Guest Post: Aaron Renn on Universal Fare Media

(Aaron Renn, who writes The Urbanophile, is an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, consultant, and speaker, based in the US Midwest.)

When I’m at home, I ride bus and rail transit about equally.  But when I travel to a new city, I travel on rail systems frequently, but almost never use the bus.  Why?

For me, while I know how transit systems generally work, the specifics of fares and fare media are different from place to place. I know that if I show up at a rail station there is likely to be a station house where I can look at maps, read about fares and rules, and use nice machines with step by step instructions for purchasing tickets or other fare media. 

IMG_0136 On the bus, by contrast, often it’s difficult to find route maps and fare information at a stop, and if you board a bus you must have exact change if you don’t already have some type of fare media. This can cause a lot of embarrassment and irritation, particularly if you are holding up boarding or delaying the bus departure because you don’t know how it works. I generally decide discretion is the better part of valor and skip the bus.

A plan out of London could possibly help eliminate part of the problems with the bus for out of town visitors.  Transport for London, along with various other agencies around the world like the NY MTA and Chicago’s CTA, are looking to replace their current proprietary and expensive to operate fare card systems with open fare media based on the same types of payment options available in the marketplace.  Transport for London would like to see these efforts coordinated, such as the resulting systems would share an open architecture that would allow you to use the same fare media in all of the cities.

This would eliminate one of the major barriers to riding the bus in an unfamiliar city.  With my fully charged Chicago fare medium, I could board with confidence, not having to worry about exact change or unknown types of ticketing systems. Even if signage does not improve, my mobile phone probably will, allowing me even easier access to transit info than I have today. Hopefully, this combination will make it much less intimidating for people to ride buses in unfamiliar cities.

29 Responses to Guest Post: Aaron Renn on Universal Fare Media

  1. rhywun October 21, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    I’ve been a New Yorker for over 13 years now, and I STILL have to look at the diagram on the farebox to see which way to insert my Metrocard when I take the bus. Newer “tap” technology will be very welcome.

  2. Chris Smith October 22, 2010 at 7:07 am #

    Outstanding idea. How can we connect TriMet and Streetcar in Portland, Oregon?

  3. eric October 22, 2010 at 8:22 am #

    The other reason tourists and visitors avoid buses is that there is usually no high-frequency map.
    (Or a specially-branded high-frequency bus system with its own fairly straightforward map, like the DC circulator)

  4. Danny October 22, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    Personally I think we should be going the way of the universal Octopus Card. It is a contactless format with zero transaction fees, run by an independent for-profit company(thus free from the need to subsidize), with all payment infrastructure given to the agencies for free. In fact, I’m sure that if any transit agency in the US wanted to switch to Octopus Cards, all they would have to do is ask.

  5. Alurin October 22, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    @Danny: If they don’t charge transaction fees and give away the infrastructure, how do they make money?

  6. David M October 22, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    I’ve been thinking about this. one of the big advantages of rail is that it is so simple. There’s usually an easy to read map, you know it will be frequent, nobody needs to tell you that. The waiting area is usually comfortable.
    With buses – more often than not, there a pole with a sign and if you’re lucky a route number. No information is given as to where the bus goes or when it runs. Edmonton is starting a new route to a small city outside its limits and the airport. The bus runs every 30 minutes in the Monday to Friday peak only. The bus stop simply has “590”. That’s it. Nothing on the stop tells you when the bus runs (so you could be standing all day and never see a bus) or where it goes. There is a number on the stop, so you could call it and get the info that way.
    I for one find this the most user unfriendly way for any transit agency to communicate. It says to me – “we’re to lazy and too cheap to provide you with schedule information, so you’re going to have to use your own phone and spend your own money and take the initiative to call us if you want to know when this bus operates”. Totally the wrong message.
    Of course, this is a good example of a bus stop that is most definitely NOT “on the way”.
    Here’s an image of the stop – doesn’t it invite you to want to wait for the bus? Notice all of the information provided?

  7. bzcat October 22, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    Why don’t transit agencies just accept existing universal payment medium? There is VISA, Mastercard, and American Express…
    Tap technology works just the same on a credit card as it does on a special transit debit card like London’s Oyster Card. Why is it so difficult for subways and buses to accept regular credit cards? I “tap” my Mastercard at McDonald’s and Starbucks to pay for my food and coffee… I can’t figure out why it would be any different than boarding a bus or subway.

