INTRO: San Francisco’s public transport operators have launched a programme to introduce contactless smart card ticketing which will ultimately cover 24 metro, tram, ferry and bus networks. Julian Wolinsky looks at the technology and at the planned expansion into electronic purse functions

LATER this year, passengers using selected public transport routes around California’s Bay Area will get the chance to sample effortless and barrier-free travel, with the start of a $20m, six-month demonstration of smart card ticketing. The project will be run by a consortium consisting of Motorola Inc and ERG Group of Australia, which was selected through competitive tendering last year for a 10-year design-build-operate-maintain concession to develop a region-wide smart card network.

The programme is being sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the public transport planning, co-ordinating and finance agency for the sprawling nine-county region that includes three major cities: San Francisco, Oakland and San José. Assuming the demonstration phase is successful, work will start in 2001 to equip every metro and commuter rail station, tram stop and bus in the region at a capital cost of about $21m.

The ambitious and complex scheme will ultimately see the contactless smart cards available for use on 24 metro, tram, ferry and bus networks. More impressive are the proposals to expand the card rapidly into an electronic purse that can be employed for purchases in such diverse applications as parking, retail sales and public telephones.

The scheme is being marketed as TransLink, the same label attached to an abortive magnetic card system tested in the early 1990s. This was an attempt to expand the BART AFC equipment to connecting suburban bus lines, but it failed for technical and institutional reasons, according to the current project manager, Russell Driver. The card readers did not have enough stamina to resist the jostling inherent in buses and they were frequently out of service, forcing drivers to give cardholders a free ride. ’They tried to miniaturise a (BART) faregate and hang it on a bus, but it’s not that simple, as it turns out.’

Institutionally, BART administered the project, sold the tickets and acted as the clearing house. But data kept getting lost, forcing the various partners to negotiate reimbursement based on survey data instead of hard information, and in the end this proved unacceptable.

’The first time around it was all about the equipment on the bus and distribution of the card’, explains Driver. ’Customer service and who was doing settlement was an afterthought.’ He insists that MTC is determined to avoid the previous pitfalls and decided to start anew, developing the clearing house first and the equipment last.

This time around, the Bay Area is also able to benefit from experience elsewhere. ERG and Motorola were responsible for the successful Octopus card in Hong Kong, which forms the basis for several projects that the firms are currently undertaking. Driver says the main challenge for the consortium ’is to put together a core of a system that’s as usable for as many (operators) as possible so they can run their business efficiently.’ During the 13-month design phase now under way, the basic application used in cities such as Roma, Berlin and Singapore is being customised to suit MTC’s outline specifications.

Design and planning

The design process has three iterations - conceptual, preliminary and final. At each stage, MTC submits the consortium’s proposals to the various transit agencies and other interest groups such as employees, the handicapped, and social service units. Design does not continue to the next step until each level is approved. In the preliminary phase, more than 500 comments were received from the operators alone.

There are also a great many operational and logistical issues to resolve, including where card distribution outlets should be located and what sort of management procedures should be put in place to ensure security. All of this requires an immense amount of planning and MTC input. ’It’s a very complicated business to run’, says Driver, a 30-year old UCLA Masters graduate in urban planning.

Motorola will handle cash collection from merchants who sell or add value to the cards and will distribute revenue to transit agencies, thus taking much of the risk. ’Fundamentally, Motorola is responsible for collections irrespective of where they take place,’ explains Driver. Therefore, MTC must put in place formal policies to make certain Motorola collects the money generated by sales, whether from a retail outlet or a transit operator, although MTC itself won’t handle any money.

’In line with this DBOM concept, we’ve said "the responsibility is yours so we’re not designing it for you; they’re not our requirements. If you don’t collect any of it, that’s your problem." So they need to install whatever systems and controls they think are necessary in order for them not to lose their shirts in paying out to the transit agencies.’

Cards will be available for purchase at participating retailers and banks. They will not be sold from vending machines due to security considerations. It is expected several methods will be employed to recharge the cards, including retail outlets, add-value machines at stations and possibly through the purchase of a special contact reader for home computers linked via the Internet. No final decisions have yet been made. When a card passes a reader or is being recharged, the remaining balance will be flashed on a small screen. The same information could be made available by telephone, on the Internet or even on a key chain device carried by customers.

