A Peek at the Future of TriMet Fare Collection?

In response to our discussion about the likely recommendation of TriMet’s Fare Task Force, TriMet spokesperson Mary Fetsch passed along a white paper on electronic fare collection (PDF, 581K) that had been prepared at the request of General Manager Neil McFarlane.

Before commenting on the very interesting contents of the document, I want to provide a couple of disclaimers:

  1. I don’t know if Mary has sent this to other media outlets. If not, it’s an interesting choice to release it through Portland Transport. I’m tempted to take it as a compliment that it’s likely to get a thorough airing here. But I’m also conscious that it could be a calculation to release it in a venue where it might get more favorable treatment – readers can be the judge.
  2. We’re straying into an area where I have a conflict of interest. A couple of years ago my employer, Xerox Corp., purchased ACS Inc., a computer services firm that among its many business units has a transportation systems group that includes fare systems among its offerings. Indeed, Xerox/ACS just installed a contactless payment system for the transit system in Philadelphia. While I don’t work directly with the transportation systems group (I’m in a corporate web marketing group) as ACS is integrated into Xerox I am beginning to become more aware of and in communication with that business unit. Readers should be aware of that as they read my comments.

With that out of the way, some observations on the document:

  • It’s quite detailed and includes an implementation plan that has some very near term steps. This is to be taken seriously.
  • The flat-fare/limited-transfer recommendation of the fare task force is entirely consistent with the discussion in the document.
  • It contains a very interesting breakdown of the cost of collecting fares based on where they are purchased (those ticket vending machines we all complain about are by far the most expensive channel). There appears to be some hope that this could be financed based on savings in fare collection costs.
  • My personal fare-instrument-of-choice, the book of ten tickets, would appear to be going the way of the dodo bird. But given that I purchase these (I don’t use enough to justify a monthly pass – I do have an annual Streetcar pass) mainly to avoid the need for exact change, any kind of electronic system will meet my need.
  • It would appear that we’ll have many options for payment instruments: a stored value card, bank credit cards that contain smart chips, or ‘contactless’ systems like the NFC (near field communication) technology now beginning to be seen in phones.
  • My policy preference, a distance-based fare system, is possible but more complex (you need tap-on, tap-off, not just tap-on).
  • The technology makes peak-period fare premiums a possibility.
  • The draft schedules seem to suggest that this would not be implemented with the opening of PMLR, but perhaps within a year or so after the opening.
  • TriMet is apparently leaving the door open to use open source software for some aspects of the system.

Read and discuss!


27 Responses to A Peek at the Future of TriMet Fare Collection?

  1. Allan
    January 29, 2012 at 12:08 pm Link

    Although the slow timeline is frustrating to a techie like me, I’m glad to see TriMet is looking into this stuff.

    Has TriMet considered charging a premium to buy tickets at stations to offset the increased costs? This is done with Electronic Tolling systems on roadways all over the US, and could bring in substantial new revenue without increasing fares directly

  2. Chris Smith
    January 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm Link

    I suspect that such a premium would have Title VI (equity) issues, since the folks with the least ability to afford the premium may be the ones who get hit hardest.

  3. Aaron
    January 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm Link

    If someone were poor, might they more likely to just take the extra time to not buy tickets at stations in order to save the cash? I’d think this would be a tax on the impatient more than the poorest.

  4. poncho
    January 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm Link

    I like that it appears to solve both the problem of transfers for long distance riders as addressed by OPAL while also closing wide gap for making round trips for closer/quicker trips.

    I dont see any problem with tapping in and out especially as it would solve the long distance transfer issue and would probably prevent the round trip on one fare especially if it notes the location.

    Might tying into ORCA save a few years for roll out (and provide the added yet minimal benefit of riders being able to use the same card in Seattle)?

    I get the sense these electronic fare companies take a pretty major cut since its proprietary info and they have the transit agency captive to their system, is this correct? somewhat like the electronic parking meters we know all about :-)

    What about pre-filled debit card-like cards sold in stores for those without credit cards/bank accounts? (just like those gift cards for every major retailer sold in supermarkets and drug stores) This issue of fares for those without credit cards has clearly been addressed elsewhere.

