Suica Card, Wikimedia

In my previous post, I proposed selling carrots on Metro buses, and allowing people to use their ORCA cards for this purchase. 

ORCA cards have the ability for what’s called an E-Purse.  This stores money on your ORCA card for travel that isn’t covered by a regular pass.  I use my E-Purse* to pay for the occasional ferry trip, which is outside the coverage area of my pass, and deposit money into it using a credit card and ORCA’s website. 

When writing the carrot piece I had no idea if ORCA cards could theoretically be used to purchase non-transit goods and services.  After all, if your employer is paying for part of your ORCA card and recieving a tax benefit for doing so, it wouldn’t make sense to allow people to buy carrots (or anything else) with that money.  So I sent an e-mail to the contact page on the ORCA website, and recieved this reply (emphesis mine):

The E-purse that is on the ORCA card can only be used for transportation services.  The reason for this is to prevent cardholders who receive transportation benefits from using them for non-transit purposes in keeping with FTA and IRS regulations.  However, there is memory capacity on the card to implement a second E-purse that could be used for non-transit purchases.  Although this isn’t on our short term horizon, it may be something that we explore in the future. 

So it’s possible.  Let’s think of the implications of carrying real money on your ORCA card.

  • Just as it’s quick and easy to board a bus using ORCA, you could pay quickly at convenience stores. 
  • Pay for parking with a swipe? 
  • Vending machines.
  • Bus carrots.

Of course, these benefits would be incentives for more people to carry an ORCA card.  And it turns out that there’s at least two systems that have already implemented this – Tokyo’s Pasmo and Suica Cards.

* Which I always coordinate with my E-Shoes – it’s a bold look for a man.

48 Replies to “Use ORCA for Everything”

  1. Better yet, ditch the ORCA card and let riders pay for everything with their cellphone. The technology used in the ORCA card is the same tech used in NFC readers in many newer cellphones and contactless credit card systems. Why carry around custom fare-payment cards when I could just tap my phone?

      1. The same technology also interoperates with MasterCard’s PayPass (and presumably competing “open-loop” NFC systems by other credit card companies), so there are other options available besides pricey phones (admittedly, few banks in the US issue paypass, but this should start to change soon).

        NYC recently finished trialling PayPass:

        London is going open-loop for the Olympics:

        The physical media of the ORCA card is not something we should be investing in (except disposable day passes for people who are totally without access to cell phones or banks). The real work of the ORCA project is regional fare integration.

    1. I’d love to ditch the tapping completely and add an optional pay-per-mile fare structure. Just have the readers detect when I board and exit and bill me for the distance traveled.

    2. The problem with this is that you’d have to enable the buses to have internet access. With ORCA all of your information (including your purse amount is stored on the card). I can actually read the card with my NFC enabled phone and see my purse amount and a my most recent history. However, if you moved to mobile phone or credit card NFC payments, the buses would have to phone home in some manner to verify the payments.

      1. And wouldnt metro have to pay fees to visa and MasterCard? I’d rather not throw more money to those types.

      2. Doesn’t ORCA already pay the credit card company fees if you use one to add value to your epurse or buy a monthly pass?

      3. Yes, ORCA would pay a fee for reloads. But paying a fee for reloads is much easier/cheaper than paying a fee for every bus transaction.

      4. MasterCard and Visa can handle these transactions more cheaply in open-loop systems than an agency can do it on a closed system. This is a win for an agency, even before you consider the boarding speed advantage of increased NFC payment-share.

        Giving buses internet access is a tractable problem, except perhaps on a handful of Metro’s rural routes. Transit agencies that purely serve cities do have an advantage over an agency like Metro in this respect.

      5. Contactless systems are designed to support offline transaction processing. The card generates a cryptographic signature making it more secure than magstripes which are easily skimmed and duplicated. The fare processors generally have a blacklist of lost/stolen/cancelled cards as well.

      6. @Andrew Beck and @barman – its basically an issue of getting the credit card processors to drop their per transaction fee. Its palatable for Metro right now since they’re not paying $.20+2% on a $2.25 transaction, and are more likely paying $.20+$2.25 on a $10 or $80 transaction..

      7. “Giving buses internet access is a tractable problem”

        And as an added bonus, this means passengers get Wi-Fi as well! Sounds great to me.

    3. Whatever happened to biometrics?

      At 24 Hour Fitness here in Kent, they’ve been using fingerprint ID for a few years. I mean, I wouldn’t want it for my bank account (crooks would cut your hand off to get at the money) but for a bus ride…why not?

      1. We could go with retina scans…but, oh, what happened in the movie Angels and Demons?

    4. We need to stick with current technologies, not speculative ones. It’s already taking a long time to make ORCA ubiquidous. Contactless credit cards and smartphone payment are just starting to be introduced in the US, and it will be several years before everybody has one and will be willing to use it on transit. Plus, some people don’t have credit cards and are not eligible for them. There would have to be a special card program for them, and would it have higher processing expenses than ORCA cards?

