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Whenever I visit Portland, about 10 minutes before arrival I always buy a Trimet Day Pass for $5 on my phone. This enables occasional users like me to use transit at will without giving a second thought to fare media.

Well, Seattle is finally catching up. On Thursday, King County Metro and Sound Transit will announce Puget Sound’s first mobile ticketing app, called TransitGoTicket. The app will allow Metro and (some) Sound Transit riders to purchase tickets and day passes on their phones without having to buy or use an ORCA card. The iOS app is already live, with Android and Windows to follow Thursday.

Of the 7 ORCA agencies, Metro and Sound Transit are the only initial partners, but Metro hopes a successful rollout will entice other agencies to join. The limited participation will lead to some awkward outcomes, especially pertaining to the goal of interagency integration. Whereas ORCA uses card taps to record trips and apportion funds between agencies, mobile tickets will function as flash passes, meaning there is no way to apportion revenue for multi-agency trips. Accordingly, all revenue from app-purchased tickets has to stay within each agency ‘bucket’, which means no interagency transfers for mobile payment. Riders wanting a true interagency day pass ($8) will still need to purchase one with an ORCA card at a Ticket Vending Machine.

Mobile payment will only be available on Metro, the King County Water Taxi, the First Hill and South Lake Union Streetcars, Link, and Sounder. Metro will offer all of its standard ticket types, while King County Water Taxi will offer single fare tickets at the cash price (ORCA users would still get a discount). Sound Transit will offer day passes only on Link ($6.50) and Sounder ($11.50), priced at 2x the maximum fare. Because ST Express routes are operated by 3 different agencies – Metro operates only 9 of the 28 routes – Sound Transit has decided not to extend mobile ticketing to ST Express until there is broader agency participation.

The complete list of available tickets is as follows:

Metro

  • Youth Ticket ($1.50)
  • Adult Off-Peak ($2.50)
  • Adult 1-Zone Peak ($2.75)
  • Adult 2-Zone Peak ($3.25)

Sound Transit

  • Link Day Pass – Reduced ($2.00)
  • Link Day Pass – Youth ($3.00)
  • Link Day Pass – Adult ($6.50)
  • Sounder Day Pass – Reduced ($5.50)
  • Sounder Day Pass – Youth ($8.50)
  • Sounder Day Pass – Adult ($11.50)

Seattle Streetcar

  • Senior / Regional Reduced Fare Permit Single Ticket ($1.00)
  • Senior / Regional Reduced Fare Permit Day Pass ($2.00)
  • Youth Single Ticket ($1.50)
  • Youth Day Pass ($3.00)
  • Adult Single Ticket ($2.25)
  • Adult Day Pass ($4.50)

King County Water Taxi

  • West Seattle Senior/Disabled Single Ticket ($2.25)
  • West Seattle Youth Single Ticket ($5.25)
  • West Seattle Adult Single Ticket ($5.25)
  • Vashon Senior/Disabled Single Ticket ($2.75)
  • Vashon Youth Single Ticket ($2.75)
  • Vashon Adult Single Ticket ($6.25)

To deter riders from quickly buying tickets when they see a Fare Enforcement Officer (FEO), tickets will display a red bar on the bottom of the screen for 2 minutes after purchase, after which the bar will turn its standard color (gold for Metro, blue for Sound Transit, etc). An FEO seeing a red bar would have the discretion to write a ticket if s/he suspects fare evasion, but enforcement will likely be generously lax during the initial education period.

Metro 2-Zone ticket showing transfer letter/color of the day
Metro 2-Zone ticket showing transfer letter/color of the day
Riders can be asked to tap the screen to verify ticket validity. If it changes color the ticket is valid..
Riders can be asked to tap the screen to verify ticket validity. If it changes color the ticket is valid..

