It was less than 20 years ago — 1999 to be exact — when Metro released SmarTrip, the first contactless payment card in American public transportation. A few years later, Baltimore’s CharmCard was designed to integrate with SmarTrip. At the time our region was a national model for mobility payment technology, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making such a claim today.
Like many parts of the economy, intra-city transportation has been transformed over the last 20 years by new technologies like the smartphone and cloud computing. But you wouldn’t know from SmarTrip, which provides pretty much the same user experience now that it did in 1999.
During that time many of our American and international peers have moved ahead, making it faster and simpler for a consumer to plan and pay for an urban trip using rail, bus, or bikeshare (or a combination). As a result, booking a trip gets easier, transit service is faster, transit agencies save money, and travelers are nudged to leave their cars at home.
Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond should look to our peers and get inspired—and feel pressure to catch up. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, the Capital Region—what the Greater Washington Partnership defines as Baltimore, Washington, Richmond—is currently moving away from integrated mobility, as SmarTrip will soon lose interoperability with VRE’s mobile app and MTA’s CharmCard.
Amtrak does not allow joint ticketing with any transit service in the Capital Region and has announced no intention of doing so. There are no known plans to integrate SmarTrip or CharmCard with a public bikeshare network, let alone a private service like ride-hail or scootershare. As the Greater Washington Partnership’s recent issue brief argues, our region must come around to prioritizing integrated mobility, something we have never done before.
Many peer regions offer examples of what is possible
Chicago: Take Chicago’s Ventra mobile app, launched in 2013 with support from the State of Illinois. Ventra was designed to provide a single ticketing solution for riders who use Chicago Transit Authority’s bus and heavy rail network as well as commuter services like Pace and Metra. Chicago commuters today have a personal Ventra account they can recharge whenever they like, and they can book tickets and obtain e-tickets from their smartphone on any bus or rail service in the region.
In 2016 the Federal Transit Authority gave Chicago $400,000 to expand Ventra to include the Divvy bikeshare system as well (like Capital Bikeshare, Divvy is operated by Motivate, which was recently acquired by Lyft).
Portland: In the Portland, Oregon metro area Android smartphone users don’t need a transit app at all to ride a bus, streetcar or light rail. Thanks to TriMet’s new HOP Fastpass they can pay directly from their smartphone if Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay is installed and linked to a credit card.
It’s too early to know the impact of HOP Fastpass on ridership (it launched just last year), but the new payment system should speed travel for bus and streetcar commuters by reducing the dwell time passengers spend waiting for others to pay as they board (dwell time can comprise 20% of a trip’s duration). Remarkably, TriMet built HOP Fastpass to be open source, meaning that any transit agency — including those in our region — can copy its design at a negligible cost.
Japan: As impressive as Portland and Chicago’s fare payment systems are when compared with our region, many peers abroad are even more advanced. In Japan, a commuter can use the same PASMO card in Tokyo that she does in cities like Osaka and Fukuoka. And PASMO lets her not only ride bus and rail, but also rent a storage locker at a metro station or even buy snacks in a convenience store.
Belgium: On the other side of the world from Japan, many European commuters enjoy a far superior user experience than those in our region (or anywhere in the United States). In Belgium, the MoBIB card works equally well on any public transportation in the country, whether on a heavy rail in Brussels, a bus service in Liege, or a train between the two.
Finland: Finland’s model for mobility payments may be the most revolutionary of all. In May 2017 national legislators passed a bill mandating that all mobility providers—public and private—release their data in a standardized format to allow third parties to create trip planning and ticketing services drawing data from all of them. Those standards enabled Whim, an app that allows commuters to enter a desired origin and destination and then book a trip on transit, taxi, carshare, or bikeshare.
Finnish commuters can even buy mobility packages that can be spent on any mode. Whim comes closest to the ideals of integrated mobility (often called “Mobility as a Service”), which would enable consumers to buy a basket of transportation services across all mobility options other than driving a personal vehicle.
The lessons our region should learn
With bus ridership falling in the Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond metros, transit agencies must improve the customer experience in order to stop hemorrhaging riders and attract new ones. In that spirit, what lessons can our region draw from these models of integrated mobility around the world?
Many. For one, Chicago’s Ventra shows that SmarTrip and CharmCard are moving in the wrong direction when they lose interoperability with each other (and with VRE). We should instead be adding access to mobility options like Amtrak and Capital Bikeshare. And Portland’s HOP pass suggests — though there isn’t yet data to prove it — that our region could dramatically simplify ticket purchasing and reduce dwell times if transit agencies leveraged existing smartphone payment systems like Google Pay and Apple Pay.
Then there is the issue of geographic interoperability. If Japan’s PASMO card or Belgium’s MoBIB can work across entire countries, why are SmarTrip, CharmCard or the future smartcard in Richmond useless when you travel beyond their immediate service area (e.g. a SmarTrip user traveling further than Loudoun or Prince George’s Counties)?
For that matter, why should our fare payment options be limited to public services? Why not add private ride-hail and dockless bikeshare? Finland’s experience shows that it can be done — if thoughtful public leaders compel transportation providers to make their services available on a broader platform.
We haven’t historically had the kind of political will in the Capital Region necessary to make a bold decision like the Finns did. In fact, that may be the biggest takeaway lesson of all: integrated mobility will not emerge of its own accord; we have to bring it to life through political vision, coordinated investments, and advocacy. At the moment private companies like Uber are building walled gardens of their own mobility options that preclude broader integration. Uber and Lyft won’t even let consumers price compare.
Other regions around the world are taking action to integrate mobility by upgrading payment systems and improving customer experience, while the Capital Region has been largely standing still. But SmarTrip’s visionary launch in 1999 shows how capable our region is of being a global leader in mobility technology. We can and should become one again.