Monday, October 22, 2007

Take It To The Bank: The Universal Fare Card

The Bay Area is now implementing a universal fare card system called TransLink. When fully implemented in 2010, the TransLink fare card will work on the services provided by 26 transit agencies.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's revved up version of the RTA, is in charge of rolling out Translink. The system has been under active development for years. News reports (e.g., here) indicate that software glitches and other problems have slowed the implementation. Securing the cooperation of all 26 transit agencies has been tough. The cost of the system has grown from $25 million to $130 million.

Despite these challenges, a universal fare card is coming to the Bay Area. TransLink will cover almost 10 times as many transit agencies as it would take to bring a universal fare card to this region. So why doesn't this region have a universal fare card system despite years of promises?

It is reported that at the recent Lipinski Symposium there was general agreement that the reason this region doesn't have a universal fare card system is because the RTA and the service boards cannot agree on who will act as the "bank" for the system. Can this be true? What exactly does it mean to serve as the "bank" for a universal fare card system? Why can't the costs and benefits of serving in that function be apportioned among the RTA and the service boards using some reasonable formula?

Why is having a universal fare card important, anyway? First, such a fare card would allow seamless travel between CTA, Metra and Pace service, increasing ridership and the perceived quality of the transit system. Second, such a fare card would help foster the notion that the public transit system in northeastern Illinois is a single system. This would undermine the current perception that Metra and Pace are for the suburbs and the CTA is for the City, a balkanization that has adverse political and operational consequences.

Third, a universal fare card with associated user accounts is a potentially powerful platform that transit agencies can leverage for a profit. Such a fare card, for example, might morph into a card that commuters could use like a credit card to make purchases. This is what has happened in Hong Kong, for example, where the local transit card--the Octopus card--is used for all sorts of non-transit transactions. The user accounts associated with each fare card could be used to deliver transit subsidies for the needy. For example, a low-income rider could be given ride credits to help ensure that their transportation needs are met, while more prosperous riders pay more through peak-period pricing and distance-based pricing. Finally, there may be cost-savings from switching to electronic fare collection, although these savings may be limited given the high upfront software and hardware costs.

Maybe the RTA should turn loose one of its cost of congestion consultants to examine how much time is wasted each month as people stand in long lines at the train stations to get their monthly Metra passes. Talk about congestion and a pointless waste of time because of a transit agency that stubbornly refuses to adopt electronic fare collection.

If the RTA and the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace cannot figure out who will serve as the bank for this region's universal fare card, then maybe they should outsource the job to TransLink. If the good folks of TransLink can get 26 squabbling transit agencies to adopt a universal fare card, they probably won't mind adding three more to their family.

* * *
Phil Pagano, Metra Executive Director 4/15/07:

Pagano said officials hope to have a working proposal completed within the next 30 days so it could be presented to CTA, Metra and Pace directors. He acknowledged that having better fare coordination among transit agencies has long been a concern of the public.

"If we can work this through, I think it's a good first step" toward providing fare coordination, Pagano said. "Fare coordination and [system] integration are important for our riders."

Source: Chicago Tribune


Anonymous said...

I think universal fare systems are a good thing, but there's a lot of ballyhoo going around on this that I believe is distracting towards understanding the problems. It is my impression that there has been a small, but vocal, cadre of UFC "activists" who have successfully elevated this issue, because it sounds so reasonable and "progressive," when it's a bit more complicated than that.

First, this region is not THAT bad: a) CTA and Pace, particularly with the Chicago Card, already have "seamless" travel pretty much between them all the time; and b) with the Link-Up monthly pass, one can get some fairly "seamless" travel between all three.

Second, Moderator said, "It is reported ... that the reason this region doesn't have a universal fare card system is because the RTA and the service boards cannot agree on who will act as the "bank" for the system." I doubt that is the main culprit. They can't agree on who will pay for the technical upgrades that will be needed, particularly on Metra, but also to CTA and Pace's proprietary systems. Also, no one wants to tell Metra riders that they may have to actually pay for every ride they take. The biggest, dirtiest little secret in this region is the obscene level of institutionalized fare "evasion" that goes on in the Metra system. Ride it for a while--you know it's true.

Moderator says, "...Such a fare card, for example, might morph into a card that commuters could use like a credit card...." You said it right there: most commuters already have "universal" fare card--they're called credit/debit cards and they're getting smarter and more powerful every year. Oh, and don't forget cell phones, which are already being used to pay for transit in many places around the world.

In other words, everyone has been distracted by the need for a universal fare "card," when, in fact, it really comes down to the fare equipment that the Service Boards need to make an investment into to take advantage of all these new, open (hence cheaper and more flexible) ways to pay and manage fares. I'm not sure if the Bay Area is getting that kind of investment--if not, they may find that their TransLink becomes obsolete real quick.

I think this region's "patience" on this issue (and, yes, I'm being nice with that word), may be one of the smartest things it's doing, actually, because the real technological revolution in this area is just around the corner.