Motorola will provide the cards, complete with computer chip, and the electronic components that read the chip. ERG is developing the transaction software and will assemble the readers. It will also establish the operator support and customer service systems. Motorola will maintain all those functions and operate the central clearing house in conjunction with a bank that will establish ’sweep accounts’ for all of the participating transit operators. It will be Motorola’s task to determine a net daily settlement position with the agencies, taking a commission off the top. The fee schedule is expected to be very complex, depending on the type of transaction. Driver estimates that ’the transit operators will pay between 3·5 and 5 cents per ride for the entire spectrum of TransLink services.’

MTC will be putting its own controls in place to make certain the system performs honestly. ’We have a set of operating rules which are modelled on how some of the bank associations work with their own (clearing house) networks’, says Driver. ’We have the right to audit (Motorola’s) operation as frequently as we like, which we will be doing.’ MTC also plans to establish an in-house unit to mediate disputes over cash collection and distribution. Driver is ’not worried about data corruption per se because the security is very high - the data is encrypted from beginning to end in the system, actually a higher level of security than you get in most banking transactions. What I’m more concerned with is failures and missing data and mistakes and things that drop out. There will be faults and problems with the system, there always are, and so we have to have a process by which we can arrive at agreements with the affected transit agency as to how that’s to be resolved.’

Phased introduction

Once the design is completed and approved, the operational phases will begin. An initial $20m six-month demonstration will start next autumn on high volume routes run by six operators. That is due to be followed by a full build-out covering all participants across the region, beginning in 2001. Annual operating expenses are estimated at $8m to $14m depending on ridership. ’The greater the card use, the higher the total operating costs, but the lower the cost per ride’, explains Driver.

Phase 1 will see card readers installed in all BART stations in central San Francisco and Oakland, plus two suburban locations. All central area stations on San Francisco’s Muni Metro tram system will be equipped, as will the entire N-Judah route. Readers will also be fitted at nine Caltrain commuter rail stops; on the entire Santa Clara County light rail system in San José, at all Golden Gate Transit ferry docks, and on 178 buses in the Oakland and San José areas.

Where the operators currently use an honour or proof of payment system, such as Caltrain and the San José light rail, smart card holders will ’tag’ a validator on the station platform. Inspectors will carry a portable card reader that could be so simple it need only show a red or green light depending on whether or not the fare has been deducted.

During the test period, the cards will be given away, with the cost borne by the MTC and the participating operators. When the equipment goes region-wide in Phase 2, customers will be expected to buy their own cards. The price has yet to be determined, but is likely to be around $3 to $5. This will help to offset the expense of manufacture and give the cards an intrinsic value so they won’t be thrown away or broken through carelessness.

Driver anticipates the cards could physically last about five years, but expects they will have a built in expiry date, probably ’in the three or four year range.’ By setting a fixed lifespan, new non-transit functions can be added later, beyond the capability of the first generation cards. This will also help MTC to determine which cards are still active and to manage the funds pool correctly.

Wider applications

During Phase 2 MTC will actively be seeking non-transit applications for the smart cards, but no deals will be reached until Phase 1 has been completed and deemed successful. Driver believes there are at least half-a-dozen commercial entities willing to get on board, knowing that the infrastructure will already be in place. They will pay MTC to expand the network and pay to use it.

Driver doesn’t expect each transit agency to issue its own proprietary cards: ’we’re trying to position TransLink to be the star or brand for transit in the Bay Area.’ The cards will be issued by Motorola, and MTC will not have any part in their sale. ’The control and management of that is at MTC with input from the transit agencies, but Motorola is contracted to manufacture, personalise and distribute - they manage that whole process’, he declares.

