As Houston continues to rethink its transportation footprint with redesigned routes, expanded light rail and additional hike and bike trails, it’s also looking to new technology to create a better user experience. That’s why in February, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County joined the growing list of transit agencies offering mobile ticketing for public transportation services.
So far, the uptake of the service isn't suggesting it's revolutionary -- just 1 percent of all rides in March were paid for using the digital service -- but usage is growing. METRO officials believe that trend will continues as new features come online in their Metro Q Mobile Ticketing smartphone application.
Other transit agencies, including those in Portland, Los Angeles and Dallas, were already offering the digital ticketing service in one form or another when Houston unveiled its smartphone application earlier this year. But even officials in cities with well-established mobile ticketing programs say the field is continuing to evolve.
“The sky is the limit with this kind of technology,” said Denise Wendler, METRO's chief information officer.
Transit agencies are adopting mobile ticketing for a variety of reasons. It's seen as a way of cutting down on current ticketing costs associated with processing payments and maintaining infrastructure like ticketing machines. Agencies also see it as a way to stay relevant by using new technology and simplifying the ticket purchasing process for the benefit of riders. Officials also say digital ticketing is a way to keep transit systems agile, regardless of what technology innovations lie ahead.
In Houston, riders can now purchase single-trip tickets or day passes on their smartphones for local buses or MetroRail. The tickets can be stored offline and activated before the ride begins. Tickers are valid for up to three hours once activated. When a fare inspector or transit operator asks to see the ticket, riders can show the activated ticket on their screen, even if they're not online.
After a brief beta testing period, Metro unveiled the smartphone service in time for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in late February. In March, tickets bought via the app represented 2 percent of all day- or single-trip tickets purchased. In April, that number rose to 3 percent.
“We’re pretty happy with it,” said Brian Stanley, who manages the mobile ticketing application for Houston at the firm moovel, which formed after transportation technology companies GobeSherpa and RideScout merged earlier this year. “As far as the early stage of an app compared to a mature environment, it does take that critical mass. Houston is not there.”
But he said the application isn’t done yet. This summer, the service will expand to include Park & Ride tickets. Metro is also hoping to partner with schools and hospitals to provide tickets to students and patients. And corporate sponsors will be able to subsidize trips for employees through mobile ticketing. “I think the utility of the app is really going to be seen when those features roll out,” Stanley said.
Elsewhere, transit agencies report even stronger mobile ticketing numbers. On Portland’s TriMet system, for example, nearly 40 percent of riders use mobile ticketing, according to Mac Brown, vice president of business development for moovel, which also manages TriMet’s application. Ticket sales on the mobile service represented around 11 percent of all sales last fiscal year, according to The Oregonian. “It’s highly successful,” Brown said of the application, which launched in fall 2013.
Mobile ticketing for Dallas Area Rapid Transit launched around the same time. There, more than 3 million tickets have been purchased through the application to date. By 2017, DART says students and other groups eligible for discounted fares will be able to use its GoPass application, and users will even be able transfer tickets to other people.
Advocates for mobile ticketing also say its versatile and can cater to diverse types of riders.
Still in the demonstration phase, mobile ticketing for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has shown that smartphone technologies can appeal to different demographics. There, the transit agency rolled out mobile ticketing for both its commuter routes and its neighborhood circulators, known as DASH buses. “We wanted to demonstrate how both these very different targeted populations would respond to mobile,” said John Gobis, project manager of LA Mobile, the mobile ticketing application for the city's DOT. (Notably, LA Metro -- the larger transit agency in the area -- does not offer mobile ticketing).
“People who are previously using prepaid products are the early adopters for mobile payments,” Gobis said, adding that that categories includes many commuter riders. DASH riders on the other hand, have an average income of $18,000, according to Gobis, and still largely rely on cash to pay for tickets since many of them don’t have debit or credit cards. “By paying cash in any city, you’re always paying the highest possible fares,” explained Gobis. "The incentive was to get them a better deal."
Still, hiccups emerge. In Los Angeles, the existing smart payments cards aren't fully compatible with the ticketing app. "We have this regional smartcard system, and then we introduced mobile payments, and the biggest request we get is that they wish the two were integrated," said Melissa Pattayina, the project administrator for LA Mobile. "But because of the proprietary nature of companies, it’s not easy to get the mobile system to talk to the smartcard system."
Transit agencies have also had some trouble integrating their ticketing apps with other online services.
“This is an easy thing for the rider,” said Brown, of Portland. “It’s much more difficult for the agency.” So even though mobile ticketing cuts down on the infrastructure and maintenance involved with paper ticketing, it’s been challenging to create the sort of seamless, one-stop-shop applications riders want. In Houston, for example, the trip planning application is separate from the ticketing application. The ticketing app's planner function simply redirects users to METRO's mobile website.
One way moovel is looking to address that challenge is with its new RideTap software, released in a pilot version in Portland. RideTap can be integrated to existing ticketing applications with the idea being that transit users can connect to all the many transportation and ride sharing options available in cities now. “You think about people with app fatigue -- this connects the network within apps you’re already using,” said Patti Kelly, a spokesperson for moovel. “So if someone misses the bus and they don’t want to wait in the rain, or they have that first-last mile gap between their house and the bus stop, they’d be able to stay within the TriMet app to see other options.”
For now, Portland transit riders can link to ride share service Lyft or car share service Car2Go through their mobile ticketing app. But Kelly said that can be expanded to include bike share programs and other transit options.
Beyond the smartphone, the promise of nearfield communication means riders could simply swipe their phones at a reader to tap through gates. “We’re getting close to that,” said Brown. Already, limited nearfield payments are available for transit users in Singapore.
Regardless of how technology evolves, transportation systems will need to keep up. "Riders are taking up technology in really big numbers, really fast," Gobis said, "and transit agencies have to remain relevant."