Moderator said...


You say that the "real technological revolution in this area is just around the corner." Yet, what you describe in your excellent comment--smart cards, paying for transit by cellphone, etc.--makes it sound like the revolution has happened and is being institutionalized around the world already.

What exactly is just "around the corner" for which the region should wait?

295bus said...

Chiming in from the Bay Area...

The MTC has sunk about $150 million into TransLink, and it still isn't ready for prime time. Meanwhile the Australian contractor is about to go out of business because their attempts to roll out in Sidney have been just as slow and painful (and there, they don't get paid til it works).

$150 million is a lot of money to spend on fare machines and software. That's enough for a whole fleet of LRV's, or a heckofa lot of busses...

What really burns me is that all that UFC's really buy you is not literally having to rummage through your pocket for change--you still have to pay a new fare every time you transfer from one provider to another.

So I'd rather skip this whole technological hack to work around the real problem, and see agencies like our MTC or your RTA actually hammer out agreements for real joint ticketing.

Why not just drop faregates entirely, divide a region into zones, and implement region-wide POP?

edna welthorpe said...

Anon: As Moderator points out, the technology is here. I'd add that the technology's been here ever since the invention of paper passes. The only reason technology comes into play is when customer convenience takes a backseat to protecting the transit agencies' turf--and their inflexible fare policies.

295: Amen.

Anonymous said...

If you read the various RTA studies on this matter, the real impediment is how do you enforce distance based fares on Metra, especially after riders on the Electric demanded that the fare barriers be removed.

As for the banker, apparently the CTA can't be trusted, according to this article.

Finally, I agree with 295 bus that $150 million or so would meet a lot of capital needs in this area (and is equivalent to the CTA's claimed 2008 budget deficit).

Rick Powell said...

How many mode changers are out there among regular transit users? 5%? I'd like to see a tangible benefit, with real and measurable predicted results, before several hundred million $ is invested in a UFC system.

As far as how to enforce distance-based pricing, the more effective the collection, the more inconvenient the method...unless you go Big Brother on the customers and tag them. A dual-end gated or staffed collection system would drastically reduce cheating, but would be labor intensive or intrusive as the old IC (pre Metra Electric) system was. Even with the IC's system, I saw a fair amount of evasion (as a former IC worker who did a lot of work on the electric lines). The South Chicago branch was a haven for platform jumping.

Anon 8:03 said...

In general, I think this is positive in that most people on this thread are agreeing that a UFC is not automatically such a brilliant idea. My intent of my response was to suggest that things are a bit more complicated than meets the eye and that touting the Bay Area as this shining example, may not be either.

The UFC "activists" seem to have this opinion that the absence of UFC in this region is further proof of the lack of regional coordination. Moderator further added to this, suggesting that the Lipinski Symposium discussed the inability to create a fare "bank."

Hopefully all of the responses are showing that it may because a fiscally broken transit system does not want to make the investment into new fare equipment, when the benefits are unclear and the technological evolutions are happening so quick. I know no one wants to commend these guys for fiscal constraints, but this may be one situation where their lack of movement on an issue is probably a smart move (intentional or not).

The Moderator's own post argued that there are two benefits: "seamless travel" and "foster the notion....of a single system" Neither of these are tangible benefits, but very subjective.

The benefits of waiting for the technology to catch-up is not just that the cards or cellphones are "cheap" because the users already owns one, but because the technology to read those items (aka, the fare equipment) becomes very cheap, because they are very "dumb." The "smarts" gets pushed onto the card/phones and the central databases that does the fare-reconciliation.

(I do think a separate post on fare evasion on Metra is needed.)

UChicagoDomer said...

I agree that there are no real clear benefits to the UFC - unless Metra is transformed from a rush-hour service provider to one that runs around the clock - and unless new transit stations connecting Metra and CTA trains are built. For example, if the Metra Electric ran as often during non-peak hours as it does during peak hours, there would be no point to continuing service on the Nos. 2 or 6 busses... IF, that is, there were a universal monthly fare card to avoid duplicative costs (a transit option between the Millennium Park station and the Lake St. Red Line and Washington St. Blue Line already exists). Likewise, if the BNSF ran more regularly, it would provide a public transit option for those currently moving into UIC's University Village (the Blue and Pink Lines are simply too far a walk, making University Village somewhat of a transit "desert"). Other areas serviced by Metra trains, but not by the CTA would similarly benefit (the area just west of Humboldt Park and just north of Oak Park, for instance). Thus, while a UFC on its own arguably makes no sense, it does make sense when coupled with other potentially cost-reduction-enabling improvements (namely, increased Metra service and easier transfers). Ultimately, it boils down to looking at the Chicagoland region as more of a metropolitan whole, rather than maintaining a city vs. suburb mentality. In the interest of full disclosure, as a former Hyde Park resident, the prospect of avoiding the No.6 bus in favor of the Electric whenever possible is incredibly alluring....

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