City to Study Electronic Bus Pass Payments

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Future Raleigh bus riders may be using bus passes that can be reloaded electronically.

The City Council’s Technology and Communications Committee Tuesday directed the Transit Services and Finance departments to investigate what it would take to set up electronic payments and reloadable bus passes in place of the magnetic card system used now.

Staff will begin:

  • Researching how to piggyback on Triangle Transit Authority’s existing system, which allows online payments of reloadable cards via PayPal.
  • Reviewing the city’s existing online payment infrastructure to see if it can handle these new type of payments.
  • Investigating costs and program demographics.
  • Investigating a pilot program to test the technology and indicate how the system can be shared with other city departments to make the investment worthwhile.
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    Electronic payment was proposed by Craig Ralph, a member of the City’s Transit Authority Route Committee and regular bus rider.

    He said such a system would make it more convenient for riders to add funds to bus passes instead of traveling to one of the regional service centers where an agent reloads the card.

    bus station 5

    Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

    Ralph said money can be deducted from his bank account for use of the community pool or weight room, so why not the other way around where funds are automatically added to an account?

    “Why can’t we reload the passes like we would a Starbucks card?” Ralph asked.

    According to a Federal Reserve System’s payments study, in 2009 there were 6 billion prepaid card transactions, valued at more than $140 billion in the U.S.

    Ralph suggested the system might cut city costs by reducing the need for live agents to take payments. But Deputy Chief Financial Officer Robin Rose said after researching the idea, staff found there would not be enough people using the system to make it financially viable.

    Rose said the city uses electronic payments for some services, such as utility bills and parking tickets, but the volume of payments makes the expense worth it. Rose said many cities are not using mobile billing technology because of the cost.

    “With prepaid cards like Starbucks they already have the infrastructure and network connectivity in place,” Rose said. “Here you have to look at what it takes to make the cards readable on buses. So it will take a while for us to get there.”

    Raleigh Transit Administrator David Eatman said there are three options for reloadable passes:

  • The user purchases prepaid passes online.
  • Contactless card technology where the card is reloaded online or through another outlet.
  • New technology such as QR Codes, where smartphone users download an app to read a special bar code.
  • All of the options require study of the city’s online security, Eatman said.

    He recommends Q Codes. Research indicates many of the city’s low-income residents use smart phones in lieu of a home computer. Plus, that investment would be in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and not the “millions” of prepaid card set up.

    But, Eatman cautioned, “We want to make sure we don’t pick a smartphone technology and alienate existing riders. But this could be an alternative for some smartphone users.”

    The city is planning to conduct a ridership study of the R line, likely in May 2014. That data could used to make a case for or against the electronic payment system.

    3 thoughts on “City to Study Electronic Bus Pass Payments

    1. I would consider this overall a good idea, though it would be *really* cool to look into developing a regional fare card like San Francisco’s Clipper Card or Atlanta’s Breeze Card.

      I’m also looking forward to the ridership study on the R-Line…right now, it doesn’t seem especially useful as a transit route (because it’s a giant one-way loop – see http://www.humantransit.org/2009/07/on-loops.html), and I hope that the study will show where intra-downtown transit is important so that nicer, two-way service can be provided.

    2. The last sentence of the article –

      “The city is planning to conduct a ridership study of the R line, likely in May 2014. That data could used to make a case for or against the electronic payment system.”

      The R line is free. Is that coming to an end? How does an R line study relate to paying for bus rides? I’m an R line fan and hope it continues.

      The current system of going to a central location needs to change. Anything online would be an improvement.

    3. Rose speaking about infrastructure: “Here you have to look at what it takes to make the cards readable on buses…”

      Then how does TransLoc work? There must be enough infrastructure in place today to allow geo-tracking. Why not payment data as well? What am I missing?