$2.50 in cash, iPhone with Apple Pay, ORCA card, pre-paid debit MasterCard
ORCA2 will accept more ways to pay for your ride

[OV: post was edited on October 26 with clarification from ST on target dates, which may change as the program progresses]

Paying for transit will be easier and more flexible with an improved user experience when “ORCA2”, the second generation of the ORCA regional fare system, is planned to go live in 20192020. Although ORCA has matured to become the most popular way to pay fares in Central Puget Sound since its launch in 2009, there is much left to be desired from customers and operators.

Fare collection technology has advanced greatly since the original system began development in 2003. Innovations such as mobile apps and open payments with credit cards and smartphones are being adopted by various agencies across the country. With the current contract with ORCA vendor Vix ending in 2021 and the system’s technology becoming obsolete, the ORCA Joint Board began planning for the system’s next generation last year and has adopted a strategy for ORCA2.

Sound Transit revealed the strategy in a request for proposal (RFP) from firms to lead the development and implementation of ORCA2. The ORCA Next Generation Strategy discusses options and makes recommendations in four main areas: fare policy, system architecture and technology, the transition to the new system, and governance/administration models for the new system.

The biggest change in ORCA2 is the move to an account-based system. This means online card refills will be usable instantly, not after 24-48 hours like today’s ORCA. What’s the difference? Currently, ORCA is a card-based system where value is stored on the card itself. Fare transactions are processed offline by the card reader/writer on board vehicles and at stations. The delay in getting value purchased online on to your card is due to the fact that the readers speak with the backend only nightly, when the buses return to base.

An account-based system takes the opposite approach. As the name suggests, information is stored in an account in a central location, like your bank account. All transactions are processed centrally and in real time. Your card becomes merely an identifier of the account to the reader, like your credit or debit card. Chicago and London equipped their buses with 3G wireless communication to enable real-time processing.

The strategy recommends designing the system for both open and closed-loop payments. Open payment allows ORCA2 to accept contactless credit and debit cards issued by banks and mobile wallets on NFC-enabled devices. ORCA cards will continue to be issued because it has lower transaction costs (faster authorization and no 7% processing fee) and can better accommodate specialized fare policies like the low-income and youth fares and the Regional Reduced Fare Permit for senior citizens and the disabled.

Chicago’s Ventra Card and Utah Transit Authority’s FAREPAY Card are examples of an accounts-based, open payment system. From my experience using it on buses and trains in both places, the processing time for the most part was quick with the occasional lag, about a second or two. The Ventra reader sounds two chimes: one to acknowledge the tap and one for the OK/NO. I used their own card, my contactless credit card, and Apple Pay. It’s nice to have the option of using something I already had in my wallet instead of having to purchase a separate card.

The strategy recommends adopting an open architecture for the system instead of a proprietary system, which is the current setup. An open architecture allows interoperability between components from different suppliers. The increased competition between suppliers should reduce costs and lets the region pick the best product without being beholden to a single supplier. It should be easier to integrate existing equipment into a system with an open architecture.

In fare policy, the strategy recommended that the agencies consider fare simplification in conjunction with ORCA2 development as system complexity and cost increases with the complexity of the fare system. The centralized implementation of agency specific products should be retained. Another major recommendation is to include capability for accumulators and fare capping in the ORCA2 specifications for possible future implementation while agencies hash out the details of revenue sharing and impacts. A number of agencies offer or plan to offer fare capping: AC Transit and VTA in the Bay Area (daily since last year), TriMet and C-TRAN in the Portland area (daily and monthly in 2017), and most famously London (daily since 2005 and weekly since last year).

For the transition, the strategy recommends replacing the field equipment first. Other options considered were running parallel systems and replacing the backend first. The recommended approach, illustrated below, costs more upfront and requires cooperation from the current vendor but minimizes disruption to customers.

ORCA2 Transition Plan

The current division of operating functions between vendor and agencies should be retained, with exception of website content maintenance and design which should be the agencies’ responsibility. The agencies indicated that increased regional control of the website is a critical priority for ORCA2. The current website, which many people here can attest to its poor usability and attractiveness, is controlled by the vendor and changing it can be slow and expensive.

Los Angeles County’s TAP Card is a dramatic example of the pitfalls of vendor controlled websites. Prior to taking it in-house, the taptogo.net website had serious issues like cryptic error messages and confusing user interfaces. I was never able to register a card I bought from a TVM. On the redesigned site, registration of a new account and the aforementioned card was a breeze and the site is much easier to use, while looking great, too.