  8. Danny October 22, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    They make money much like a bank does…by investing the deposits.
    Technically a lot of transit agencies already do the same thing, but it is so much more costly to do. Without the critical mass that comes from being used by five different transit agencies and thousands of vendors (including taxis when the legal considerations are finally worked out), the quantity of deposits would be too small to make it profitable. As a result, those transit agencies are paying millions for their payment infrastructure, and it has to be made up for in fares and subsidies.

  9. Alon Levy October 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    @Danny, the best industry practice for smartcards was set by JR East’s Suica and the MTR’s Octopus. Both make windfall profits licensing the system for use as electronic money: JR East makes most of the card in-house, whereas the MTA is promoting Octopus so aggressively that Hong Kong is about to become a cash-free society. Singapore is following in Hong Kong’s footsteps, only it’s now integrating the transit card with the prepaid card used in cars for congestion pricing.
    Those contactless cards are popular because they’re anonymous and easy to obtain and function just like cash. They don’t require having a credit card or a debit card. Living in Singapore, I had both an Ez-Link (for transit) and a CashCard (for congestion pricing and parking, which I didn’t use, and electronic money, which I did) years before I had a debit card.
    In Hong Kong and Tokyo, the contactless chip can also be used outside a card: they have Octopus watches and cellphones, and increasingly Suica equivalents. In contrast, in London TfL tried to discourage people from removing the chips from their Octopus cards and creating makeshift Octopus watches.
    @Aaron, shoehorning Chicago into the same system as London and New York is difficult. London uses MIFARE, a system based on an open ISO standard. New York wants to pay MasterCard hundreds of millions to develop its own globally unique system, still based on the same ISO standard. (Octopus, Ez-Link, and Suica use FeliCa, a system based on a similar but slightly different open standard.) But Chicago and many other American cities have smartcards issued by Cubic or other vendors with proprietary standards, which can’t be as easily integrated.

  10. EngineerScotty October 22, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    One other issue is that many payment systems (particularly the credit card companies) charge the merchant a fee, even if that fee is not passed on to the customer. There’s been lots of antitrust activity on this front in the US–the USDOJ has reached a settlement with Mastercard and VISA (and is continuing to sue AmEx) with regard to so-called “swipe fees”, but it’s an issue. Depending on the results of antitrust action, transit agencies which use VISA or Mastercard for fare payment might have limitations on their ability to control pricing.
    One other question: If ordinary credit cards are used for fare payment, can they be used (under current issuer policies; I know it’s technically feasible) for proof-of-payment as well? Or must the transit agency issue a receipt or other paper media to enforce proof-of-payment policies? With Octopus cards and such, it’s easy for an inspector to scan a rider’s card to verify the fare has been paid.

  11. Nick October 22, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    Toronto is also looking at an open payment system, but has come into conflict with the Provincially backed proprietary system ‘presto’ Steve Munro has a good look at the differences between the two types of systems with a series starting here:

  12. Matt the Engineer October 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    The Seattle area has this sort of figured out: our ORCA (One Regional Card for All) card does what you want, and replaces almost a dozen agency fare systems.
    However, I don’t think solving these problems makes buses anything like a rail system. Sure you can hop on any bus and use an ORCA card – but where do you buy an ORCA card or add money to it? Here, it’s at our light rail stations.
    But I don’t think payment is the largest reason tourists are reluctant to take the bus. It’s more of an information problem. It takes a lot of regional knowlege to even understand where a bus goes, let alone how frequently it comes, how to find the right bus stop, where to transfer, and how to get back. These issues all but dissapear when there are stations, simple maps, and rail lines on the ground.

  13. Clark Nikolai October 22, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    So true. I remember being in Timişoara, Romania and not knowing any Romanian and the Lonely Planet guide gave such a confusing description of the complex paying system for the trams that I just ended up walking everywhere. If even a few of the major stops had system maps that would have been great and I might have tried to use them.

  14. James McNabb October 22, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    The other reason to prefer rail to bus when you’re in an unfamiliar city is that when you’re at a train station, you have to figure that unless the system’s shut down completely there will eventually be a train coming through. The train HAS to go where rails are, it can’t detour. Whereas with a bus, they may have re-routed it six months ago and just not bothered remove the sign.

  15. JJJ October 22, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    David M, some of the older signs in the Boston area are even worse….no route number, just ” bus stop, no parking”.
    Whats so hard about including the schedule and map on a pole?

  16. Aaron M. Renn October 22, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    Alon, Chicago wants to ditch its Cubic system (NYC uses a version as well). It is extremely expensive to run because, among other reasons, as you note, it is proprietary.
    I’m not sure what the ultimate system will look like, but I believe the idea is to be able to pay with normal credit cards, cell phones, and a variety of other mechanisms.

