Bikeshare and bus by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

If you’re like me, you use a SmarTrip card, a Capital Bikeshare dongle, and half a dozen apps on your smartphone to access ride-hail, bikeshare, or carshare — and none of them communicate with each other. That leads to time wasted toggling back and forth, especially if a trip requires more than one service, like getting from Downtown DC to the Fairfax County’s Mosaic District via Metrorail and ride-hail. For some, this could be annoying enough to sometimes give up and drive a personal vehicle instead.

But what if you could use your SmarTrip account to find and pay for ride-hail or carshare, as well as transit or bikeshare when you’re in nearby cities like Baltimore or Richmond? Better yet, what if you could tap your smartphone and instantly pay for both Metrorail and Capital Bikeshare, or Ride On bus and Uber or Lyft? Or what if you could receive a notification on your phone alerting you to a delay on the Yellow Line, and offering a discount to use dockless bikeshare or scootershare instead on your daily commute home?

In order to level the playing field and improve commutes for those who don’t drive, the Washington region must make integrated mobility a central priority. That is the conclusion of “Unlocking the Promise of Integrated Mobility in the Capital Region,” an issue brief released last month by the Greater Washington Partnership, a civic business alliance that fosters economic growth from Baltimore to Richmond. (I contributed directly to research, counsel, and management of this issue brief.)

The memo outlines a strategy to position our region for a multimodal future. It's important create a seamless platform to find and pay for a variety of mobility services because commuters increasingly get around with a mix of transit, ride-hail, bikeshare, scootershare, and someday, autonomous vehicles.

The technology exists, but the will doesn't

Technology isn’t the problem; it’s technically possible today to provide any of the features mentioned above. Rather, the problem is that elected officials and transit leaders in the Washington region haven’t prioritized integrated mobility for non-drivers.

Technology has already made it vastly easier for drivers to pay tolls (EZ Pass), navigate around congestion (Waze), and find parking (SpotHero) no matter where in the region you live or travel. Those who leave their car at home or never bought one in the first place can use the Transit app to find dockless bikes, buses, and more, but riders must still navigate to separate apps or use various cards to pay for their trip.

If our region embraces open data requirements across transit and mobility services, residents could pay for a trip anywhere in the region, on any public or a private mobility service, or on a combination of them.

Finland’s Whim app comes close to offering such a platform. Residents can use the service to pay for travel on transit, taxi, ride-hailing, or carshare. Japan's Suica card allows riders to not only use public transportation in most regions of the country, but also to pay for taxis and lockers at stations and make small purchases on trains and at participating vending machines and convenience stores.

The Washington region is moving in the wrong direction

Our region has a long way to go, and at the moment we're actually moving away from integrated mobility. The Maryland Transit Authority (MTA) is about to upgrade its payment system in a way that makes MTA’s CharmCard no longer interoperable with Metro’s SmarTrip.

It’s not really MTA’s fault. The SmarTrip card launched 20 years ago and is in dire need of an upgrade. Cubic, Metro’s payment vendor, has long stopped manufacturing the payment equipment SmarTrip relies on.

Instead of replacing its backend system, in April Metro announced a new SmarTrip mobile payment app that leaves the outdated infrastructure in place. Metro has not mentioned any plans to integrate payments with MTA or other public mobility providers in the region like VRE or Amtrak. The agency has been similarly silent on any potential plans to integrate SmarTrip with Capital Bikeshare or with private services like dockless bikeshare or ride-hail.

A root problem is the rigid nature of long-term contracts that transit agencies sign with payment collection vendors like Cubic, which make it expensive and cumbersome for the agencies to update or open up their payment systems. It isn’t clear that these vendors want transit agencies to have an open payment system that accommodates easy integration with other services — after all, lock-in can be profitable. But commuters, transit agencies, and private mobility providers wanting to connect with transit pay a steep price.

Moving into an integrated mobile future

So what is to be done? The Partnership’s issue brief calls for regional officials, transit leaders, and private mobility providers to embrace a set of principles that position the region to adopt integrated mobility as a guiding framework:

  1. Put the user experience at the center of ticketing and trip planning investments
  2. Build capacity for interoperability and new functionality in planning and ticketing systems for public and private mobility services
  3. Ensure that new ticketing systems equitably empower all consumers
  4. Leverage new ticketing systems to learn, experiment, and transform the travel experience

With MTA, Metro, and the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) all unveiling mobile ticketing apps this year, we need to get started right away. Specifically, we need interoperable data to enable the emergence of a payment platforms accommodating any trip across public or private mobility providers. Those platforms could be managed by the public or private sector, with the best ones attracting the most users.

Transit procurement is a critical piece of the puzzle. Transit leaders must avoid locking themselves into bespoke backend systems that preclude future integration or experimentation with new technologies like frequent traveler perks for regular transit riders. Our region should explore creative funding sources to support interoperability, like Chicago’s grant from the Federal Transit Administration to integrate its Divvy bikeshare system into the Ventra transit payment app.

Encompassing two states and a federal district, no metro area in the United States faces more challenges simplifying its mobility networks than ours. However, doing so is well worth the effort.

Drivers in our region shoulder a collective $7 billion cost of congestion. The District, Baltimore, and Richmond are all trying to reduce the proportion of trips taken in single-occupancy vehicles, and we must find ways to improve the user experience for those who choose transit or private mobility services. One of the most powerful ways to do that is to adopt an integrated mobility strategy, which has been found to increase transit ridership by between 5% and 20%.

With Metrobus ridership falling 5.6% between 2016 and 2017, integrated mobility also offers a promising approach to improve public transit’s core “product,” thereby attracting new riders. In the process we can make our commutes — and our lives — a little bit easier.