Before: a clunky, outdated, buggy and ugly website
Before: a clunky, outdated, buggy, and ugly website
After: a modern, responsive, attractive, and user-friendly website

The strategy does not recommend changing the current governance structure. The Joint Board, composed of representatives from the ORCA partner agencies making decisions on consensus, would be retained. The strategy does suggest an evaluation of the day-to-day administration of ORCA to find possible changes to improve operations.

Proposals from prospective ORCA2 lead consultants are due October 13 20. If all goes according to plan, riders will see new equipment in the field in late 2018 2019. The new system will start to go live in the 2nd quarter of 2019 2020. The old ORCA system will be turned off by mid to late 2020 2021.

61 Replies to “ORCA2: the Next Generation”

  1. I’d be sorta nice if one day there was a move to further regionalize these systems so that Portland’s card would one day be usable in Seattle and vice-versa.

    1. I think that’s the great thing about supporting systems like Apple Pay and contactless cards. The transit agency should come to the riders and allow them to use the payment systems they already have in their pockets. Then, it doesn’t much matter which transit system you are on or whether you already have an account there or not.

      But, yes, why not allow an Orca card to trigger a payment in Portland or vice versa? However, while the idea is simple enough, I think the devil in the details is being able to validate the cards and whether they have a positive balance in their “purse” across systems.

      1. If ORCA2 goes the Ventra route, then the cards should be universally accepted anywhere Visa/Mastercard is. The Ventra card is basically a transit branded prepaid debit MasterCard (pictured in the photo at top). It depends on whether it comes from a transit specific account or straight out of your bank account.

      2. Does the Venta system allow for passes to be stored on the card as well? I admit to not knowing much about pre-paid debit cards, and thought they were limited to a monetary value only, i.e. a “purse” in ORCA language.

      3. It’s stored in a Ventra transit account linked to your card so yes, you can add passes to your card.

      4. Perhaps the pass system could be handled automatically: you get charged single fares up until you’ve spent the amount of a given pass, at which point it automatically converts and you don’t get charged for the rest of the month. In other words, the system would always try to spend the smallest possible amount of money to cover the trips you’ve taken.

        (Metro loses the guarantee that they have all that money at the beginning of the month, which could be one main thing making this a problem.)

        Pete, as for your example, the system already has to track the identity for transfers, since they can’t be stored directly on the card anymore. Passes aren’t even a special case.

      5. Fare capping would be ideal for customers and I hope the ORCA agencies seriously look into it. Including it in the spec is a promising development.

      6. If you treat passes as a case of fare-capping, the logic gets a little complicated. I know my opinion on this isn’t universally held, but I think a Capitol Hill-downtown ride should cost less than a Lake Stevens-downtown ride, and a pass/cap that covers Capitol Hill-downtown should also cost less than one that covers Lake Stevens-downtown.

        (In fairness to those living in Lake Stevens, a Lake Stevens-Everett ride should be cheap, too, of course.)

      7. My assumption would be that it would look at all possible passes and choose the best one. If the majority of your trips were Metro off-peak, except for the couple of days you happened to take a CT 421 to Marysville (don’t ask why anyone would do that), then it would buy you a pass that covers Metro off-peak, plus the difference for the couple of 421 trips. Then, once you took enough trips to justify it, it would automatically upgrade the pass.

        Since passes actually exist in every $.25 increment, it could even choose to get a pass somewhere between the normal Metro off-peak $2.50 pass ($90) and the normal north-Snohomish-County $5.50 pass ($198).

      8. It’s not complicated to figure out the best deal but it might be complicated to explain to people…

        … it’s tempting to figure you can just advertise that the magical system optimizes your pass purchases, but people will need to be able to predict when their ride will require an e-purse balance and how much.

  2. Is there a way I (and others) can lend our programming skills to possibly move the time tables up on removing ORCAv1 and/or helping with ORCAv2?

    1. Great question. The folks in charge should make this open source. If managed well, it would lead to higher quality product and be faster to develop. My guess is they aren’t making it open source because they have little experience managing an open source project.

      But even if it is proprietary software, that doesn’t mean you can’t have volunteers. It is worth pursuing — you might want to give them a call. They might want or need someone with specialized skills, but either way, the information you find out would be very helpful.

      1. This would be awesome in terms of flexibility and the speed with which errors are fixed and improvements are made. I too doubt that they’re pursuing something open source, but I wonder if changing their mind is doable.