Though a move to cashless system is a goal of Metro’s Long Range Plan, the mobile ticketing pilot is neutral when it comes to fare policy, requiring Metro to offer its standard 2-hour transfer on mobile while not enabling digital transfer fraud. When a ticket is purchased, the ticket screen will display the color and letter matching that day’s paper transfer. The display will be animated to deter users from stockpiling screenshots for illegal re-use. Metro drivers suspecting a screenshot ticket would also have the option of asking riders to tap their phone screen, with a change in color (see above) indicating that the ticket is current and valid.

Metro chose Bytemark as the technology vendor, a mobile ticketing startup that recently raised $9.5m in venture capital to expand. Bytemark’s mobile fare products can be seen in places such as Toronto, Austin, and the South Shore Line from Chicago to South Bend.

The 6-month pilot project is funded by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). After 6 months, Metro and Sound Transit will likely conduct a Title VI analysis before deciding on a 6-month extension. If deemed successful after 1 year, the program would become permanent. Ongoing costs include 1.5% of mobile fare revenue to ByteMark and a $126,000 annual fee once in full production (after the pilot ends). New agencies could join for $45,000.

A well-executed mobile ticketing program in greater Seattle will greatly reduce friction for occasional transit riders.  Day pass purchasers will no longer have to incur the nation’s highest card fee ($5 for new ORCA cards). Users can buy a handful of tickets or passes in advance for later use at their discretion. Riders wanting a true Link day pass will no longer have to first ride to a terminal station (Angle Lake or UW) to buy one, since current Link day passes are only valid for travel between two stations.

Still, our abundance of agencies will overly complicate things, throttling back near-term possibilities. Common fare products will be missing, such as interagency transfers, single Link tickets, and ST Express tickets. If mobile ticketing is to help ease the eventual transition to cashless payment and further the goal of agency integration, the range of mobile options should be greater than or equal to ORCA, with all seven agencies on board. But though these near-term goals will remain elusive, this is still a huge step in the right direction. Here’s hoping for a smooth rollout.

54 Replies to “Metro and Sound Transit Debut Mobile Fare Payment”

  1. Good start, but I’m still waiting for NFC-based mobile ticketing that supports transfers and has all agencies on board.

    1. I mean, I can read my Orca card balance with my phone, using the NFC chip and an app called Farebot, so the technology is there today, the agencies just have no desire to implement it.

      1. I’m pretty sure Farebot operates in a legal grey area.

        The NFC part of the process is the easy part. The hard part is making it all work securely. If you can store the payment stuff on the phone, it becomes much easier to modify it. They’re probably going to have to set up a system that uses Apple Wallet and Android Pay to make it work. Of course then you have to unlock your phone, authorize it with a pin or fingerprint, and tap the phone on the reader. It’s probably just faster to tap your card.

      1. From my read of this post there is no inter-agency transfer (yet). So that’s two day passes if I’m riding metro to link?

      2. There is no Metro day pass by cash or any other method. You have to buy a regional day pass for the ORCA card.

    1. @Jack: There will be no Metro day pass offered on the mobile platform. Transfers between Link/Sounder and Metro would require a second purchase, yes. Only ORCA Day Passes will allow the free transfers.

      1. Therd are several ways this is avoided. The TriMet app generates a QR code as well as having an animation on the image that only works if the ticket is valid. It sounds like this will be similar.

  2. Wow, this is so unexpected and welcome. I hope they can figure out transfers and extend this to other agencies, but it seems like a great start.

    One of the things that has frustrated me most about Orca is the way it could leave me stranded if I forgot to recharge it. Here, at least I know that I can always get on a bus provided my cell phone is with me.

    I do usually transfer between Metro and ST so until they get that figured out I’ll still have to use my Orca card, but this is a great additional tool.

      1. Sure, but the more options there are the more likely people are to be able to use one of them.

        This is by no means a comprehensive solution, but given that we seem to be locked into the screwy Orca system for the next couple years I am pleasantly surprised that Metro was able to launch this. I hope that Orca 2 provides the ability to pay using NFC and credit or debit cards.

        If I’m actually stranded somewhere without cash, wallet, or phone I’m simply going to risk fare enforcement.

