How about an E-ZPass for transit?
August 12th, 2011 by Elaine Clisham
A comment in response to our blog post last week about how five of the top 10 public-transit cities in the country are in New Jersey, got us thinking. The comment said:
While Hudson County on paper looks good, in actuality it’s not all that convenient. You have three/four systems working independently and charging separately for their services. Transfers are tedious, time-consuming and expensive. A comprehensive, pedestrian-friendly, fare-sharing system needs to be implemented in the nation’s 6th most densely populated county.
The part about independent operations is important: For transit to be a truly viable commuting option it must offer coordinated access across modes. As obvious as this seems, some cities have been surprisingly slow to put it in place. New York’s MetroCard and Boston’s CharlieCard are both usable on subways and buses but only the pay-per-ride MetroCard can be used on PATH trains. Washington, D.C.’s Metro system only finished outfitting all its buses with SmarTrip card readers in 2004, and in October 2010 was still in the process of enabling SmarTrip users to load multi-trip regional bus discount passes. So we’re getting there, but obviously have more to do.
Now let’s take this idea one step further: What if a traveler could use the same farecard on any city’s transit system? We know this is possible because some travelers have been using the technology for years. They call it E-ZPass. E-ZPass allows a driver to travel from Maine to Virginia (and perhaps other places) using one transponder linked to one account, regardless of the state or the individual road’s fare structure. Similarly, an E-ZPass for transit would allow a traveler access, regardless of fare structure, to Boston’s T, New York’s MTA, Chicago’s Metra, Baltimore’s subway and light rail, Washington’s Metro, and Philadelphia’s … well, we hear their computerized fare system is coming soon.
Will this increase transit use? It might. For places where transit modes are not already coordinated, such as Hudson County, one-card access would almost certainly force better coordination of modes and fares, which, if the commenter above is correct, would indeed lower a barrier to local transit use. And such inter-operability may also increase transit use among visitors to a city. Rather than going through the hassle of understanding a new fare payment structure (some of which don’t allow you to purchase the exact amount of a trip), a New York resident who visits Boston, for example, could simply use a MetroCard for access to the T. The correct fare would be deducted automatically.
Washington’s Metro and the Maryland Transit Authority have taken a good first step in this direction, allowing SmarTrip cards and CharmCards to be used interchangeably on any of either system’s participating transit providers. But our historic prioritization of automobile travel over transit has meant that drivers are well ahead of transit riders in digital access across systems. We look forward to transit catching up soon.