      2. It’s not open source but it will be an open architecture which will have published data standards and open APIs so you could develop a component that interfaces with ORCA2 and submit a bid to ORCA. Not sure how they will judge upstarts for a major project like this though.

        I’m sure that as ORCA2 development ramps up they’ll be looking for experts (maybe not volunteers) to support the project.

  3. This is very exciting. The idea of Orca is great, but the implementation has so many idiosyncrasies. The mission should be to make it as easy to pay for a bus as it is to pay for a drink at Starbucks and it sounds like what they are proposing goes a long way toward that.

  4. Crazy idea – why not just partner with another transit agency that already has the features we want (eg Ventra) and literally use as-is? Is there fundamental reason why every agency needs its own card? I assume that a system like Ventra supports different fare rates and such, so we wouldn’t have to charge the same amount, but the mechanics of the system can be identical. It’s not like riding a bus or train is fundiemally different from one city to another.

    1. This! +1000

      There is no good reason why each agency needs to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

      The need for absolute customization at each agency has led to fragmented products that don’t work well, for anyone.

      I was in Chicago in May. Ventra seems to work, quite well. Just buy that technology (or an updated version of it) off the shelf, adjust it to handle our fare structure, and go.

      1. Just look at our public transit vehicles across the US rather it be rubber tire or rail or even the TVM designs even when delivered in tandem schedules between to different agencies from the same MFG, no two deliveries are ever the same! Very insane cost inefficiencies for the suppliers and end user tax payers. Ridiculous!

    2. “Just buy that technology (or an updated version of it) off the shelf,”

      That’s what ORCA2 is doing. The open architecture specified in ORCA2 will allow it to purchase more “off the shelf” stuff. The open payment will make having an ORCA-branded card less relevant.

      “adjust it to handle our fare structure, and go.”

      This is probably the most critical back end function of ORCA. There’s a bunch of financial processes that happen in the background to ensure each agency gets the fare revenue for e-purse and passes it is entitled to under the regional fare apportionment formula.

      Remember, you have millions of existing customers to seamlessly migrate over to the new system and any new system has to integrate with the current ORCA system and agencies other systems. That’s why you can’t just buy Ventra and plug it in to get ORCA2.

      1. Just because you can grab 3 off the shelf components does not mean implementation will be easier. With a single vendor, they’ve (presumably) tested everything together.

        When you’re your own systems integrator it’s you that is on the hook for intercompatibility issues.

  5. Will ORCA2 do anything for addressing the privacy concerns around the current system? Will it, for example, enable disposable fare media?

    1. The current ORCA system allows for disposable fare media.

      If anything these newer systems are somewhat less anonymous as it is based on an account rather than having much of anything on the card itself.

      However, considering that your bank already knows everywhere you use your debit card already, is it really that much worse letting them know you also ride a bus? After all, the bank already knows you take transit if you have purchased a ticket with a ticket vending machine.

      1. I think AC (hah, Slashdot reference) refers to the ability to pay cash for a contactless card and then use it without any kind of registration to a person’s identity. Right now, ORCA does this. You can pay cash at an ORCA TVM and have it spit out an otherwise-unregistered card. As long as you only reload it with cash, that card is effectively anonymous, or at least as anonymous as any other rider on the bus.

      2. lakecityrider has it mostly correct. The important part is to make it infeasible for anyone to tie multiple trips to the same person, which is what cash payment gives. The current ORCA cards, even with cash loads, don’t do this (well, they do, but at an additional $5 per trip, which is insane), but a paper or otherwise disposable card would.

      1. Certain civilized countries, and a fair number that are semi-civilized, actually have a constitutional right to privacy clause.

        We’ve only been able to manage that with the HIPPA health care privacy law, and even then the insurance companies obviously push the limits, based on the junk mail I get sometimes after a medical exam.

      2. Our courts have found that a constitutional right to privacy is implicit in the Bill of Rights (good old 9th amendment). Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain any of our rights, even the ones which are explicit in the Bill of Rights (like the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure).

        Anonymity with electronic fare media is maintained by allowing anonymous purchases and transfers of cards; the trip logging *is* inevitable.

        The trip logging has allowed several innocent people to prove their innocence of various crimes, though, by having alibis backed up by the trip log!

