BC Transit planning to launch new smartphone fare payment system

Mar 1 2019, 3:59 am

BC Transit is aiming to go high-tech with its future transit fare payment system, carving its own path with a system that sets it apart from TransLink’s Compass Card.

In an interview with Daily Hive, Christy Ridout, the vice-president of business development for BC Transit, said the provincial public transit authority is currently in a request for proposals (RFP) process that is seeking for contractors to develop and install a smartphone-based payment system across the system.

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“You can bring your phone right to the bus and tap or scan that product, kind of similar to what you’re doing with a boarding ticket [when] you’re going through a security gate at the airport,” she said.

Some smartphone-based fare payment technologies currently available in the industry involve tapping an NFC-enabled smartphone or scanning a QR code displayed on a smartphone screen.

Beyond the first phase of enabling smartphone fare payments, BC Transit’s project will also allow for debit and credit card tap payments to improve the convenience of the transit system for those who do not have smartphones.

The entire project currently has a budget of $21 million, although the exact cost will be determined upon the selection of a successful proponent. This also includes the cost of replacing all the existing cash fare payment machines, as paper ticket products will still continue.

It will apply to all conventional bus services across the province operated by BC Transit, not just the Greater Victoria and Kelowna areas.

Additionally, BC Transit is rolling out real-time, GPS-based bus tracking technology, beginning with its bus services in Victoria.

Why the Compass Card is not being adopted

When asked why BC Transit is not pursuing a system that is compatible with the Compass Card in Metro Vancouver, Ridout said the technology is now older and the extensive hard infrastructure required to operate the smart card-based system would be too costly to acquire and maintain for the provincial transit system’s needs.

“We have the benefit right now of being able to capitalize on some of the modernization of the payment industry that has occurred over the last five years,” she said. “The Compass Card is a great system it is timely and is used by other transit agencies, but it is also a few years old now.”

TransLink selected San Diego-based Cubic Transportation’s smart card payment system and fare gate technology in 2011, and it launched into operations in 2015 after years of delays due to technical issues, with the cost of the infrastructure’s implementation rising to $194 million.

Major transit systems around the world use similar smart card systems, and fare gates are common for cities with subway systems. Cubic Transportation’s technology used by TransLink is also used on transit systems in San Francisco, London, New York City, and Chicago.

Hong Kong MTR’s Octopus Card and France’s Parkeon also submitted bids to become TransLink’s smart card fare payment system provider, but were unsuccessful.

In May 2018, TransLink launched contactless Visa or Mastercard credit card and mobile wallet payment capabilities.

“The payment industry has evolved, so it doesn’t require us to have the type of heavy infrastructure that occurs when you have a physical card that needs to be distributed, and requires kiosks, vending machines, and mechanisms where people can actually load the balances or receive a card,” said Ridout.

“It also requires infrastructure on the buses and heavy backend software management program that keeps track of all of that physical infrastructure, balances, and identities… we’re leapfrogging over all that to this lighter infrastructure approach.”

Over the longer term, Ridout hopes to expand BC Transit’s mobile platform by integrating it with other modes of mobility, such as bike share.

BC Transit serves 130 communities, including the Lower Mainland’s Fraser Valley, and sees over 50 million boardings per year on its fleet of about 1,100 buses. TransLink, in contrast, has seen over 400 million boardings annually within its Metro Vancouver jurisdiction in recent years.

Recent smart card systems in Canada

According to TransLink, its fare revenues went up by $29 million as a result of lower fare evasion in the first full year of Compass Card and fare gate operations, and the fare gates have even helped Transit Police apprehend criminals with outstanding warrants.

But in Toronto, it is believed that the Toronto Transit Commission’s recent adoption of Metrolinx’s Presto smart card and fare gate system have contributed to an increase in fare evasion and reduced revenues. Widespread faulty equipment issues remain years after the introduction of the Presto system.

The City of Calgary in 2015 abandoned a plan to install a smart card system on its bus and CTrain services after its selected Spanish contractor was unable to resolve major technical glitches with the Connect Card system.

Last September, Calgary Transit launched a RFP process seeking a smartphone-based payment system for the city’s transit system, similar to what BC Transit is pursuing.

Montreal rolled out its OPUS smart card and fare gates in 2008.