      1. There’s nothing “speculative” about a system that’s currently being built out in three massive cities, and probably a bunch more cities large and small that I don’t know about.

        Riders can use Visa/MC prepaid cards, or debit cards, or credit cards. Everybody with a pulse is eligible for at least one of those. Go read the FAQ in Matt’s link to the Chicago system.

        No, the credit card companies can do this cheaper than any agency.

      2. Bruce, the credit card companies might be able to do it cheaper, but the agency would have to purchase the readers.. Visa and MC don’t give the readers to retailers..

      3. …just like they have to buy the ORCA readers now. I’m not suggesting this is free to Metro, nor am I suggesting Metro throw all the ORCA readers in the trash and attempt to roll out open-loop NFC this year.

        What I am saying is that contactless small payments can be done better and cheaper overall as part of a large open-loop network, precisely the kind that the credit card companies are trying to provide. Open-loop NFC is the future, and I don’t think we should spend money tweaking a system for which the writing is already on the wall.

        I predict that within 20 years, we’ll regard point-of-sale mag stripe and closed-loop systems such as ORCA the way people look at hand-written checks today.

    5. What happens with NFC credit cards if you’ve got multiple ones in your wallet? My cousin has a Clipper card for when he goes down to San Francisco, but he can’t keep that and his ORCA and Clipper cards in his wallet and just tap his wallet at the same time since it confuses the systems..

      I predict that if we go to contactless credit cards boarding will slow down as people will need to remove the card from their wallet to tap.

      1. This is already a thing. I have a Visa card that came with a contactless chip inside. Shortly after I got it, I noticed that I could no longer tap my wallet against the ORCA reader without getting an error. I drilled out the chip in the credit card and the problem went away.

        The credit card still works fine since the magnetic strip was undisturbed by the hole I drilled. Most retailers can’t even read the RFID chip anyway. Even when they can, I don’t foresee magnetic strip readers going away anytime soon.

      2. I have a credit card with PayPass RFID, an ORCA card and a building access card in my wallet and never seem to have any problems tapping any of them.

    6. On that note, Seattle’s new parking meters are all NFC-equipped. So, aside from the logistical issues, it’s technically feasible to use ORCA cards to pay for parking. Heck, it would probably even be possible to use parking meters to reload an ORCA card.

      …that would be cool, and *really* useful.

    7. Monthly passes and security. Part of the attraction of a physical representation of a pass is that it is difficult to duplicate. If it was put in a phone, which would be really cool, it would also have to come with a system for authorizing the “soft” transfer of passes between physical objects. A poorly done system would mean lots of people sharing a monthly pass. It would be like Redsn0w, but for transit passes.

      It could be done, but I don’t think NFC for mobile phones is quite ready for prime time in the states. It’s still on the bleeding edge of US tech.

  2. There are also smart cards that allow you to purchase items other than transit rides in china. When I was in Beijing, I used my smart card to purchase items from a vending machine. I forget whether this was possible in Shanghai.

    1. Singapore does as well–plus you can top it off at ATMs or (I believe) 7-11s. There are something like 10k businesses that accept the card purse as a medium for payment.

    2. Hangzhou’s smart card is usable on the city’s extensive bike share system.

  3. I like Hong Kong’s Octopus Card. From Wikipedia … “The Octopus is also used for payment at convenience stores, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, on-street parking meters, car parks, and other point-of-sale applications such as service stations and vending machines.”

    Why are certain asian countries always so much further ahead in the development and use of this kind of technology than the US? ORCA is 15 years behind the Octopus Card, and has none of non-transit payment options that it has. It will probably take another decade or two before we can use ORCA to pay for things other than transit. It’s certainly not because of a lack of knowhow or technology.

    1. “Why are certain asian countries always so much further ahead in the development and use of this kind of technology than the US?”

      The same reason Vancouver, Toronto, and even Calgary have more extensive transit than similar American cities. Their governments can design a complete transit system based on best practices and implement it, without voters micromanaging it or diverting money to highway projects and “inexpensive” (and ineffective) surface light rail and shared-lane BRT.

      1. Dude, you forgot the soils, hills, and glacial till we have here…

        oh and how will the poor be affected, since afterall transit is really a social services agency in this town.

      2. The additional reason is, of course, money. Most places around the world that have decent systems or are building them have done so because they do not have the difficulties that we do in receiving adequate funding for a true rapid transit system. Whether it be vast sums of money from natural resources (Doha, Dubai) or the willingness of governments elsewhere to spend the amounts we would spend on freeways, the ability to build a decent system eventually comes down to money and the willingness to spend it. Whether or not you support the tunnel or 520 expansion, that money would have gone a long way towards building a better transit system had that been our priority. Unfortunately WSDOT and the state government are no friends on these issues.