  17. Scott October 22, 2010 at 3:59 pm #

    Ignorant question about the idea of using Visa/Master/Amex, which seems like a good one in many ways (although not all, as others have mentioned above): How much of a “tap” does it take with these systems to invoke a charge? If I walked past a fare-reader with three cards in my pocket, would they all be charged? To put it another way, how do the card and the payment system know when to register a charge?

  18. Dave October 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Payment system difficulties are a problem for both non local and irregular transit users, but lack of information is a greater problem for the tourist. I am willing to spend some (but not too much) effort figuring out the system and having correct change when I arrive in a new city, but I won’t guess about where I am going or whether I can get back to my hotel when I want to. Clear signage and information will help, but it’s often lacking probably due to the cost of creating and maintaining it. I think new media, cell-phones and wireless hand-held devices can change this if good transit AND accurate tourist information was available on-line from transit providers or from interested volunteers wiki-style.
    I may decide to visit a restaurant I’ve heard about, but have great difficulty figuring out which bus (or train) goes near and how far I must walk and, sometimes, if it’s safe to do so. If Google Maps or similar sites had more routing information, I should be able to click up the restaurant, view one or more accurate and up-to-date routing options with times, to and from, make my choice and be on my way in a couple minutes. That would be liberating!
    Someone could even rate cities or areas of cities on transit coverage to popular tourist stops so that I could decide if I needed the car rental before I left home based on my probably itinerary. So how do we incent the development of these features?

  19. Steve Lax October 22, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    @jjj – There is nothing “hard” about putting a schedule and map on a bus stop pole. However, there is a cost; both a planned cost to update the information whenever a schedule or route changes and an unplanned cost to replace the information whenever it is damaged due to accidents or vandalism.
    While this cost may not seem large to those who have never been part of the process, it is a cost that usually cash-starved transit agencies have to consider.
    My former employer does post route number and direction of travel (end point of route) at each bus stop along with advisory information where appropriate (peak period only; weekday only); but it does not provide the schedule for each stop. The cost of preparing schedules for each stop was deemed to be too costly. One alternative is to use frequency statements (that is, between time “a” and time “b”, the bus is scheduled to operate every “x” minutes); but even that approach was abandoned in a budget crisis.
    One can debate the merits of providing more or less information, but the choice in the real world operating budget is often either “more information/fewer service hours” or “more service hours/less information”.

  20. Alon Levy October 22, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    Aaron, it’s pleasing to hear Chicago wants to dump Cubic. PATH, which is the only NY-area Cubic user, seems happy with its system and has said nothing about fare integration with the MTA. To be fair to PATH, it built the smartcard first; but its smartcard is such a bad implementation that the MTA is right to ignore it.
    Everyone, having a smartcard doesn’t automatically make the system tourist-friendly; it’s important to make getting a smartcard easy. Singapore lets you buy Ez-Link at any MRT station. Paris only lets you buy Navigo at some stations, and prefers you to supply a photo; you need to know the system’s operations in advance to ask for the anonymous card. Shanghai doesn’t let you buy the Shanghai Public Transportation Card at stations at all.
    Making the card easy to buy has nothing to do with the choice of technology. New York still uses magnetic swipe cards, but its card is supremely easy to buy: you can do it at machines, which is even easier than getting Ez-Link in Singapore. Shanghai uses FeliCa, which is the industry leader, but not only is its card effectively unavailable for tourists, but also the machines only sell single-use cards one at a time, and there frequently are very long lines.

  21. David M October 22, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    Stop information – I agree posting paper schedules is expensive. But the technology is already in place to allow schedules to be posted electronically – it’s just no agency wants to invest in the cost of that technology at little used bus stops.
    I’m surprised that no transit agency (or inventor) has thought of using eInk (like in the Kindle or Ebooks). It requires power to change but uses no power to display. to me this would be perfect. Imagine eBustops that displays using eInk – a press of a button in central control updates the stop display.
    Victoria BC actually provides a lot of information – most bus stops on the busy corridors and bus stops serving tourist areas have schedules posted. There are over well over 400 stops or more that have schedules posted – doesn’t sound like a lot, but they’re where they’re needed and to most people it feels like every stop has a schedule. To save money, they actually list in time order all the buses calling (not a separate schedule for each route), with the route number next to it. It actually works well, especially if you’re going up the road and any one of the four or five routes are okay. You don’t need the schedule most of the day as most routes in Victoria run frequently anyway – but it’s still nice to have and is useful late at night and if anything provides comfort that you know a bus will show up.

