Lisa Schweitzer Part 3: Farecards

Lisa continues her deconstruction of my CityLab post in Part 3, discussing Farecards and technology.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

She writes:

Most transit companies already do require smart card use, and I’m not sure what seasonal passes get anybody, even providers,that monthly or weekly passes don’t, except if you buy for longer periods of time, the transit company gets to use your money longer than if you buy week-by-week. The only thing I think might matter here are school-year passes that, if you purchase them in August, you can a better deal than if you buy month-by-month, and you don’t necessarily want a full yearly pass. It probably makes more sense, for example, for me to buy a pass like that than my yearly pass because I don’t commute much in the summer. Unless I am missing something, this is a minor point.

I dispute her point in the absence of evidence. Most transit agencies have smart cards, and some heavy rail systems require them (BART, DC Metro, MTA). My sense of most bus agencies is they don’t require them – Twin Cities MetroTransit certainly doesn’t, hence the time saving advantages of having them. Boarding times are reduced from 6 seconds to 2 seconds per customer with smart cards if I remember a recent term paper correctly.

I would go further and say we should have pre-payment via stop-based farecard reader, i.e. all significant bus stops should have arterial BRT like payment.  (This should be coupled with a reduction in the number of bus stops). Pre-payment is faster of course.

The advantage of seasonal or annual unlimited passes vs. unlimited weekly passes is seemingly minor (reduced transaction costs for the agency, but more importantly reduced mental transactions cost for customers). However, it is an important psychological difference. This gets back to my Club Transit post, where users should be thought of as members rather than one-off riders. Sure some riders (students, faculty) might save a little bit with seasonal vs. annual passes, but what you want (as an agency) is continuous automatic billing, not having to go through a weekly/monthly/annual process to sign up members.

I fully agree that there should be “one card to rule them all”, and further my membership in MetroTransit should be reciprocal at other agencies. But I suspect most people who use transit only use transit in one or two cities per year, so this would be relatively minor. The embarrassment of certain California metro areas not being able to standardize on fare cards across agencies is not widely replicated (fortunately), and obviously there should be intra-metropolitan inter-operability even if inter-metropolitan inter-operability is still a dream. Again this is a case where contracting out (to Visa or Mastercard, e.g.) might be valuable.



3 thoughts on “Lisa Schweitzer Part 3: Farecards

  1. Well, it’s an empirical question: I strongly suspect that many systems that don’t use them are not systems that necessarily need fret about reducing the boarding time from 6 to 2 seconds because they aren’t likely to have a sufficient number of passengers for that difference to have a real effect on dwell time.


  2. And if you are right and I am wrong on this–entirely possible–it’s still a small point compared to institutional changes you suggest.


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