There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Smart Cards and Dumb Fares

Will adding Sacramento Regional Transit's dumb fares to the proposed "smart card" make the system stupid? I think it's a fair question, but no one at RT is willing to discuss the topic.

Back on April 14, the Marysville Appeal Democrat announced that the Yuba-Sutter Transit District had been awarded $80,000 in Proposition 1B funds to pay for its participation in the universal fare card being developed by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

"It saves a whole lot of time," Matt Carpenter, manager of SACOG's transportation and planning, told the Appeal Democrat. "If someone comes down from Yuba City to downtown, they won't need to carry cash."

Yuba-Sutter Transit Manager Keith Martin told the newspaper that the smart card would automatically deduct the necessary amount of money from an already established account, much like a debit card.

In theory, this could have some nice benefits, especially for people who commute across transit district boundaries. Just tap the card on the fare box and debit the card.

Here's how the system works in Hong Kong:

But just a cursory look at RT's fare structure raises a number of big, waving, red flags.

Take, just as an example, the wife's daily trip to and from work.

She boards the No. 84 bus -- tap the card, debit the account -- and rides to the Starfire light rail station. She boards light rail -- tap the card, debit the account -- and rides to Mather Field Station. She gets off the train and boards the No. 73 bus -- tap the card, debit the account -- and rides to work. And then at the end of the day, it's tap the card, debit the account; tap the card, debit the account; tap the card, debit the account, all the way home.

What's all that tapping of the card going to cost?

According to RT's fare structure, the price of all that tapping will be $4.25 each way, or $8.50 for the day.

Of course, no one who is paying attention today pays that fare. Instead, such a rider would buy a $5 all-day pass, which allows unlimited rides for the entire day. And if a rider regularly needs daily passes more than 17 times a month, a monthly pass good for unlimited rides can be purchased for $85. (Some employers offer discounts on the monthly passes. The state reimburses 75 percent of the price.)

So how would a smart card work with RT's dumb fares?

Over at SACOG, they are better about answering questions from the public. When I asked about how the “Smart Card” might work with Sacramento Regional Transit’s fare structure, I was told:
The governing boards of each transit operator, including RT, are the sole determiners of their respective fare policies, and how those policies are implemented. The Smart Card will not in anyway substitute for or replace those prerogatives. . . .
Somewhere in the bowels of the Sacramento Regional Transit administration are the green eyeshade types and their bean-counting abaci. These are the people who decided they could squeeze extra cash out of any trip that required more than one transfer. Keep in mind that no one would deliberately arrange their trip to require two transfers. No, this $2 penalty is only paid by people who are being poorly served by RT already. Anyone want to hazard a guess why bus ridership in not keeping pace with light rail?

The person at SACOG did offer this suggestion:
If RT chose to impose a ceiling on daily fares (for example, the price of a Daily Pass), the Smart Card will be smart enough to implement that policy.
But is RT smart enough?

In some imaginary perfect world, RT would say upfront -- now, before the system is in place -- that the smart card will not be used to hide the real cost of riding the bus. Instead, RT will promise that the smart card will max out when it reaches the daily pass value on any calendar day and stop charging during any calendar month when charges exceed the price of a monthly pass.

And while I'm holding my breath waiting for that, I will suggest that the increased fare revenue RT is currently raking in should be returned to riders in the form of discounts. How about free Sunday service? It's certainly not worth any more than that.

Here's another video example . . .


295bus said...

All of these stupid smartcards/ticket-gizmos are just ignoring the real problem that we just want to be able to buy one ticket, and not care about what bus/train/etc is run by what agency!

The Derek said...

Just a side note: most tranis agencies struggle to have thier lrt systems carry more than 20% of thier passengers, while RT is the only system in the country where the light rail carries more passengers than bus. (this doesnt include "heavy" rail such as BART or AMTRAK). While many see this as a success (20% rail ridership would cause one to question the need for rail), I think it puts the real problem in plain sight. We also need these agencies to work togethor more. as the LRT system reaches further and further out (already connecting to e-tran and el dorado transit), this need will only increase.

Joe said...

I am not a fan of smartcards at all. The system needs an check us out on

brian said...

295bus makes the best point...the best aprt of a smart card is system linking, kind of like what they've been trying to do in the bayarea (Translink is the name I think?)
anyway, I've used these smart card systems in Atlanta, and they don't really save you any time. They're definitely not faster than flashing a monthly, and they're about the same speed as swiping a magnetic strip. However, these systems have always proved to take
REALLY long if u get on the bus w/o the exact amount of money on your card (requiring multiple taps in btwn feeding money into it)

It'd be convenient if the RFID tag could go in my cellphone, or maybe my arm, but a smart card system is sort of wasteful on RT whose rails don't even have faregates!