  3. I think STB and residents of every single agency’s district to start an extremely loud, impatient, and angry campaign, involving every legislator in range, and even (though even Russia and Syria won’t drop this on civilians) Twitter to get this interagency crap out from under our wheels.

    Just figure out a formula for dividing up the “take” and let it go. Nobody’s taxpayers are going to get cheated badly enough to equal the amount of revenue this is going to lose the whole system through bad PR and travel delays while arguments are settled and correct information uncovered.

    Speaking of money, if I ever get enough small-motion coordination back to work a Smart phone, I’ll bet anybody a year’s worth of Mobile Fare if Customer Services can give them correct information in a month.

    In return for our votes in 1996, we were promised a seamless integrated regional transit systems. My grandmother was a tailor who wouldn’t have tolerated these seams on a burlap bag full of dog food. Not exactly worth voting no on ST-3, over, but might be worth printing up a fake ballot ripped to shreds, just to make sure this gets straightened out before 2047 vote.

    Mark

    1. Yes. Perhaps it is worth repeating that TriMet ticket that Zach buys is also good on most of CTran in Clark County? All of their tickets are good on TriMet too.

      The Oregon Coast Connection has a 3 day and 7 day pass covering agencies from Astoria to Yachats.

    2. If you are going to get the state legislature involved lets make it worthwhile for everyone in state. Create state bus fare, pass, and interagency transfer standards, applicable to all agencies in state. Why cant I buy a Washington state bus pass, good on any agency in the state? Make them valid for at least partial fare on state funded services such as WSF, Amtrak Cascades, and Travel Washington Intercity Bus Program. As well as making fare media on those services valid on bus service in the state as a transfer or day pass. Make a state-wide RRFP program (although it already kind of is or was). And while we are at it, make it state law that these services have to connect. I.e. buses timed to meet the ferry, buses timed to make connections to Amtrak Cascades, Intercity bus terminals combined with local facilities and local facilities adjusted to be at Amtrak stations where practical to allow transfers. Even write it into state law that buses have to meet the ferries, and trains, and the travel Washington services have to coordinate with local services as well.

      1. Forgot one thing, lets not forget that our airports need to be considered as well, and should have bus service at the terminal as well if they have scheduled passenger flights.

      2. Please, oh please, don’t get the legislature involved. The RRFP interlocal agreement is cumbersome enough.

        Any state regulations should come with money from the state.

  4. I’m confused on why it’ll take until 2021 to roll out Orca2. Surely we won’t be the first region to roll this product out, can’t we just license one off the shelf from another transit agency?

    1. I think the issue is that, until 2021, we’re locked into a support contract with the vendor for Orca1. To start Orca2 sooner than that would mean continuing to pay the support contract for Orca1, while, at the same time, paying again for another support contract for Orca2.

    2. Also,cost of replacing all the fareboxes to be compatible with the new technology.

      But yeah, I do feel like we should be able to just license this from a larger transit agency when the time comes to replace it

  5. I have an idea, let’s make this so incredibly complex that people from out of town couldn’t possibly figure it out. I can see it now.

    How much does the day pass cost?
    Oh, so it’s $5 if I only want to ride on this bus system and some of that one?
    And it’s $8 if I want to ride on this bus system and all of that one but I have to pay more to carry a card around with me?
    What if I want to ride on that other bus system or just a different bus on the second system?
    I need to buy a separate card which doesn’t have a day pass for those, so then I’d need to pay by the trip?
    What if I buy the day pass and I want to ride on one of those other systems?

    1. It’s also a ridiculously ugly app with terrible branding. I don’t see this going anywhere beyond being an experiment into how not to do mobile payments. Maybe 7 years ago this would’ve been acceptable.

    1. A lot of trips are one-seat rides. This doesn’t do everything, but everything it does is good, AFAICT.

      I’m just waiting for someone to claim it is hard on the poor because it enables non-poor riders to board faster.

  6. This app sounds like garbage to me. They should make an app that does everything an Orca card does or nothing at all.

    Oh, and obviously guy would like to point out that such an app should be called Orca.