        (your comment regarding planning a system is spot on and why I support Seattle Subway, though I may quibble a tiny bit on the lines–doing what these other places do in laying out a system and then developing it, even in stages, as money becomes available is the only way to do it. It’s an easier sell to people to show them what the end game is rather than the incremental “in 5 more years you will see a station here, and then in another 3 there will be one here” sort of thing that we get. I’d like to see some more ambition and audacity from our agencies and governments, even just to the extent of “this is what we envision a completed network to look like, and here is how we go about it.”

    2. I think it’s two reasons when I was growing up in the Midwest a lot of older people were terrified of new technology. I would always hear older people associating new technologies with the mark of the beast and the book of revelations. As for the mass transit the same people were also convinced that dense urban living is socialism or communism. Since I moved here I never hear anybody associating technology with the mark of the beast but a lot of my coworkers in Redmond always tell me Seattle is full of communists that want to force us to live in tiny highrise apartments and to ride subway trains. Yes even though st2 was voter approved they still think they’re being forced. I’ve also been told I’m stupid for wanting to buy a condo in the city because condos are like cars and as soon as you buy them they start losing value.

  4. Although is it wise to have all your eggs in one basket? Considering that your credit card is easily replaced and disabled if lost stolen, and it with your orca card it might take until the next business day for this to happen. Although, speaking of such systems, LA has an intresting hybrid tap card thats half visa half tap card. Problem with this is that its ran through a really seedy bank and preys upon poor people with fees for everything – and i mean everything!

    1. Electronic payment systems are evolving pretty rapidly. ORCA was an important first step for the region, but I expect that the future will see more different ways to pay (NFC phones, credit cards, etc.) There won’t be a need for transit agencies to push smart cards if 99 percent of your riders are already carrying electronic payment media.

  5. Seoul also has a similar thing with its T-Money card/system. You can also connect this to your credit or debit card, with each swipe simply taking money out of your bank account.

    T-Money is used not just for buses and subways but also for taxis and some vending machines.

  6. Personally, I prefer going back to the Rainier 10 cent tokens. I still have a couple laying around in my junk drawer.

  7. This would be useful if Metro would actually bring vendors into Tunnel stations and some more Park & Rides. It’s silly that there isn’t at least a coffee cart or newspaper vendor somewhere.

    1. I like the idea! Have a OneBusAway display at the beginning of the subway station and if I have extra time, I can buy a paper or latte with my Orca card or smartphone.
      I would also like to use my Orca/smartphone to pay parking if I have to take the car…

  8. It seems like there is a privacy concern here, otherwise a brilliant idea.

  9. E-purse for transit only, please! I’m pretty sure my employer would stop allowing us to feed our e-purse with our transportation checks if you could use Orca cards for other things. Some people use their subsidy to buy passes, but I like the flexibility of the e-purse, and that would be put in jeopardy (I bet).

    1. As noted, the card has memory capacity for two e-purse accounts. As such, it’s quite feasible that funds acquired tax-free could be loaded into a restricted ‘transit-only’ e-purse that only lets you purchase fare and pass media for transit.

  10. This is a good idea. Ideally, the One Regional Card for All would be for… all. I need to buy my groceries. Ring it up, and tap. I want to rent Stepbrothers. Bring it to the clerk, and tap. I have a plumber come to my house. He does a little plumbing, and tap.

    The idea would save a lot of time. As well, I think the idea would stimulate the economy.

    1. Until you consider that this would turn Sound Transit/ORCA into a financial institution/payment processor, which they are not and should not be.

  11. One thing that this brings to mind is the issue of many less wealthy people being ‘unbanked’ – that is, not having a bank account, or access to things like checking and debit cards. While the ideal solution would be to get them to sign on with a credit union like BECU, enabling people to load up an ORCA card (which is somewhat easily attainable, and doesn’t have any fees like many prepaid debit cards do) would be a nice way to help bridge that gap, some.

    Other really neat uses come to mind as well, such as giving Seattle Public Schools students an ORCA card that would be used both for taking the bus to school *and* tracking attendance. If you don’t go to school, the pass on the card would deactivate automatically (basically, it’d be a short-duration pass, one or two days, with the card being reloaded every time it was tapped at school).

    One thing also worth noting is that every dollar you put on your ORCA card is going into a bank account, and (I’d imagine) bearing interest. As such, the more cash in the system, the more interest the ORCA agencies can earn and reinvest in ORCA itself or the transit systems that use it.

  12. One irony about the PASMO and SUICA cards is that as a tourist, the only way you can fill them is using cash at a machine. You cannot add by credit card. If you hae a Japanese bank account, I think you can do an automatic transfer. Otherwise, bring thousands of yen.

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