    2. Sounds like it makes things worse. The only reason my girlfriend was eventually able to talk me into buying an ORCA card at all is that I can buy one with cash, use it til it’s gone, throw it away, and start over. If the new system won’t allow that, and will require cards to be tied to an account, it will be enough of a step backward that I would switch back to paying in cash.

      1. As long as you reload with cash there is no real reason to keep tossing cards and paying the $5 card fee.

        As to ORCA2 I say “wait and see” as I presume there will still be a way to buy and load a card with cash at a TVM.

        If you use a debit card at all though I’m not exactly sure what you are worried about. Personally I like the convenience of simply being able to swipe something I already have without having to find a TVM.

      2. We can’t audit the code, so we don’t actually know how much of a reason there is. I’d rather avoid creating more data trails if I can help it, and wasting $5 every now and then is a small price to pay for making a snoop’s job harder.

      3. Ever consider just selling them on Craigslist? I, for one, wouldn’t mind getting a second one at a less than new price. That way I could have one for a traveling companion to use or have day passes loaded on one or whatever.

      4. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve just been leaving the old one on the ticket machine after buying the new one, in hopes that someone will pick it up, refill it, and use it, thereby helping confuse the data trail even further.

      5. For reference, I don’t use a debit card at all ever.

        It’s fine for the card to “have an account” as long as the account can be left anonymous: “Person Who Paid Cash For Card #1111”, for example. That’s how Ventra works for example. And in New York, people often carry dozens of Metrocards and trade them around.

    3. Actually I’m hoping for Twitter support. Configure #ORCA2 to #TweetYourRide with every #ORCATap!

      I can’t wait to sign up for the premium version (only $2.50 or $2.75 during peak hours, unless you’re crossing a fare boundary…), which uses your ORCA information and OBA data to continually post updates on your trip progress to all your social media accounts!

      You can pay for the premium version online; it might take effect as much as 48 hours later, depending on when the server that processes your purchase is cycled back through the bus base. Or you can #TweetYourRide instantly and for free through a touch-tone interface. Just key in your SSN over the phone line and we’ll correlate it with your ORCA account through that weird company that verifies your identity by asking which color car your brother just bought.

      1. And just wait for the integration with Tinder so you can find a out little more about all the passengers surrounding you.

  6. Too bad card issuers don’t seem interested in contactless chips now. There was a huge push a few years ago, but it seems to have fizzled.

    I’ve got a trip to Chicago coming up, but I realized I no longer have any contactless cards. Chase has reissued my credit and debit cards so many times – apparently somewhere along the way the contactless chip was deleted.

    Also, is that 7% processing fee a real number? Because that is horrific – surely a high-volume entity like a transit agency could get a better deal.

    1. For a while my Chase card had a PayPoint (near field) chip in it but I think I only found one reader where it worked. For the most part vendors either didn’t have chip reader, or else it was broken or disabled. Most of the time I would be there tapping my card and the cashier would look me like “Crazy Guy”.

      Now my Capital One has a smart card chip in it, but for the most part it seems to be more trouble than a regular card. Instead of just swiping it, I have to jam it into a slot and wait until it registers which often takes longer than a swipe.

      Even with swipes I am surprised at the low response time of many readers. I’m pretty quick on the draw, so I often have to swipe twice or three times at some of my favorite stores.

    2. Yesrs ago ST was charged a $0.25 backend merchant fee for every debit transaction at the TVM. Sounder Senior disabled one zone fare the cheapest at the time was $0.25. So the customer pains a quarter via CC and the agency lost another quarter to the merchant account.

      Go figure this is why so many business plans push for the electronic purse or “account” scheme so less CC transactions for small values are made with merchant account fees attached to each transaction!

    3. Alex: I have a Chase card and the contactless card (“Blink”) was replaced by an EMV chip card. But many smartphones now have NFC and you can add your card to Apple Pay or Google Wallet. The 7% figure came from the document.

      JM: oh, so that’s possibly why you don’t get transfer discounts on Ventra with pay-as-you-go. They require you to add money to a transit account.

  7. One of the more interesting tidbits is the switch to real-time authorization from a single source. There are lots of dead spots in Metro’s own radio system, and I’m sure there are stops where cell coverage is weak or nonexistent. So then how would someone’s card be authorized?

    As Karl explains:

    One proposed solution calls for “one-ride liability,” where a card is immediately accepted without verification for one ride. If the card later turns out to be bad, it is placed on a short-term blacklist and pushed to buses.