Smart cards should make public transport more convenient for the passenger, because travel will be seamless and possibly less expensive. But Driver feels some agencies may be reluctant to use all of the system’s technical capabilities - such as automatic discounts - because of the potentially adverse impacts on revenue. For now, TransLink is being configured to replicate the existing fare structures and policies. Thus the cards will initially act as weekly or monthly passes and will be programmed for concessionary fares such as those provided to students and pensioners.

Promotional fares could well increase transit ridership as they did in New York City, where until recently passes were unknown and separate fares had to be paid on the subway and on local buses. Once the magnetic stripe MetroCard was in widespread use, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority cautiously - some commentators suggested reluctantly - introduced price cuts, including 11 rides for the price of 10, free subway-bus transfers and a day pass. Ridership immediately shot upward with little adverse impact on overall revenue.

The TransLink smart card will also act as a transfer. By storing a record of the 10 most recent rides, the card will know how much to charge a customer changing between operators. The ability to calculate such transactions is one of the aspects that makes smart cards so attractive. ’I think the bottom line message with a system like TransLink is that it enables any number of (variations) and it’s still really up to the agencies to decide what they want to do’, enthuses Driver.

BART upgrades magnetic capability

Even as MTC moves forward with smart cards, BART is continuing a long-planned upgrade of its 30-year-old Cubic/IBM magnetic stripe fare collection system. The two will operate in tandem, with TransLink readers added to the rebuilt BART fare gates.

A $20m contract has been awarded to Cubic to supply new equipment and overhaul existing hardware. According to Thomas Parker, the BART Group Manager in charge of the programme, ’all our ticket vending machines (and addfare machines) are going to be replaced.’ The new equipment is scheduled to start arriving in August 2001.

Design work for modernisation of the fare gates is now under way in-house with the assistance of engineering consultants. ’We’re going to go through and totally renovate our IBM gates ... just gut them out and rebuild them’, explains Parker. The computer system in each gate at BART’s 34 original stations will be replaced with state-of-the-art equipment, retaining the existing functionality but increasing the capability and capacity of the machines. Mechanically they will look the same and, from the passenger’s perspective, will work identically. In addition, BART will be buying around 70 new gates, some for new stations and some to increase throughput elsewhere.

The system will be very flexible, allowing the use of credit, debit or smart cards and cash. Parker says that BART is ’going to be able to put more information on the ticket, expanding that capability.’ Among the new features will be tracking by serial number, allowing lost tickets to be replaced along with their remaining value. By keeping a record of when and where cards have been used, Parker says it will also be possible to use them as diagnostic tools, for example determining if some gates are jamming too frequently.

For the BART stations taking part in Phase 1 of the smart card programme, a separate reader will be provided by MTC, independent of the BART fare collection system. ’Initially, we were going to do a few (gates in each station)’, says Parker. ’But then we looked at it and we thought it would be more prudent to do each gate in each station.’ When a passenger uses a smart card, data will be sent to the Motorola network, which in turn will tell the gate to open. This interim solution will be used until BART’s new equipment is up and running, and fully integrated with Phase 2 of TransLink.

CAPTION: Muni Metro’s N-Judah tram route and all stations in the Market Street subway are to be equipped with smart card readers for the pilot phase of the TransLink project

CAPTION: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s light rail network in San José has also been selected as a TransLink pilot

CAPTION: TransLink readers will be fitted to BART fare gates in San Francisco and Oakland, although the metro operator is continuing to invest in magnetic stripe ticketing equipment

Des cartes à puce autour de la Baie

Dans le courant de l’année, six opérateurs de transports publics de San Francisco vont entamer un projet pilote sur six mois, évalué à 20 millions de dollars US, première phase d’un programme visant à introduire une billetterie à puce, sans contact, sur 24 réseaux regroupant métros, tramways, ferries et autobus. La Metropolitan Transportation Commission a sélectionné, pour une durée de dix ans, un consortium composé de ERG Group et Motorola pour mettre en place, puis faire fonctionner, une technologie basée sur le programme Octopus de Hong Kong, qui donne satisfaction; le programme inclut le développement du système vers des fonctions de porte-monnaie électronique

Chipkarten rund um die Bay

Im Laufe dieses Jahres starten sechs Unternehmungen des