ORCA, the region’s new transit card, has been in service for a year and it’s been a mixed performance.
For the uninitiated, ORCA cards can store value (in an “e-purse”) as well as monthly passes. Both passes and e-purse balances can be automatically loaded with a credit card through orcacard.com, or in person in the downtown Seattle transit tunnel, at any Link station, and at a handful of locations around the region.
On the positive side, ORCA cards are flexible and much better than dealing with cash. For transit agencies, they can reduce verification of paper transfers and improve boarding speeds. For passengers, ORCA makes transferring between agencies (and paying the fare difference) much easier. Riders without monthly passes no longer have to work about having the exact fare on them. According to data from Sound Transit, 200,000 daily boardings are handled with ORCA.
More after the jump.
On the downside, technical issues and hangups can still frustrate riders as this “Getting There” column illustrates. One such annoying issue — having to use a card within 30 days of loading it online — has been slightly mitigated by boosting the limit to 60 days. Many bus operators are still unfamiliar with unusual ORCA features such as group fares. For example, I asked a driver last weekend if my girlfriend and I could pay with my ORCA card using a group fare. Instead of moving to his ORCA console and setting up a group, the driver stared at me and said, “Okay,” and motioned for me to pay just one fare for the both of us.
Still, the technical issues that made ORCA unreliable in the Spring of last year have all but went away. It is very rare to see an ORCA reader that is malfunctioning.
In the long-term, moving away from cash and paper transfers toward ORCA cards is a very good thing. But in the short-term, there are equity issues to adopting the new technology. Kitsap Transit illustrated that for many poor members of the community, a $5 fee for purchasing one’s first ORCA card is a serious limitation.
[Update from Sherwin 6:58pm:] A few months ago, we told you about the cheaper ORCA in the works for visitors and tourists, and I wanted to follow up with Brian Brooke, who works on the ORCA program at ST. There’s no new information, but I also asked him about short-term PugetPasses (day-long, 3-day-long, week-long, etc.) and this is what he had to say:
We do have a lower cost paper-stock ORCA smart card in the works. It can be loaded initially with any available pass product or e-purse amount, but cannot be reloaded once the value is used up. It was intended to be part of the initial ORCA system but we were not satisfied with the lower level of data security on the initially-proposed disposable cards. The vendor has since proposed a new disposable card with higher security features, but at this point we don’t have a timeline for when it would be rolled out. It wouldn’t be before the vendor receives final system acceptance on the initial implementation.
Early in system design we did discuss introduction of a short-term ORCA regional pass, but not all transit agencies agreed to the concept. However there continues to be interest among some partners and it will likely be proposed for consideration again in the future.