portland: TriMet’s new mobile ticketing app reviewed (guest post)

By Evan Landman

Evan Landman is an associate at my firm, Jarrett Walker & Associates, and serves as a research assistant and ghostwriter on this blog.   He holds a BA in Human Geography from University of British Columbia and was formerly an intern for the Portland area regional government, Metro.  He tweets on transit and other Portland topics at @evanlandman

For as long as I can remember, every bus trip in Portland has started with the counting and recounting of small bills and change held in a sweaty palm, always with the low-level anxiety from the thought of dropping a quarter and being unable to board. Pay your fare at the farebox, recieve a flimsy newsprint ticket. Secret that ticket in a secure pocket, to prevent it from being carried away by a stray gust of wind. If you have to transfer, check your pocket every 30 seconds to make sure it's still there.

TriMet, the transit agency here in Portland, finally launched their long-awaited smartphone app on Wednesday. I've tried it out for most of my trips since, after a summer spent jealously reading tweets from people lucky enough to be invited to the beta test. My first impression: this application suddenly makes using Portland's bus system much more relevant to me, and I suspect to many others.

Photo 1

Trimet Tickets ticket window

TriMet's ticketing application was developed by a company called GlobeSherpa, which is in the business of building mobile ticketing software for clients like sports arenas, concert venues, transit agencies, and parking providers. TriMet didn't have to lay anything out financially in developing this tool; angel investors covered those costs. GlobeSherpa skims a percentage off the top of each transaction.

The app is free to download, but once you've got it, you'll have to use a credit or debit card to buy electronic tickets at the usual price. To use a ticket on a trip, you simply press the "use" button, and an animated ticket screen appears. It's as easy as showing this screen to the driver upon boarding; no need to fumble for change or a flimsy paper transfer. This screen remains animated as long as the ticket is good, and shows the exact time at which it expires. It is even possible to use multiple tickets at once, a valuable feature for parents and caregivers. 

I'll admit that since relocating back to Portland in 2012, despite living without a car, I have rarely used TriMet's bus network. This is not because it doesn't go to the places I need to travel to, or because it is too infrequent; rather, I simply do not often find myself in possession of change or small bills, and generally choose modes that don't require those things. I pay for most everything using a debit or credit card, because it allows me to track my funds with more accuracy, and because the rounding error that is change adds up over time, but is difficult to spend, keep track of or incorporate back into my accounts. 

The agency is no doubt targeting young adults like me in developing this product. Numbers from Pulse, a research arm of Discover, find that members of the Millenial generation have the highest rate of ownership of debit cards (80%) and of contactless payment devices (12%); and the highest rate of online micro payments.

Lest I be accused of spreading propaganda for the agency, it is worth acknowledging that this is a tool useful only to people who have both a credit or debit card and a smartphone. As of May 2013, according to Pew, 56% of Americans had a smartphone, which means that 44% did not. Rates of ownership track with income and educational attainment, but are most strongly correlated with age. This sort of payment system largely excludes seniors, among whom only 18% report ownership of a device capable of running the software. As you might expect, many more Millenials (81%) own smartphones. 

Freedom of mobility is a frequent topic here at Human Transit. How well does the network design and operation enable a person to move around the city? How well do the transit agency's materials communicate the possibilities for personal mobility? How does the agency make transit a reasonable choice? In the age of Amazon, Paypal, and in-app purchases, giving riders the option to pay in this way is an important step towards creating a truly civilized transit experience.

9 Responses to portland: TriMet’s new mobile ticketing app reviewed (guest post)

  1. Brent September 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

    “…every bus trip in Portland has started with the counting and recounting of small bills and change held in a sweaty palm…”
    TriMet doesn’t sell tickets or passes?