    1. Why would they want to code a 24-hour waiting period to reload your Google purse? Why would they want to make you get something in the mail or visit a TVM or sponsoring grocery store to get permission to use the app? Why would they want your smart phone to track all your trips? Why would they want to charge $5 to get the app?

  7. Wow–great to see agencies taking initiative, but wouldn’t it have cost Metro and Sound Transit less to just stop charging for ORCA cards in their service areas?

    1. I don’t have such an account, but my guess is that loading one’s Google Wallet is less cumbersome than adding value to an ORCA card. The nation’s highest-by-far bus smart card fee (There are some train smart cards that cost $5.) is not the only hurdle to getting and filling an ORCA card.

      Still, I suppose one could argue that the early roll-out of a non-chip-based mobile ticket is one in a long list of expensive work-arounds precipitated by the nation’s highest-by-far bus smart card fee. There are other factors I suspect that caused this roll-out, such as Busurgatory II coming in fall of 2018, when the buses get kicked out of the DSTT.

    1. It’s not to be official until today.

      On Thursday, King County Metro and Sound Transit will announce Puget Sound’s first mobile ticketing app

  8. I grew up taking Metro. It was a breeze in the eighties! I now live on the Peninsula and occasionally take the various transit options on the main land. I have a disability and this new mobile app does not include a rate for me. Transit fares get more and more confusing each time I go to the city. Now I just bring a roll of quarters and hope that’s enough!

  9. As best as I can tell, since TriMet has started doing mobile tickets, the number of people paying by cash has dropped significantly. I think I’ve maybe seen three cash transactions in the past two years, and one of those was me (I usually keep an emergency paper ticket in my wallet but hadn’t refilled).

    When they started this in 2013, Oregonian columnist Joseph Rose had a column about it, including the fact that it is able to produce a QR code for the fare inspectors.

    The column states that the fare app writer gets 7% of the revenue in the first year, and will probably be around 5% from then onward. At TriMet TVMs, the processing fee is 5.2%, but about 28% of every fare goes to TVM maintenance. It’s 10% for the bus fareboxes.

    There have been a few issues, including a problem with people keeping it running in the background so that the battery on their phones gets eaten up very quickly. The paper tickets I buy don’t need a battery. There have also been things like vanishing tickets and other glitch issues that seem to be all to common with pretty much any software.

  10. So there is no senior rate for Metro buses with this pass? Do they assume seniors aren’t smart enough to use smart phones? For the love of God please just have a daily pass!

    1. There is some legal gymnastics involved in who gets to use a senior/disabilities fare. Since Metro and ST require use of a Regional Reduced Fare Permit in order to get the RRFP discount, that card has to be the sole determinant in who gets the discount. Metro and ST pretty much have to require flashing the RRFP while showing a mobile ticket for an RRFP mobile ticket to be in line with federal regulations.

      On top of that, they have to be in compliance with the inter-local agreement for the RRFP that includes several non-ORCA counties and long pre-dates ORCA. They have to honor non-ORCA RRFPs in some manner, albeit not necessarily for the same amount of discount.

      I’m not saying they shouldn’t have an RRFP mobile ticket, but they have to be careful in how it is handled.

  11. I’m surpri… wait, no, I’m not surprised to see so many people dismissing this immediately as useless.

    This seems very helpful to visitors. Now I won’t have to tell them that 1) should’ve bought a mail-order ORCA card ahead of time, 2) get yourself to an unfamiliar grocery store to buy an ORCA card, 3) by the way, it takes 24 hours if you want to add money online to your card.

    Many people will gladly pay a slight upcharge to buy a pass for Link if they just want to hop on the train downtown for a day.

    1. Case in point…my parents never carry cash, live in Renton Highlands and drive everywhere, and are always losing their rarely-used ORCA cards. They’re also Seahawks season ticket holders and would take Sounder or 560/550 every single time if they could just pull it up on their phone.

  12. The majority of seniors are not low income and not disabled. These are the customers for whom Metro, et al, should be making it easier to use public transportation. It’s very easy in Portland.

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