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cityscape

Public Works: Phoning in Your Transit Fare

Stop hoarding those tokens. Mobile transit ticketing is coming.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

ttc new streetcar presto swipe

In a couple of short decades, the mobile phone has morphed from upmarket walkie-talkie into an all-around tool for texting, web surfing, music-listening, movie-watching, and point-of-purchase money-wasting. And, according to Juniper Research, the next way phones will render themselves disturbingly indispensable involves getting you on the bus.

The current fare payment system of choice in most of the developed world is some form of stored-value card. These are loaded up with virtual cash either at a booth or online, with transit fares then deducted by scanning or tapping. Even the TTC, which is a butter churn away from being the Pioneer Village of transit systems, will roll out the PRESTO card (currently usable in 14 subway stations) across the entire system beginning next year.

However, stored value cards may already be yesterday’s technology. The Juniper report notes that mobile transit ticketing is popular in Asia and Europe, with 65 per cent of Swedish bus fares already paid that way. Researchers anticipate that use will triple over the next five years, with most of the growth coming in slow-to-adopt North American systems.

Mobile phone fare payment comes in several different flavours. Near-field communication (NFC), most commonly used in Asia, is the same technology found in the newest generation of contactless credit and debit cards, as well as in apps like Google Wallet. The downside of NFC is that devices have to support it—and many phones, including Apple’s iPhone, don’t.

It’s partly for that reason that North American transit systems may be more inclined to adopt scannable electronic barcodes, which are already widely used for airline ticketing.

In places where smartphones aren’t yet ubiquitous, mobile ticketing can also be done by SMS.

All these methods may involve different means of payment (credit, debit, phone bill) and validation (visual inspection, scan), but they share one big advantage: users are able to buy tickets anywhere, any time, directly from the device. Transit providers win by reducing interactions with expensive live humans.

Mobile ticketing can also integrate with customer loyalty apps, like the one recently piloted in Montreal, to provide users with up-to-the-minute information on delays or problems, and targeted promotions from local businesses.

Rocket riders should see mobile ticketing eventually, as the functionality is a requirement for the roll-out of PRESTO across the TTC. However, at the moment there’s no firm timeline for implementation.

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