  2. Leigh Holcombe September 6, 2013 at 7:37 pm #

    When I visited Portland last summer on business, I stayed in a hotel right on the rail line between the airport and downtown. I found that the most convenient way to pay for transit was to purchase a pass. There are machines located at every rail station that sell short-term, half-day, and full-day passes for a reasonable price. You can pay with cash or a credit card, and you get a non-flimsy paper ticket that is good for rail or bus. I found the full-day pass to be just about perfect, and I spent the whole day riding around the city hassle-free. As a visitor who wasn’t very familiar with the system, it was quick and easy to pay one rate for all my trips.
    I think the new app system will make it very easy and fun for regular users to pay for transit, which may induce them to ride more. But don’t disparage the incredibly handy pass and ticket system TriMet already has in place.

  3. Alyourpalster September 7, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    This telephone app is indeed a positive development for Trimet riders who for years have suffered the horrible Trimet ticket machines and the brutality of Trimet’s policy forcing riders to get off at other stations and buy tickets if the machines are not working at the embarking station.
    That truly is a fascist policy if there ever was one, placing the responsibility on the rider to cover for Trimet’s failures.
    So in that respect this is a giant step forward.
    I do have some problems with this however.
    First there are ex trimet executives that stand to make a quite a bit of money from this. I am never pleased to see ex government officials enter into that ‘revolving door’ of public/private enterprise.
    These connected people (already wealthy) get themselves richer from their inside connections, its a societal problem but should not be so readily acceptable.
    Secondly as the author noted, many people do not have a smart phone, those people will still have to suffer the brutality of the TVM policy. Trimet has created a sub class of riders now, transit equity this is not. This is another example of catering to the so called ‘choice rider’ which is code for UPPER CLASS WHITE PEOPLE.
    Third, Trimet has been paying for all the advertising for this. Since when is it appropriate for a government agency to use tax funds to advertise a ‘for profit’ company?
    Fourth, the hype was way over the top. Completely blown up into some sort of major earthshaking event which it is not. Mobile ticketing has been around for a long long time, especially in Europe and it is used at other transit districts here in America. Sure Trimet is the first to allow it on its buses and trains instead of just the trains. But the reason for that is Trimet is a relatively small system compared to places like NY or Boston. Those places have multitudes of fares and many different types of services. Trimet basically has only 3 fares, Disabled, Youth, and Adult, and only two types of services, bus and max (WES doesn’t count its ridership is so tiny and its fare is the same)
    And we shall see how long it takes for some highly intelligent computer geek to counterfeit this software into a look a like app. Are the fare inspectors going to have time to scan all the QR codes for each person that has this app to verify it? I doubt it.

  4. Shaun Cleaver September 9, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    @Alyourpalster: well-done with your points, your comment made my post much shorter and far easier to compose.
    To belabour the point though, I would like to contend the framing of this move “Tri-met not having to lay anything out financially…” As a front-end cost this framing is accurate, but every time GlobeSherpa “skims a percentage” this is money lost to the transit agency…and I imagine that ‘every time’ is every transaction for a long time. And this is in addition to the value skimmed by the credit and debit card companies when you loaded the value.
    We see monumental resistance when public agencies seek public funding with the perception that it is unnecessary and wasteful skimming (my main base is Toronto where screaming “Stop the Gravy Train” and saying little else seems to suffice for a successful municipal election campaign). This is true even when it will result in service improvements that will benefit many different profiles of rider and our cities in general. Yet in our slow transition towards cashless societies we seem to be collectively comfortable with the idea of “investors” cashing in on our every transaction.

  5. Dave September 9, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    How exactly does this system avoid the ability of smartphones to take a screenshot of the ticket and flash that at the driver for days, weeks, months on end?
    Alyourpalster’s comment suggests that somewhere there is a QR code that can be verified, similar to how airlines scan the QR code on a electronic boarding pass… but unlike airlines, the bus driver isn’t going to scan everyone’s ticket, are they?
    And what stops you from using the same image over and over until a fare checker boards, at which point you immediately buy a real ticket on the spot to show to them… and then continue to use the fake image for future trips that aren’t being fare checked? You’ll save in the long run, since your odds of being checked on any given trip are probably in the realm of 5-10%.
    In short, this “technological break-through” seems easy to circumvent for clever fare dodgers… and I think Tri-Met will regret allowing this method of fare payment.

