Smart Pay, SmarTrip

When it comes to metropolitan rail systems, the Washington, D.C., Metro ranks as a relative newcomer, having arrived on the Capitol City scene about 20 years ago. But that hasn't stopped it from grabbing the lead in the race with other urban areas to find better and faster ways to move passengers through the city.

In May, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) quietly unveiled SmarTrip, the country's first smart card fare system. Passengers can use the smart cards without even taking them out of their pocket or purse. The cards also can be used to pay for rail and bus fare and transit parking lots fees, and commuters eventually will be able to use the cards to purchase items at local retail stores.

"We were mostly interested in increasing passenger throughput and customer convenience, but from our point of view, this is the beginning of a long series of steps that will eventually end up being a universal bank card that can be used for everything-riding any transit system, paying any toll, buying whatever it is that you want to buy, anywhere in the country," said Peter Benjamin, chief financial officer for the WMATA.

"The technology is there, it's just a matter of getting merchants and customers to use it. We've got 1.5 million people in this area that at any time hold our fare media, so we think that's the critical mass that's needed to jump-start its acceptance," Benjamin said.

The WMATA has always been a bit ahead of its time. For example, in 1976, it pioneered the use of magnetic stripe cards, a high-tech fare collection system that many cities have only just adopted.

But that system, although effective, had two disadvantages that officials knew could be easily alleviated by the use of smart cards. One, passengers had to feed the magnetic stripe paper cards manually through a fare meter, a procedure that can cause commuter jams at Metro entrances and exits. And two, if passengers lost the card, it was tantamount to losing cash.

The smart card, which looks like a typical credit card, is equipped with an integrated circuit chip, read/write memory and a radio-frequency antenna. The card is contact-less, meaning users do not have to swipe the card through a reader. Wireless communication provides an automatic "tag" when the smart card comes within 3 inches of the fare readers, allowing commuters to keep moving.

The card's built-in logic, data storage capability and integration with the WMATA's centralized back-end mainframe system makes for a number of complex bookkeeping possibilities. For example, because the cards can be tracked wirelessly, riders who misplace their card need only to report the loss to the WMATA, which can put an immediate "block" on the card and automatically mail the rider a new card with the existing fare value (minus the $5 cost of the card).

Fare policy also can be electronically enforced. As an example, Benjamin noted that students enrolled in the D.C. school system get a discount when riding the bus or the subway during academic hours. With the current magnetic stripe card, Metro loses full-fare potential if a student goes for a ride on a Saturday afternoon. With SmarTrip, the full fare would be charged if a trip is taken during non-school hours and for obviously non-academic purposes.

Another example is MetroCheck, a program that allows local businesses to give employees a tax-free subsidy for transit fare. Eventually, employers will simply tell the WMATA which of their employees are to receive the money; the fare value is then downloaded to the fare vendors and automatically added to the employee's card the next time they visit the machine.

In addition, when riders load up their cards with cash value (which is done using coins and bills or with a credit or debit card), they can be assured that the system looks out for their best interest.

"If you touch your card to the fare vendor to start the transaction, put $20 in and then forget to close the transaction by putting the card within 3 inches of the target, the system will automatically take note of your mistake and send you a fare credit of $20 to add to your card," Benjamin said. "So basically what we've got is a very customer-friendly, highly secure, very flexible, very convenient system."

Despite its obvious appeal and merit, the system experienced little fanfare when it was rolled out in May, thanks largely to the WMATA's lack of advertising funds. Nonetheless, officials have been more than happy with rider acceptance. Within four months, more than 25,000 people had purchased the card, and Benjamin estimated the number is rising at a rate of about 1,000 per week.

Its successful conclusion notwithstanding, Benjamin noted that building a contact-less smart card transit system is fraught with challenges. The WMATA began the project four years ago with a different vendor and a less-than-ideal card that was not only three times as thick as the current card but relied on batteries. "We realized pretty quickly that no one was going to use something like that," he said.

In the spring of 1998, officials began to work with Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., a San Diego-based firm that had developed smart card systems for major Asian transit providers. The vendor not only provided the smart cards, fare equipment and peripherals, but it built a Microsoft Corp. Windows 98-based transit application and integrated it with the WMATA's existing computer system.

Even with an experienced vendor on board, SmarTrip did not take off right away. Benjamin noted that there were software and integration hazards throughout the development and building process. As a result, the agency performed extensive testing, first with WMATA employees and then with a group of about 1,000 riders for six months. And even with the system in place, WMATA has been adding capabilities incrementally.

The ability to charge fare value via credit card was not introduced to riders until late summer, and the bus system won't be unveiled until later this year. "I think it's really important to hold back and implement this slowly," Benjamin said. "That was one of the most important decisions we made."

Demonstrations are under way to test the card as a dual-mode debit/credit card at First Union Bank ATM machines and as a building pass for employees at the General Services Administration.

The bottom line, said John Satterfield, vice president of business development for Cubic Transportation Systems, is customer happiness. "The people who have gotten the card have been really enthusiastic so far," he says. "They just love it."

And that can only bode well for mass commuting systems as a whole, according to Brian Hutchings, a spokesman for the Association of Commuter Transportation in Washington, D.C. "Any time you introduce a technology that makes transit more convenient to people and more hassle-free, then I think the result will be that people who historically haven't used it will begin to use it."

Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.

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On the Move

Washington, D.C., may be the first metro area to implement smart card technology to ease traffic and transportation woes, but it won't be alone for long. The following cities and urban regions are in the process of building similar systems:

* Chicago. The Windy City piloted a smart card transit fare system for physically disabled passengers in 1998 and was pleasantly surprised to find it not only popular but cost-effective. A study found $11 million worth of savings in "shrinkage," defined as any loss resulting from employee theft, human error, transfer fraud and fare evasion. Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. has installed smart card fare equipment at rail transit stations and on 3,300 city and suburban buses. The Chicago Transit Authority is expected to officially launch the new system later this year.

* San Francisco Bay area. The area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded a 10-year, $110 million contract to a consortium led by Motorola Inc. this spring in an effort to make life easier for the 1.5 million passengers who travel aboard rail, ferry and bus systems throughout this nine-county, 100-city region. The proposed TransLink universal transit ticket system is scheduled to begin a six-month pilot in the fall of 2000 over selected routes of several transit providers and could be fully operational by 2001.

* Seattle. Seven transit agencies in Seattle are cooperating to create a smart card fare system for buses, light rail and commuter trains, and ferries. The plan calls for passengers to use the card for such non-transit purposes as checking out library books and gaining access to swimming pools.

- Heather Hayes

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