    1. Ventra might be one of the best out there, but it’s far from great. If you ask the right people at CTA they’ll tell you it has slowed service down. The inadequacies in the wireless network still require many people to tap multiple times. Add in the fact that every individual has their own definition of what tap means. The best way is to place and hold, but everyday I see people doing a sort of rapid tap, where they seemingly tap the reader multiple times and they get angry the card isn’t working properly. Gone are the days of the token, where you could load a crowd of people at every stop in seconds.

  8. Oran, this is a good intro piece.

    However, the state should look into giving grants to Island Transit, Skagit Transit and Whatcom Transit (for starters) to incorporate into “ORCA 2”. How much is that going to cost?

    I hate asking anything out of STB staff & management, but if you guys could please campaign for more agencies to get the funding to pay for the equipment to participate – much appreciate. Thank you.

  9. “The strategy does not recommend changing the current governance structure. The Joint Board, composed of representatives from the ORCA partner agencies making decisions on consensus, would be retained.”

    Looking at Zach’s chart from Friday, Metro has more than TWICE the riders of every other transit agency in the ORCA pod combined:


    And yet they don’t get any more say in how ORCA is run?

    1. I don’t think the other agencies would participate in ORCA if KCM effectively ran the show. Los Angeles Metro did that and it took years of them making changes and convincing each agency to join. 8 years after launch they finally have all the major bus operators onboard.

  10. With only account information on the card, the network becomes a dependency. How will ORCA2 respond when the network is down?

    1. Same way we did when Souner started and the TVM CC link dropped out consistently during morning peak queuing. Patrons were told to get on board and pay at your destination. Then all fingers pointed to the back end management team to restore the CC network link.

      Fortunately bank connections and back end IP communications have dratamitacaly improved! Serisouly when was the last time you went to the grocery store and your CC transaction failed due to a network outage? Sure it happens but not that often.

      So instead of retrofitting all bus coaches with 4G wireless tag units place fewer more reliable hard wired units at the bus stops as currently already being done for improved reliability!

      Even if the network goes down there is also offline processing that can be implemented. The terminals could be arranged to save transactions. When the network is restored pending transactions are then processed against the users account within the central account database, all done seamlessly for the customer at the point of sale.

  11. I hope ORCA2 is able to be read by NFC-enabled Android devices like the current ORCA is through the FareBot app. Or at least an official equivalent app is provided to manage accounts and to take over FareBot’s duties in showing recent boarding information.

    1. I don’t think an app like that will be of much use. The only reason ORCA1 stores your history is to calculate transfer credit. That’ll all be managed by a central server so there’s no reason to put it on the card.

      1. The NFC chip could be registered as a card for the readers and the rest could be done by accessing the server directly for ride data.

        Seems like a perfectly useful app idea to me.

  12. Chicago transit rider here. For those of you who have mentioned about just getting Ventra’s system.

    The Ventra rollout was *not* smooth, and there were a lot of bumps along the way. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/06/ventra-deadlines_n_4226703.html

    Two years later, is Ventra is stable and most people can use it without a lot of drama.

    Good luck to ORCA on their new system, learn what you can from other transit agencies to learn from our experiences.

  13. I hope ORCA 2 will do something to address the reader integration problem. Having RR, metro and a streetcar sharing one stop should not require two to three different readers.

  14. Nothing is a perfect system, and personally I think ORCA should be taken out of the hands of Sound Transit and placed under the PSRC with the ability to open it up to other transit agencies outside of the Central Puget sound area. I also think that the next system needs to have incentives for the successful vendor to deploy as many TVM’s and other self-serve ORCA purchase/recharge stations to as many locations as possible, especially transit facilities and drug stores, etc. Offer 24/7 telephone support, offer a mobile app to view your balances in real-time (if not utilize NFC communication entirely), incentives for the vendor to keep the technology refreshed on a regular basis and current to modern technology, trends, regulations, etc. Personally, I’d also like to see the system integrated with the fare box like LA so you don’t have multiple systems on the vehicle, and the ability to mix cash and card transactions would be nice as well (i.e if you have a 1.25 Puget pass, and than you could pay cash to upgrade for a single trip, or to a daypass, etc.). Politically, I think there needs to be some unification of fares, and media with traditional paper transfers being eliminated in favor of ORCA and machine readable transfers (timed or day pass), and a return of the interagency cash transfer (machine readable only, please).

    1. Can we hope for a card which is free (as in, spend $5 and get a card with $5 credit on it)?

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