  6. EngineerScotty September 9, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

    A few thoughts:
    * The GlobeSherpa app does have security features to allow fare inspectors to verify tickets, so screenshots and fake apps are not likely to work if you happen upon one. On MAX, the only time you are asked to prevent proof of fare is when inspected. The bigger risk is on the bus–drivers will only be doing visual inspections at this time, so one can “fool” a driver by flashing a counterfeit app or image. OTOH, drivers don’t always scrutinize paper fare instruments, either–for this to work, there will need to be fare inspectors on the busses. (And there are, already).
    * There are also measures in place to deal with miscreants who only buy tickets when they see an inspector.
    * As noted, this avoids (for those who can use this app) the problems of waiting in line at a ticket machine while your train leaves, and/or having to get off at the next stop to buy a ticket (and wait for the next train). The biggest problem there is, as noted, that it does require a smartphone and a debit/credit card; there’s no way (yet) to either use a feature-phone, a WiFi-only device, or a payment method other than a bank card.
    * For Brent, yes, TriMet does sell passes; you can load a pass into GlobeSherpa (and thus not need a paper pass); and MAX tickets are also good on the bus for the indicated time. However, there’s no off-board ticket machines other than at MAX stations (and a few other select locations), so if you don’t have a pass and want to ride a bus, it generally involves a cash fare to the driver (bus drivers are not equipped with debit/credit terminals).
    * The MAX ticket machines are noticeably unreliable. A software defect in the system was discovered last spring and fixed, which has improved things, but the machines still frequently fail. As TriMet does not yet have a magnetic card or SmartCard system (though it is coming soon, reportedly), non-Globe Sherpa tickets are all handled with paper; which means ticket machines that have mechanical printers that can break or run out of supplies.

  7. Pete B September 12, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    Some UK bus operators have smartphone ticketing (Arriva springs to mind). I am a smartphone user but this seems overly complicated to me, having to download an App and show my phone to the bus driver. I prefer smart cards such as London’s Oyster or the Go-Ahead Group’s ‘The Key’. Transport for London has now rolled out payment by wave and pay debit/credit cards. These will eventually include daily price capping that Oyster Pay as you go gives you (if making several journeys you stop being debited once you have paid the equivalent of the daily pass fare). I also agree with Leigh Holcombe in that the day pass paper ticket is simple and accessible to all users. All UK bus operators have passes covering various time durations e.g. in any operating company of First Group you will be able to buy ‘First Day’ ‘First Week’ ‘First Month’ tickets. Stagecoach has its ‘Megarider’ tickets etc.

  8. Pete B September 12, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Link to Transport for London’s contactless payment cards:

  9. Paul September 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    So sick of people trying to spin everything that its “Only for WHITE PEOPLE.” I commute every single day using Trimet, and see people from all races on the bus and train using their smart phones. So then all apps made for smart phones are only made for White People? When did it become a crime to be white, have a job, and to be able to afford things? UPPER CLASS WHITE PEOPLE dont generally use the bus or train around town, but for that matter neither do ANY OTHER UPPER CLASS people REGARDLESS of their ethnicity. Stop creating freaking divisions between people when there isnt one. Anyone, I REPEAT, ANYONE can download this app if they have a device that can use it. ANYONE with a debit or credit card can use this app regardless of race. This is a great app that I used for the first time today and loved it. The bus driver took it without question, and it was prefect for when I got on the train.
    As far as the equality crap being posted here there is absolutely nothing to that and anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a race baiter looking to cause a problem. Compared to public transit in other places I have lived, this is the first place I’ve ever been where it was usable as a daily mode of transportation. Coming from the phoenix az area, only people who have lost a license due to a DUI take public transit in PHX. Here its an easy and great way to get around for anyone.