Last week, I attended the excellent Transport Ticketing Digital Summit which focused on advances in fare collection and Mobility as a Service (MaaS).

In a conference looking at the future of fare collection where open-loop and integrated transportation provides the focus, I hosted a fireside session with one of our clients, Greg Garback from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), looking at how they are continuing to evolve their closed loop SmarTrip card to provide new customer benefits some 22 years after launch.

SmarTrip launched in May 1999, four years before Oyster in London and two years after Octopus in Hong Kong, it is the oldest smartcard-based transit fare collection system in North America with 38 million SmarTrip cards issued. As well as bus and subway services in the District itself, SmarTrip is also accepted in neighboring counties to the south and west in Virginia and to the north and east in Maryland including partner agencies operating in those areas. Additionally, connecting those regional agencies to WMATA, the ability to pay for parking at WMATA’s 38,000 parking spots, SmarTrip has been providing MaaS before MaaS was a thing!

SmarTrip, was launched initially as a replacement to cash and magnetic strip fare media on a few gates across the network. Over the years, acceptance was expanded as popularity increased, and eventually magnetic tickets and cash acceptance (at the gate and on the bus) was removed and now SmarTrip is the only way to pay for fares in the DC area.

One of the more interesting areas which the SmarTrip system has facilitated, is an in-house benefits program. In the United States, many employers offer a transit benefits program where you can assign some of your pre-tax wages to pay directly for transportation. In the most part, there are several third-party organizations which manage the administration of these programs that issue pre-encoded checks and more recently, pre-paid cards which can only be exchanged for transit.

WMATA’s SmartBenefits service saves employers and WMATA the cost of operating such programs by skipping the middleman and allowing federal and private organizations to fund employee SmarTrip cards directly through an online portal. The SmartBenefits program has 250,000 subscribed riders through either federal or private employers in the WMATA area with the US Department of Defense accounting for nearly 40,000 alone!

As SmarTrip moves into its third decade of operation, with pressure to migrate to open-loop and account-based processing, WMATA have introduced further features to SmarTrip that postpones the need to go open-loop and extends the life of the infrastructure that supports SmarTrip. This probably makes SmarTrip the most value for money transit smartcard scheme around, although many might disagree!

So, WMATA have introduced Mobile SmarTrip. No mean feat given SmarTrip is a MiFare Plus card and you can only deploy MiFare DESFire into Apple and Google wallets. In partnership with Cubic, WMATA’s technology partner, and the teams at Apple, Google and NXP, the SmarTrip card is available to everyone direct from the wallet without the need to even download a dedicated app to the device. Of course, this has meant a small upgrade to the readers to accept DESFire, but the real work has all been device side.

Mobile fare cards stored in the digital wallets have come a long way in the last two years with developments in Portland, LA, Chicago and DC, but at Consult Hyperion, we recall back in 2007 when we were involved in a hugely successful NFC pilot in the UK with O2, Visa and TfL, and in 2008 there was another pilot on BART in the Bay Area, but why has it taken so long for mobile ticketing to take off?

Well, simply put, this stuff is hard. Apple and Google now have, for better or worse, the stable wallet platform and ecosystem that allows integration with transportation, but agencies still need subject matter expertise to navigate the technical requirements in order to deploy this service.

Obviously, Consult Hyperion knows this stuff inside out! If you have any questions or would like to know more, please get in touch with my colleague Nick

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