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How well are we ensuring that contactless fare payment is accessible and equitable?

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, contactless fare payments have become the norm, as operators strive to ensure the safety of passengers and staff alike. In her latest article for Intelligent Transport, Carol Schweiger investigates whether the increasing adoption of smarter payments has truly enabled safe, seamless travel for all.

How well are we ensuring that contactless fare payment is accessible and equitable?

As a result of COVID-19, many public transport agencies suspended collecting fares in order to avoid riders coming in close contact with the vehicle operator. For example, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City suspended collecting fares on buses in March 2020 in order to keep riders a safe distance away from drivers. The MTA only resumed fare collection on buses on 31 August, given the continued opening of businesses and the business need to resume collecting revenue.Rather than suspending fare collection during the pandemic, there is an increased interest in deploying mobile or contactless fare collection. While mobile fare payment systems have experienced a large increase throughout the public transport sector over the past five years, COVID-19 has caused it to become an immediate priority for many agencies throughout the world. Fortunately, the technology necessary for mobile fare payment is relatively stable and is offered by a variety of vendors.

There are several examples of U.S. public transport agencies that currently are exploring or deploying mobile fare payment:

Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA)

While WRTA in Worcester, Massachusetts began to explore the potential for deploying a mobile fare payment system just prior to the pandemic, interest in mobile fare payment increased significantly during COVID-19 – especially since WRTA has temporarily suspended fare collection.

WRTA recognises that making fare collection “touchless” will allow travellers to pay their fare without having to touch anything in the bus, increasing safety for both the drivers and passengers. Further, two of the key characteristics of a mobile fare payment system that WRTA considers essential are the system’s accessibility and equity, which will be covered in more detail below.

Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST)

MST in Monterey, California will be implementing a new mobile fare payment system as part of the California Integrated Travel Project (Cal-ITP). “Caltrans’ California Integrated Travel Project highlights the need for transit customers across the state to access a suite of common tools to seamlessly plan and pay for their transit trip, and receive any special discounts for which they may be eligible due to age, disability income, or veteran status. Caltrans says it selected MST to assess the feasibility of seamless contactless payments for transit in a ‘real-life’ environment for six months. The demonstration between MST, Caltrans and Visa beginning in September [2020] will focus on establishing an improved rider experience for MST customers that can scale to create consistency across hundreds of transit agencies throughout California. Through results collected from the MST Rider Survey conducted during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, MST learned that customers would prefer a contactless fare payment option over using cash.”1

Metro Transit in St. Louis, Missouri

On 22 June 2020, Metro Transit implemented mobile fare payment through the Transit app, which is Metro Transit’s official app that allows “passengers to plan their Metro ride and get real‑time bus locations. This added feature make[s] it easy for [riders] to plan [their] trip, track [their] ride and pay [their] fare, all in one place.”2

“The app’s new mobile fare feature is part of Metro Transit’s efforts to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, and keep both passengers and transit employees safe by providing a contactless, visually validated fare option. ‘Mobile ticketing used to be about speed and convenience, but now it is also about safety,’ said Brian Zanghi, CEO of Masabi. ‘We want to make sure that riders have a safe way to pay for public transit and that operators feel safe doing their jobs. Reducing the need to handle cash, tickets and interactions with ticketing infrastructure not only makes riding the bus easier, but safer too.’”3

payment for busThe deployment of mobile fare payment is not just about the technology, convenience and facilitating or maintaining physical distancing on-board transport vehicles – it is also about ensuring that this type of system is accessible to and equitable for all travellers. In terms of equity, this is particularly true in the U.S., in which the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requires that a Fare Equity Analysis be conducted when fare changes are proposed.

This “applies to all fare changes whether it is an increase or decrease in fare or fare medium or structure change. An equity analysis is an assessment to determine whether service or fare changes will result in a disparate impact or disproportionate burden. Disparate Impact is when a facially neutral policy or practice disproportionately affects members of a group identified by race, colour or national origin. A Disproportionate Burden is when a neutral policy or practice disproportionately affects low-income populations more than non‑low‑income populations.”4

For example, when TriMet in Portland, Oregon was moving toward all electronic fare payment, they performed a fare equity analysis that included a rider survey as well as public input that was collected through a community engagement process. The analysis resulted in the identification of electronic fare policies that would: have no disparate impact or disproportionate burden; those that may have these impacts; and those issues that were raised frequently through public engagement (see Figure 1).

