ask your transit agency about mobile ticketing!

Everyone! This is the next app that Every Serious Transit Agency Needs to Implement ASAP.  It could easily be as transformative as realtime information.  

PhonesA while back, our Portland transit agency Tri-Met unveiled a mobile ticketing app, which my colleague Evan Landman reviewed here.  It allows you to purchase tickets in bulk with a credit card and store them on your phone.  When you need one, you push a button and a "ticket" appears on your phone, very much like an airline boarding pass.  Right now in Portland, you just show that to the driver, but before long I expect we'll scan a barcode just as we do to board airplanes.  

Our two fulltime staff and I are all occasional transit users, so not motivated to buy monthly passes, and all three of us can now report that we use transit more in Portland because we can use it spontaneously without worrying about whether we have $2.50 in cash.   This not only reduces cash handling and thus speeds up boarding, it attracts more occasional riders!  

And if you're a transit agency, you need to love occasional riders, not just regular ones.  A vast number of citizens who find you occasionally useful, and whom you welcome with an easy boarding experience no matter how long it's been, can be a big part of your political base.

So congratulations to Capital Metro in Austin for rolling out a similar app.  And if your transit agency doesn't offer this liberating tool, encourage them to develop it.  It increases ridership, builds broader loyalty, and speeds up boarding.  What's not to love?

11 Responses to ask your transit agency about mobile ticketing!

  1. Franz January 31, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

    Most newer Android phones also now have nfc so you don’t even have to show the driver. Just tap like with the current tap cards.

  2. RailPhilly February 1, 2014 at 5:19 am #

    Philadelphia’s SEPTA has one in the works as well, as part of their New Payment Technologies project:
    They say it will be an open system that would allow for an app on NFC compatible phones, which mostly limits it to high end android phones and windows phones. It sounds like they’ll have online accounts that can be recharged though, and ez-pass like auto-refill options.
    They’re also moving to just one fare medium between all of their services, where now they have single ride tokens, paper transfers, several different types of paper tickets for commuter rail, and separate weekly and monthly passes for each of 5 different travel zones.

  3. James A. February 1, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    Here in Frankfurt am Main, the local transit association also offers a smartphone app for ticketing. In contrast to TriMet’s version, you do not pre-buy tickets but rather the purchases are made ad-hoc, with the balance being withdrawn from your checking account at the end of each month. Since monthly tickets start at 83 EUR here (expensive by German standards; in Munich they start at 49 EUR) and I generally commute by bicycle or by foot, the app is a practical alternative.
    In addition, RMV has also signed up for the Touch&Travel program run by Deutsche Bahn (disclaimer: my employer) and as such has installed NFC touchpoints and QR-codes at all stations and stops. Before boarding, you scan the touchpoint (if you have an NFC-equipped phone) or QR-code and do so again after alighting the vehicle. You are then charged the lowest applicable price for the trip, and as with London’s Oyster Card, if you make several trips in a day it will automatically convert your single tickets retroactively into a day pass if that turns out to be less expensive. Berlin’s transit association BVV also uses Touch&Travel, amongst others. It can also be used on all of DB’s long-distance train services in Germany, though at this time only for normal price tickets (i.e. not with discount fares).

  4. James February 1, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    The Dallas/Fort Worth area agencies (DART, TRE, The T, DCTA) have a similar app that allows you to buy local passes for one agency or regional passes that can be used among multiple services.

  5. Simon February 1, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    I’m pretty surprised Tri-Met don’t have a smartcard based fare system. Interesting that they’re skipping over that concept.

  6. Matthew February 2, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    MBTA has a mobile ticketing app for the commuter rail only; as consolation prize for not offering full CharlieCard integration across all modes.
    I guess it’s better than nothing. It has made me more likely to use the commuter rail for random trips. Not that much, but something.
    Still would prefer full integration with CharlieCard so that I could just tap it on the commuter rail. Even if it did not use my monthly pass, I can keep a balance and use it on any mode.

