Depending on the city where you live, paying for a ride on public transit can be complicated. A single morning's commute can involve a confounding mishmash of cash, paper tickets and electronic swipe cards. And different parts of a transit system -- buses, subways, commuter trains -- can sometimes be independent from each other, frustrating riders who have to juggle multiple fare cards and different methods of payment.
That's all starting to change. Responding to riders’ demands, many of the biggest transit systems in the U.S. are modernizing the way they collect fares. The agencies are upgrading their ticket-taking operations with technology that can take away the need for a ticket altogether. Riders will pay with regional fare cards or their mobile phone instead.
For many cities, it’s a huge leap forward from legacy systems they’ve been using for years, or sometimes decades. Philadelphia, for example, is only now phasing out a payment technology that's been in place since the 19th century: subway tokens. Philadelphia’s mix of tokens, transfers and swipe passes will soon be entirely replaced with a single electronic card for subway, buses and commuter rail.
Meanwhile, passengers on the Metra commuter rail in the Chicago region, which only started accepting credit cards in 2009, can now buy tickets and passes on a mobile app called Ventra. The app, which has been downloaded more than 2 million times, can also be used on Chicago’s subway system and on the suburban bus network. Passengers have bought more than $250 million worth of tickets on it in the two years since it launched.
New York City recently announced plans to ditch its electronic fare cards and let riders board transit with a wave of a cellphone or a swipe of a credit card, starting next year. The city's MetroCard, a yellow plastic card with a magnetic stripe, was considered groundbreaking when it was introduced in the mid-1990s. Upgrading the technology won't be easy: Despite a $573 million effort to replace them, the floppy cards won’t be entirely phased out until 2023.
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