  5. Aaron G
    January 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm Link

    poncho, the PDF actually does suggest that prepaid credit cards will be a likely solution for the poor and “unbanked”, and that TriMet could also sell their own preloaded smart cards at grocery stores alongside the rest of the gift cards they sell.

  6. AL M
    January 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm Link

    I have to read through this to make any useful comments but at first glance isn’t this what we have been talking about and pushing for?

    How come they recently ‘refurbished’ the old style fare-boxes and are pushing the ‘transfer printers’ if this was in the works?

  7. AL M
    January 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm Link

    I just read the answer to one of my questions in the document.

  8. AL M
    January 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm Link

    I read through it, on the right track at least, talking about 2017 for implementation of an electronic fare collection system.

    Who knows what will be going on in five years.

    In the meantime I still suggest the $1 flat fare for each vehicle boarded is the way to go.

    Most riders use two Trimet vehicles, basically bus&max.

    Pay as you board on bus and pay at the station on MAX. Of course since MAX uses unsecured stations it is a problem collecting that sort of fare.

    No zones, no times, no transfers.

    Monthly passes available, “all vehicles” and “disabled” no other passes. You could still have the “day pass” available.

    Of course the yearly pass program should continue.

    This does not need to be a complex idea. Transit districts survived long before there was a plethora of technology available.

    Everybody should be able to produce a buck, rich and poor alike solving the equity issue.

    People will be much more willing to cough up fare if its reasonable, $2.40 is a lot of money for some people.

    Even though it would appear the my idea is slashing fares, its actually increasing fare collection, because people won’t be trying to evade it constantly.

    They have pay as you go furniture, cell phones, internet, pay as you go Transit is an idea who’s time is now!

  9. Jeff F
    January 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm Link

    Pssst, Chris, the word is “peek”.

  10. Erik H.
    January 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm Link

    My policy preference, a distance-based fare system, is possible but more complex (you need tap-on, tap-off, not just tap-on).

    Every transit system I’ve used with an electronic card system had this built in. It’s not “complex”, it’s standard operating procedure.

    Fail to “tap-off” and you get charged the maximum fare. Just like if you lose your parking ticket at a downtown Portland parking garage. If you lose your card, you get charged the maximum daily rate.

    Transfers are easy to determine; so are zones. In fact electronic card systems allow you to make a fare system more complex – not that I’m advocating it – because your fare is being calculated by a computer and right as you end your trip. If you don’t have sufficient balance for the maximum fare from your originating station, you are prohibited from boarding – if you board a MAX train in Gresham and the maximum fare is, say, $6.00 to Hillsboro and you only have a $3.00 balance, you’ll be told to add more money.

    Transfers are easily determined as well – the electronic fare system can even limit transfers. For example, if you start on a MAX train, you might only be allowed to transfer to the old “S” bus lines but not mainline routes. (This is common in Southern California.) It can enforce one-way fares. It can even have a time-out so you are only allowed a certain amount of time to be counted as a “transfer”, so if you stay an hour for lunch in downtown Portland the system will disallow your next ride as a “transfer” – it’ll charge you a new fare.

    What’s great about electronic fares is that it eliminates the social class issue TriMet has implemented as policy on its transit system – many folks no longer carry cash, thus preventing someone from quickly jumping aboard a bus (because they only accept cash). Many MAX stations have credit/debit only TVMs – they may only have one machine that accepts cash, and if that machine is down and you don’t have a debit card, you’re out of luck. Of course, if you are a cash rider, you’re prohibited from riding WES – especially in Wilsonville where it’s impossible to even buy a transfer from a bus Operator, and at Hall/Nimbus and Tualatin where buying a transfer from a bus Operator is not exactly convenient. Even the “poor” can easily obtain a fare card and have it reloaded, or if they receive transit subsidies then the agency that helps them out would be able to easily add funds to a client’s card (which is preferable – that way the agency knows the money is being used for transit and not other uses).

    The real question is: Why has TriMet dragged its feet for so long in such a program that would benefit the entire region and the entire system, and all classes of people – and encourage transit use?