  7. Simon Vallée February 2, 2014 at 10:26 pm #

    I would prefer we import Suica, the Japanese smartcard that started out as a transit card but is now a full-blown electronic wallet (now it can be used in convenience stores and other shops). We have a smartcard in Montréal but they missed a huge opportunity when they introduced it, they kept the archaic ticket system. The tickets are still there, they’re just on a smartcard that could as easily just store money and have the appropriate sum deducted whenever you used it. Considering we have lots of different transit operators in the Montréal region (STM, AMT, STL, RTL and a half-dozen CITs), it means that if you don’t have the proper ticket on your card, you’re out of luck.
    If there’s one thing I find exasperating with transit operators, it’s the complete inertia of their administration. They do things a certain way because they’ve always done it that way and they don’t ever try to question if it’s worth continuing it that way or if doing things another way might be better. If you ask them about it, they just enter full rationalization mode and not reflection mode. They’re just trying to justify not doing anything. A large part of it I think is that most of the board aren’t transit users themselves, so the user experience is way down the list of their priorities.
    Putting hundreds of millions in a system to have GPS follow every bus so they can compile statistics better? It makes their job easier, so of course, that’s a worthwhile investment.
    Putting a few tens of millions towards having AC in their buses and subways to avoid having users sweating like pigs in summer? Yeah, that’s not worth it.
    Naming and announcing stops in buses? Not worth it.
    Putting change machines in buses so people don’t need the exact change when getting on the bus? Not worth it.
    I sometimes dream of getting elected mayor, calling a meeting of the transit operator’s board, entering the room and asking them “Who here came by bus or subway? Okay, those who raised their hands can stay, the rest of you, you’re fired!”.

  8. Ed February 3, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    The Trimet Ticket app does have its faults. When you put money on it, you have to decide ahead of time how many 2-hour tickets vs day passes you want. It would be more useful to just store a cash value, and let you decide when you use the ticket whether you want a day pass or a single-ride ticket.
    I would settle for a “convert 2 single-ride tickets to a day pass” button to work around this limitation.
    It’s no worse in this regard than buying tickets at a kiosk, but why shouldn’t it be better?

  9. Pete B February 4, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    I’m still not convinced of the need for mobile ticketing apps. Smart cards like London’s Oyster with its pay as you go touch in/out on tube (touch in on buses) with daily price cap is simpler, plus now contactless credit and debit card payment is being rolled out in London:
    London is abolishing cash fares on buses this summer:
    Also TfL plans to close virtually all Tube ticket offices as Oyster has reduced ticket office transactions to just 3% of all journeys:

  10. Miles Bader February 4, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    Smartphone ticket apps, while maybe a nice frill for occasional riders (as you mention), are only that: not everybody has a smartphone, and for regular riders, running an app on a smartphone is a lot more involved than just tapping a smartcard you pull out of your pocket (and any difference in convenience/speed that affects fare payment is likely to bottlenecks as well as annoying passengers). This is especially the case if you can’t use NFC, and must use less reliable methods like scanning a barcode displayed on the screen.
    Given that it’s only an frill, and only really helps occasional riders, it doesn’t seem worth spending a lot of money on this… especially if the funds would otherwise be spent on better ticketing infrastructure like smartcards.

  11. Miki Szikszai April 9, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    Mobile has the potential to significantly improve the overall customer experience for transit. Interestingly the opportunity is right now most obvious in reducing some of the uncertainty that Transit passengers can experience with their current mode of ticketing.
    Typically the most prevalent form of smart card reload occurs in a service centre or retail outlet. While auto reload is available in a number of cities, customer take-up is generally low.
    Two years ago, we launched Snapper Mobile in Wellington, NZ which lets the customer do a number of things by simply holding their card to their phone
    1. Check their balance (either e-purse or remaining usage on a pass)
    2. Top up
    3. Buy a travel product
    4. Collect any refunds or transfers from another card
    On top of this, they can also use their phone instead of a card if they are with certain Mobile Network Operators.
    From a customer perspective, it removes significant friction from using the service. From our perspective it allows us to provide service at a more economical cost. From an operator’s perspective they don’t have to do anything new.
    By acting as an extension of our current service we can support customers who have smartphones as they gradually purchase these devices rather than going through a forced transition.
    We think this is a good option for cities with existing smart card populations to improve their experience for the majority of their travellers
    Snapper Services Ltd