  22. David M October 22, 2010 at 10:03 pm #

    I should have linked this in my previous post. Here’s an example of a schedule from Sidney BC which is part of the Victoria Regional Transit System. you can read it, but you can see that times are listed in time order, not by route. There are maps of the routes and advertising to offset the cost of maintaining the schedule.
    This picture is from a Seattle blog describing a trip to Victoria

  23. Wad October 22, 2010 at 11:49 pm #

    L.A. and San Diego have Cubic systems as well. In fact, the two agencies have identical contactless fare infrastructure.
    Metro’s is TAP and San Diego’s is Compass.
    When I visited San Diego, I had a TAP card on me and for fun wanted to see how it reacts with the Compass readers.
    Sure enough, the Compass readers treated the TAP card as native fare media.
    I asked a fare inspector if I could use a TAP card to pay a Trolley fare. The answer: They didn’t know.
    I then asked San Diego’s customer transit information the same question. Its answer: No. Even though Compass and TAP are identical systems and although it’s technologically possible to pay and store a fare, San Diego will not honor a TAP card because it’s not a Compass-branded card.
    L.A.’s policy is the same to Compass cards used on TAP machinery.

  24. Dexter Wong October 24, 2010 at 1:21 am #

    With regard to bus scheduling, Honolulu has put all bus schedules online ( and all bus stops are numbered. With HEA (Honolulu Estimated Arrival) you can use a mobile phone or computer to check when the next bus will arrive at the stop in question. You can use the stop number or cross streets to find the next scheduled bus.

  25. bzcat October 25, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    @ Scott
    The contact medium all works pretty much the same. You have to touch (i.e. “tap”) the payment register area to process the transaction. If you have a chip’d VISA or Mastercard, go check out any McDonald’s or Whole Foods (and some Starbucks). You wave your credit or debit card at the sensor and make contact with it to enable the charge – exactly the same way Suica/Octopus/Orca/TAP work.
    If you walk by a reader/sensor with cards in your pocket, nothing will happen. You need to make contact with the sensor.

  26. Anon256 October 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

    James McNabb: “when you’re at a train station, you have to figure that unless the system’s shut down completely there will eventually be a train coming through.” How about at Arborway station on the MBTA Green Line E branch, where the tracks and signs are still there even though the service has been “suspended” since 1985? This is hardly the only example of streetcar tracks and signs outlasting the associated streetcar. For another example, every weekend in New York City sees subway trains diverted to other routes, replaced by shuttle buses, express trains running local, local trains running express, etc; this means a great many platforms in the system go the whole weekend serving no trains or different trains than usual, and the signs explaining this are sometimes absent or unclear. Of course, on many North American commuter lines, you can wait all weekend at an “architecturally substantial” station without seeing a train. The potential to be left waiting for a nonexistent service is much more a reflection of the anemic and underfunded nature of transit in North America than of mode choice.
    bzcat: “Why don’t transit agencies just accept existing universal payment medium? There is VISA, Mastercard, and American Express…” None of those support basic transit features like free transfers, monthly passes, senior/disabled discounts, etc. They also seem to have longer transaction time (even for tapped transactions) than Octopus and Oyster. Transaction and currency fees can be quite large relative to the average transit fare. And of course not everybody has a credit card.

  27. Sightofthenav October 29, 2010 at 5:28 am #

    This topic will have a huge effect on European transit. The ability to use one single payment card regardless of which transport network you are using makes it much easier to access the transit network itself.
    At the moment people spend hours searching for low air fares or cheap train travel between two cities only to then blow the saving on a taxi from the airport or station to where they are going.
    For Europe you won’t have to go to the Bureau du Change first to switch currencies (I’m thinking Swiss and UK travellers here!) and THEN buy a ticket.
    In the future European Rail will benefit as passengers can simply begin on a bus, jump on light rail then get onto a train, travel acros Europe, get a metro and get to their destination all via the use of one card.
    I expect we will see either VISA and Mastercard coming to their senses soon to back such a scheme to cash in on the handling fees, or a seperate external body appear who’s logo we will see on the cards and systems to identify and advertise compatibility to the user.

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  29. david vartanoff November 10, 2010 at 11:26 am #

    about bus schedules at lightly used stops, having a phone # posted to access Nextbus or equivalent predictors costs little at the individual stop, and also allows one to check before leaving a building in inclement weather with a simple phone call.