Table 1: Results of TriMet Fare Equity Analysis

No Disparate Impact or Disproportionate Burden

May have Disparate Impact or Disproportionate Burden

Frequently Mentioned Issues in Public Engagement

·       Elimination of mail-order purchasing of fare media

·       Increase to 500+ retail outlets

·       New fare caps available with e-fare

·       Elimination of 7-Day Pass

·       Elimination of 14-Day Pass

·       Automatic reload option for e-card using a credit/debit card (potential disparate benefit)

·       New fare medium to pay fares using a contactless smart credit/debit card (potential disparate benefit)

·       $5 minimum load requirement for e-card

·       $3 e-card cost (impact on families in particular)

·       Barriers to e-card registration, including concern about providing personal information and the requirement to provide an email address when registering the e-card

Based on these analysis results, TriMet recommended “implementing several mitigation measures to address these findings:

  • Distribute at least 100,000 free e-cards during the initial period, with particular effort to reach minority, low-income, and limited English proficiency populations
  • Longer term provision of free e-cards through TriMet’s Access Transit fare program
  • Add more locations to the retail network, specifically in minority and low-income neighbourhoods
    Establish a lower minimum load requirement at certain locations, such as TriMet’s Pioneer Square Ticket Office
  • Establish the option to register the e-card by phone, providing only a username and PIN (instead of email address). Interpretation services in multiple languages will also be available to customers who register by phone
  • Explore opportunities to address the needs of large families
  • Provide training and technical assistance to community-based organisations on how to purchase and distribute fares for their clients in the e-fare system.”5

In the case of the WRTA, as they explore deploying a mobile fare payment system, potential equity and accessibility issues are being reviewed as mentioned earlier. In particular, two of the characteristics of a mobile fare payment system directly address the equity issues: firstly, accommodating the “unbanked” and “under-banked” with a broad retail network to acquire and reload mobile fare media, and secondly providing special fare programs such as fare capping and incentives. In terms of the unbanked and under-banked, the WRTA is looking at statistics that are reported by the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) regarding the banking status of households as well as the use of credit cards by banking status and household characteristics6. In the Worcester Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), the statistics shown in Figure 2 were reported by the FDIC.

Table 2: 2017 data for Worcester, Massachusetts

Banking Status

Use of Mainstream Credit Products

Credit characteristics

·       Number of Households: 390,000

·       Percent of Households: 100.0

·       Unbanked: 2.6%

·       Banked:

o   Underbanked: 12.0%

o   Fully banked: 82.0%

o   Underbanked status unknown: 3.4%

·       Number of Households: 364,000

·       Percent of Households: 100.0

·       Credit card: 84.6%

·       Store credit card: 51.7%

·       Mortgage, home equity loan, or home equity line of credit: 38.3%

·       Auto loan: 46.1%

·       Student loan: 26.1%

·       Bank personal loan: 1.2%

·       Other mainstream nonbank: 1.2%

·       No mainstream credit: 7.7%

·       Number of Households: 364,000

·       Percent of Households: 100.0

·       Applied for credit card or bank personal loan: 7.5%

·       Denied credit card or bank personal loan: 1.2%

·       Felt discouraged about applying for credit card or bank personal loan: 7.5%

·       Fell behind on bills: 19.0%

While the number of unbanked or under-banked people may not seem very high, these statistics indicate that the WRTA will need to address this segment of the population along with the travellers who do not have credit cards.

In terms of the accessibility, one of the primary reasons that the WRTA is considering a new mobile fare payment system is to improve access and mobility for the greater Worcester region through improvements in service reliability (due to a significant decrease in road calls), increased ridership through providing a variety of incentives via the new fare system (e.g., reduced fares when traveling to the new Polar Park, a baseball stadium for a Boston Red Sox Triple-A affiliate in the Canal District in downtown Worcester scheduled to open for the 2021 season with 10,000 seats), and facilitating fare payment by persons with disabilities.

