way to introduce the concept of stored value.
Most participants said that expediting the process of purchasing tickets by eliminating unnecessary screens, providing clearer explanations and using fewer words and more icons and graphics was of greater importance.
Lessons learnedChoosing the technology. The decision to have magnetic tickets (CharlieTickets) for at least three to four years to allow rapid transition to smart cards was a big step in the early days. It was decided the CharlieTicket was the best approach early on for a planning horizon of about eight to 10 years as the most cost-effective and risk-free approach to address the MBTA’s needs.
Over the span of the project, the MBTA had to address many issues and find a way to move forward without jeopardizing the implementation schedule. Here are some examples:
Selecting the standards. MBTA decided to move forward with the standards that were already in place at the time of contract award and those established by internationally recognized standards bodies.
Establishing customer service priorities. Set by General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas, “Driven by Customer Service” is now the motto of the MBTA. Grabauskas and Deputy GM Joe Kelley led the effort to make sure the automated fare collection program was a key component of the goal to transform the MBTA into a customer-oriented organization. This guided many decisions throughout the program, including the creation of the agency’s first full-time customer service center, which was opened in downtown Boston last December.
Establish the proper internal structure and resources. The project demanded significant resource expenditure for the MBTA, and the agency realized during the earlier phases that it might not have properly staffed a fully functioning project office for a program of this magnitude. Realizing this, the MBTA invested in additional personnel to enlarge the project office, allowing for a more focused and skilled team that implemented the complex project on time. This team worked constantly to handle, or coordinate with other MBTA departments, the myriad of issues (from equipment design and station construction to customer service issues and public outreach) that needed to be addressed.
Jack McLaughlin has been with the MBTA for the past 26 + years and is currently director of the AFC Systemwide Modernization project.
Ashok Joshi, formerly with Parsons and now with Keville Enterprises Inc., provided research support in preparing this article.
To the south, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority’s (MARTA) Breeze smart card program is also in its transitional phase. Smart-card enabled fare gates have been installed in all 38 rail stations, and close to 600 buses have been equipped with new fare boxes. The agency’s 105-vehicle paratransit fleet has also been outfitted with the new equipment. Ultimately, the system will be regionalized, allowing seamless connection with four partner bus systems in adjoining counties.
An $80 million contract with Cubic Transportation Systems, with the potential for additional costs if options are exercised, comprises the majority of the project cost. Other project costs included a $40 million station overhaul, which involved modifying rail stations to accept the new fare equipment and installation of stainless steel architectural fencing as well as updating the communications and power infrastructure for the new system. In addition, two cash handling facilities — used for both cash handling and card encoding — were renovated to meet fire and safety codes at a cost of $15 million.
The aforementioned rail station modifications played an integral role in the new system by controlling passenger flow from bus to rail and mitigating fare evasion. Originally, passengers transferred between modes freely through what were called “bus intermodals” without passing through fare gates as transfers are free. “This was a revenue leakage for the authority, and we are very dependent on the fare box for our revenue,” says MARTA’s Neil Poling, director of technology enterprise, management and planning.
While mitigating fare evasion was a key proponent to installing the new architecture, collecting valuable passenger data was another advantage.
“We are able to get more accurate passenger counts for system planning and scheduling,” Poling says. MARTA’s planning department is also able to cull data on “trip pairs,” which will denote how many people travel between a pair of stations. “Now we can plan how many railcars should be on a particular line, and how many buses should be there at certain times.”
Because regional partners were involved, a closed infrastructure was also necessary to track passengers and revenue. “We need a way to share revenue and costs between our regional partners and ourselves,” says Poling. “For example, when a Cobb County bus comes into one of our rail stations, we need a way to count the revenue and the passengers between the systems so we can clear it.”
In mid-January, the agency launched the first pilot program using the Breeze payment system on five Cobb County buses. “In February, the county will launch their entire fleet with us, so we will have two of us on the breeze system,” Poling says. “We have already inked agreements with not only Cobb, but also with Clayton, Gwinnett and GRTA (Georgia Regional Transportation Authority).”
Besides its transit partners, MARTA is looking to partner with other services. “We have a task force of regional partners, which includes the Atlanta airport, where we are looking at some transit parking solutions and the state road and toll authority,” Poling adds.
Transit agencies considering the move to a smart card-based system need to pay as much attention to the customer outreach and employee education as they do the equipment, says Poling. “It was important to not just train the employees, but to get them engaged in this change, especially frontline employees — the bus operators.”
For the purposes of the project, MARTA placed an estimated 100 contract employees on staff to train customers at all stations. On the customer level, the agency employed an extensive marketing campaign, which included the use of Breeze buses outfitted with demonstration equipment, videos and literature. “These buses would go out to the rail stations, community centers and be present at community events,” Poling says.
As part of the transition, MARTA has removed all token vending machines to begin the eventual phase-out of the older fare media. “We are stopping the sale of tokens, but we are still accepting them for the transitional period.” The agency aims to complete the project by June.
Los Angeles: TAP
Like Atlanta, Los Angeles Metro’s new smart card system (TAP: transit access program) will be regionalized. The agency has partnered with 11 municipal operators — all in various stages of installation and implementation — to offer seamless service between systems.
“I think the system really does revolutionize the way public transit agencies look at their customers,” says TAP project manager Jane Matsumoto. “You actually have a business relationship with your patrons. You are no longer Joe Public, the anonymous rider.”
L.A.’s Metro is in the process of testing its equipment (supplied by Cubic and GFI Genfare), with aims to conclude testing of the entire system by July. “Metro has spent an estimated $100 million in capital costs on the project,” says Matsumoto. “And, the municipal operators will correspondingly spend about another $30 million for their equipment.”
Metro has equipped more than 2,500 buses with fareboxes and installed more than 600 pieces of rail equipment. Currently, all employees have an ID badge, which carries the smart card chip. “It allows access to different floors in our building,” says Matsumoto. “It also provides access to our intelligent bus system, which includes GPS and automatic passenger counting data.”
The agency, which currently has 1,500 students, employees and faculty using smart cards, is in the process of converting its annual and business pass holders, which will increase the population of users to 5,000.
“Because of the large population of pre-paid users in our system, we feel it’s more prudent for us to start converting certain passes, and migrating incrementally those product pass users onto the smart card system,” Matsumoto says.