MetroExtra bus by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Metro is trying to speed up the Georgia Avenue 79 bus by eliminating cash payment. This could save riders a lot of time, but also raises equity questions.

The 79 tests cashless boarding

In late June, WMATA began a six-month pilot that bans cash payments on the Georgia Avenue 79 limited-stop route. According to a WMATA board report, the program aims to improve bus travel times and reliability by eliminating onboard cash payments and SmarTrip reloading. During the pilot, riders can only pay with a valid SmarTrip card.

The time spent at stops typically makes up 10 to 25% of a bus journey, this TransitCenter study of New York City shows, so reducing this "dwell time" can drastically speed up service and improve reliability for riders. WMATA's research shows about 12% of bus fare transactions involve cash, but these represent 24% of dwell time. Passengers paying with cash take about seven to eight seconds to board, compared with two to four seconds for passengers with SmarTrip cards.

The 79 was chosen for a few reasons. Because it travels through a dense retail corridor and connects several Metro stations, WMATA believes there are good alternatives for people to refill their SmarTrip cards elsewhere.

Since the 79 is already a limited-stop route, riders already expect faster service, and eliminating cash payments can help make that happen. The 70 local route, which is not part of the pilot, serves many of the same stops so anyone looking to pay with cash can use it as an alternative. The Georgia Avenue corridor is being used by Metro to test other improvements, so there’s already dedicated staffing in place that can monitor how the program is doing.

Cashless services can cut out people who are unbanked

If Metro finds the pilot successful, it could become permanent at the end of 2018 and even expanded to other bus routes across the region. But formal public outreach and Title VI analysis would need to be completed before any permanent changes are made.

Some have expressed concern that the cashless pilot could make it harder for those who rely on the bus. By some estimates, more than one in 10 residents in the region are “unbanked,” meaning that they have no checking or savings account. Another 25% are underbanked and could have limited access to credit cards or digital payment systems, and cash might be their only available form of payment.

There’s also no formal policy at the moment on what will happen should someone attempt to pay with cash. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said that bus drivers would deal with such instances on a case-by-case basis, but that's not an ideal solution.

At the same time that Metro is undertaking its cashless pilot, some on the DC council are exploring the idea of banning cashless eateries in the District. A bill proposed by Councilmember David Grosso and supported by a handful of other councilmembers would forbid restaurants, bars, and other retail food establishments from refusing to accept cash as a form of payment. The new legislation aims “to prevent discrimination against customers who prefer to use cash or do not have access to credit cards or other payment methods.”

The legislation has only been introduced and is not yet law. It’s unclear what effect, if any, it might have on Metro as it studies its own cashless initiatives.

Banning cash is only the beginning if we want service to be equitable

The 79 pilot might lead to faster bus trips, but could be tweaked to ensure better equitability before becoming permanent.

For example, Metro could once again let customers carry a negative balance on their SmarTrip. This would allow riders to make one additional trip without penalty to access a fare machine to refill their card, helping to mitigate concerns about excluding customers. Such a policy could be paired with installing cubside payment kiosks at key bus stops.

Expanding partnerships with area businesses so riders could refill their SmarTrip cards where they shop is another step. While WMATA has had some difficulties with this, increasing the number of businesses that can process SmarTrip sales would be great for riders. Metro estimates that each year about a half-million SmarTrip transactions occurred at approximately 150 CVS locations that currently participate.

Off-board payments could also be coupled with all-door bus boarding, which has been shown to significantly reduce bus stop dwell times. Other systems that implemented this scheme saw dwell times drop by 50% or more. However, all-door boarding would likely be expensive to impliment because DC buses currently lack fare collection at the back door. Metro is locked in with Cubic as its sole fare collection system vendor, so it can set a high price for updates.

What do you think about this pilot?

Travis Maiers spent most of his life in South Florida before moving to the Washington region in 2009. He has a degree in International Studies from American University and works at a DC non-profit focused on international economic policy. He currently resides in the Forest Hills neighborhood of DC and enjoys learning about all things related to transportation and urban planning.