Should the WRTA deploy a mobile fare collection system, it will make it easier for travellers to physically pay their fare, which is just one of multiple steps in a “complete trip.” As I described in an earlier Intelligent Transport article, a current USDOT programme called The Complete Trip -– ITS4US Deployment Program will “help communities develop comprehensive, seamless and efficient transportation solutions to increase mobility access. The goal is to enable people to travel independently from one point to another, regardless of the number of connections, transfers or modes of transportation. The program focuses on holistic approaches that create more choices and better access for older adults, people with disabilities and underserved communities in rural and small urban areas. Without a pandemic, there are numerous barriers to persons with disabilities, older people and low-income individuals attempting to make a “complete” trip.”7

LA metro tapThe new WRTA fare system could not only provide “touchless” fare collection, but it could provide the WRTA with the opportunity to issue alternate fare media, such as wearables, which are particularly helpful to persons with disabilities. As described by Robin O’Hara in an Intelligent Transport article8, Los Angeles Metro offers TAP (the name of the fare system) wearables. These include the TAP Mini keychain fob, and the TAP Stretch and TAP Flex wrist bands. “All TAP wearables function just like a regular TAP card – you can load stored value and passes onto them, and register them online. TAP wearables can be used on any agency that accepts TAP.”9

Getting back to COVID-19 as a motivator for transport agencies to quickly deploy mobile ticketing/fare payment, it is important to address the equity and accessibility issues as part of the system development rather than addressing them after the system is deployed. In the U.S., the equity issues must be addressed via the FTA rule mentioned earlier.

The preliminary results of a pooled-fund study entitled Applying an Equity Lens to Automated Payment Solutions for Public Transportation, which is funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, and is expected to be completed by 31 October 202010, provides useful information regarding issues of inclusion due to payment technology. Preliminary study findings after analysing data from Denver (Colorado), Eugene (Oregon) and Gresham/Portland11 have implications for mobile ticket/fare payment in general as follows:

  • Age and income-related exclusion can be significant
  • Local conditions may vary from city to city
  • Education and training may be key to lower anxiety and improve understanding of new systems
  • Public Wi-Fi may be an important link
  • Free or subsidised smartphones (like energy and telecom) and internet might be needed.

With many transport agencies deploying these systems more rapidly due to COVID-19, considering the equity and accessibility issues as early as possible will help to ensure that all travellers have no barriers to accessing and using these new systems. 

References

1. Monterey-Salinas Transit District, “MST announces new partnership with Caltrans, Visa,” Mass Transit, July 15, 2020, https://www.masstransitmag.com/…

2. https://www.metrostlouis.org/nextstop/metro-transit-fares-go-mobile/

3. Mallory Box, “Metro Transit Introduces Mobile Fares,” Citizens For Modern Transit, June 19, 2020, https://cmt-stl.org/…

4. Title VI Service & Fare Equity Analyses Video Transcript, https://www.transit.dot.gov….

5. KFH Group, Inc., Title VI Fare Equity Analysis for Migration to E-Fare, prepared for TriMet, January 6, 2016, page ES-2, https://trimet.org/pdfs/equity/2016-fare-equity-analysis 

6. 2017 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, FDIC Division of Depositor and Consumer Protection, October 2018, https://www.fdic.gov/…

7. Carol Schweiger, “How has COVID-19 impacted 2020’s mobility trends?” Intelligent Transport, 22 April 2020, https://www.intelligenttransport.com…

8. Robin O’Hara, “Wearing your fare: LA Metro’s TAP Smart Card Program,” Intelligent Transport, 16 March 2020, https://www.intelligenttransport.com…

9. “TAP Mini is now available at Metro Customer Centers,” September 4, 2019, https://www.taptogo.net/articles/en_US/News/TAP-Mini

10. “Applying an Equity Lens to Automated Payment Solutions for Public Transportation,” https://nitc.trec.pdx.edu/…

11. John MacArthur and Aaron Golub, Portland State University, “Understanding Technology-Based Exclusion in Emerging Smart Mobility Systems,” Friday Transportation Seminar, Transportation Research and Education Center, Portland State University, May 22, 2020, https://www.slideshare.net…

Biography 

Carol Schweiger is the President of Schweiger Consulting and Chairperson of the New England Intelligent Transportation Society. She is internationally recognised in transportation technology consulting, providing over 65 transportation agencies with technology technical assistance. She has authored numerous Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Synthesis reports and full TCRP reports. Currently, she serves as co-Chair of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committee on Emerging and Innovative Public Transport and Technologies, a Charter Member of the Public Transportation Systems and Services (PTSS) Committee of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and member of the International Program Committee of the ITS World Congress and TRB ITS Committee.

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