  11. al m
    January 29, 2012 at 8:46 pm Link

    Why has TriMet dragged its feet for so long in such a program that would benefit the entire region and the entire system

    ~~~> You know my theory on this. Fares were less important than ridership.

    Ridership could be converted into cold hard cash via the Federal government.

    The money generated by the FED’s dwarfed what could be collected via the fares, so nobody focused on the fares.

    As the federal money is obviously drying up the fares now become important.

    Hence the crackdown and now the fare structure to an actual enforcement method.

  12. Jason McHuff
    January 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm Link

    My issues with the paper (overall, it’s great and answered some fare cost/revenue questions I’ve had):
    -Possibly separate out ticket office and outlet costs; there’s a difference with the former requiring cash registers and cashiers (though they can do more than just sell fares)

    -Why did time-based fares get medium rankings for meeting objectives and flat fares high rankings? It seems time-based would be easy to understand and enforce, and that flat fares would be unfair given the long routes and arbitrarily-required transfers.

    -It argues that e-fares would not cut down on evasion, yet points out elsewhere that the paper system is problematic.

  13. Jason McHuff
    January 29, 2012 at 9:11 pm Link

    Who knows what will be going on in five years.

    Agreed. I know some agencies have installed swipe systems, and now they’re old technology. (Plus, more time- and maintenance-consuming to use).

    Most riders use two Trimet vehicles, basically bus&max.

    Not necessarily. There are many bus-MAX-bus trips or bus-bus-bus trips.

    the social class issue TriMet has implemented as policy on its transit system

    This does not exist. Buses have (since 1970-something at lest) always been exact fare-only. While it’s true that rail TVMs do accept cards and do give change, this is a byproduct of needing automated sales machines, and that implementing a smaller number of fixed devices is much cheaper than implementing 600+ mobile ones.

    if you are a cash rider, you’re prohibited from riding WES

    This is not true. Cash riders can pre-purchase tickets and I’ve heard the conductors are understanding to those who haven’t. (I would have considered putting machines in the vehicles given that it’s feasible since conductors can check fares and people ride for longer times).

    Why has TriMet dragged its feet for so long

    As you should know, there’s been budget crunches. Delaying fare system upgrades has specifically been mentioned as a consequence.

  14. Wells
    January 30, 2012 at 10:26 am Link

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a motto lost to those looking for any idiotic electronic Big Brother method to profitably oppress the public.

  15. Michael, Portland Afoot
    January 30, 2012 at 11:54 am Link

    Can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t get this, despite a question late last week on the very subject! Glad someone did.

    The size of the transaction costs on those ticket vending machines is amazing: 28%!

  16. zefwagner
    January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm Link

    What I love about this is how easy it would be to casually use transit compared to the current system. The paper focuses on how it would possibly save TriMet money, but the real savings come in the form of added convenience to riders, less involvement of drivers in non-driving activities, and speeded-up boarding times which ultimately make the bus run faster and more reliably. All these benefits more than make up for higher overall fares. Instead of having to make sure I have $2.10 exactly, I can just use my credit card or cell phone to pay. Like they say, it would be easy to have have prepaid cards available at convenience stores and drug stores for those who don’t have credit cards already. I think TriMet is definitely on the right track, as NFC phones and credit cards will probably be ubiquitous five years from now. I do think they should still offer Orca/Oyster/Octopus style cards as well, for passholders and other frequent riders. (What will be the O animal here? Ocelot? Oxen? Oriole?)

  17. EngineerScotty
    January 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm Link

    Otter. :)

  18. John Charles Wilson
    January 31, 2012 at 10:29 am Link

    I took the time to calculate what a fare differential to account for collection costs would look like, FWIW. Due to complexity, I only did current adult fares. Fares are “normalised” to cash on bus for tickets and day passes and to outlet/office for longer passes. For purposes of this chart, “outlet” includes the Tri-Met office.

    1 zone $2.05 outlets only
    2 zone $2.05 at outlets (abolishes need for 1 zone)
    $2.10 on bus
    $2.70 at TVM
    All zone $2.35 at outlets
    $2.40 on bus
    $3.10 at TVM
    Day pass $4.90 at outlets
    $5.00 on bus
    $6.95 at TVM
    Passes 2 zone/All zone
    7 day $21/$24 at outlets
    $27.50/$31.50 at TVM
    14 day $41/$46.50 at outlets
    $53.50/$61 at TVM
    30 day $81/92 at Tri-Met office only
    Monthly $81/92 at outlets
    $106/$120.50 at TVM
    1 year $891/$1,012 by mail only

    Boy, would this *ever* cut down on expensive TVM use!!!!

  19. John Charles Wilson
    January 31, 2012 at 10:48 am Link

    OOPS! I made an error in the above chart. The Day Pass TVM price should be $6.40, not $6.95. I could’ve left it, but don’t want to be accused of exaggeration to make the point.

  20. Chris I
    January 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm Link

    So there are no collection costs associated with outlet or bus sales? Do we not need to maintain the bus fare collection machines? The sales outlets are doing the ticket vending for free?

  21. John Charles Wilson
    January 31, 2012 at 12:29 pm Link

    As the White Paper linked to by the OP says, collection costs are 1.4% for “universal pass” programs, 5.8% for sales outlets, 7.6% for cash on bus, and 28.0% for TVM. Since “universal pass” is by definition not a retail product, I ignored it. I “normalised” prices to the cash on bus price for those items sold on buses and to the sales outlet price for those which aren’t. Since sales outlets have lower collection costs than buses, a small discount over cash on bus is possible while still providing an equivalent collected fare. In contrast, TVMs require a significant surcharge over either sales outlet or cash on bus to provide an equivalent collected fare. Hope this explanation helps.

  22. Dave B
    February 2, 2012 at 9:46 am Link

    What baffles me is why TriMet has been dragging its feet on electronic fare collection for so long? Electronic systems have been arounds for DECADES and are in use in most major cities. Doing a study and kicking the can down the road is hardly a solution. It needs to be in the budget!

    And where else can you take a beautiful, fast rail system to an international airport for $2.40?

  23. Chris I
    February 2, 2012 at 10:11 am Link

    In London, you can take the tube to Heathrow for 2.90 pounds. That’s close, if you ignore the exchange rate, of course…

  24. AL M
    February 2, 2012 at 10:15 am Link

    And where else can you take a beautiful, fast rail system to an international airport for $2.40?

    Tourists love it, they also love riding the free streetcar and the Tram, that’s wonderful for them!

    In London, you can take the tube to Heathrow for 2.90 pounds. That’s close, if you ignore the exchange rate, of course…

    Public transportation prices in 80 cities around the world

  25. EngineerScotty
    February 2, 2012 at 10:40 am Link

    Many cities have rapid transit service to their international airport. Whether it costs US$2.40 or not is another question.

  26. AL M
    February 2, 2012 at 11:21 am Link

    Many cities have rapid transit service to their international airport. Whether it costs US$2.40 or not is another question.

    Ya I know, I think its a good thing, I take it HOME from a trip all the time.

    I don’t take it too the airport, it takes too long and when you add that to the hour your supposed to be there ahead of time anyway, forget it.

  27. Dave B
    March 2, 2012 at 11:08 am Link

    I read the white paper and a couple of things stand out for me:

    – While a single fare system appears to be easy to implement now, I think it will lead to huge pushback if the future electronic fares are distance-based. The public will be used to a single fare and then it becomes totally variable. (And if the future electronic fare system is not distance-based, then they’ve really missed the boat!) I suspect it would be better to streamline the existing zone system, transfer policy, than to scrap it.

    – The white paper authors repeatedly state that “tap on, tap off” systems will be hard for riders to understand and so don’t seem to consider it in the timeline. Yes, at first people will have a hard time, but after they realize they’re paying full fare when they forget to tap off, they’ll figure it out. The benefits (assuming a distance-based fare strategy, would seem to far outweigh the costs.

    – The white paper makes a good case for using a 3rd party payment medium since it avoids Trimet having to provide any infrastrucure for issuing, reloading, etc., yet the timeline appears to be devoted entirely to implimenting RFID/mifare technology. (FWIW: Prepaid chipcards are available now from Travelex.)

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