Cincinnati’s new transport payment system should be world leader

As Cincinnati’s transport officials prep for the introduction of a modern streetcar line in 2012, and potential bus rapid transit in the coming years, further improvements need to be made to the network. One of the most striking improvements needed is a new payment system for those using Cincinnati’s various bus systems, the streetcar, taxis and bike and car share programs if they ever materialize.

In Korea the T-Money Card rules. Based off of a simple yet wildly successful tap-and-go pay system, the card can be used all over the place. In Seoul, one can use the T-Money Card to pay for taxis, trains, buses, museums, vending machines, stores, fines, taxes and more. And in addition to the transit stations, the card can be purchased at convenience stores all over the metropolis.

The functionality is brilliant, and policy makers there have decided to use the data collected, from the system, to determine funding allocation for transit routes. This means that the most heavily used routes and stations get the most investment. Furthermore, the efficient tap-and-go system allows for quick payments and faster boarding on crowded buses and trains.

London has recently decided to go a step further. Their new Oyster Card not only offer the same benefits of the T-Money Card (minus taxi use), but the system also allows for people with contactless bank cards to use those as their tap-and-go payment. Both the T-Money and Oyster cards offer customization as well. The Oyster Card has custom holders and card designs, while the T-Money Card has custom card designs and sizings.

There are flaws with both systems from which Cincinnati can learn as it upgrades its payment system over the coming years. The first lesson is to have broad appeal. Cincinnati should engage various stakeholders to help develop a system pay card that can be used on all of the regional bus systems, streetcars, pedicabs and water taxis. While doing this the city should keep in mind future integration with any bike or car sharing programs.

Flexibility should also be a part of the new payment system being discussed in Cincinnati. The beauty of electronic pay is that the payment plans are limitless. A rider should be able to choose from buying a certain number of trips, specified time frame (i.e. 30 days) or even just a certain dollar amount. Offering riders choices will help fuel ridership and attract riders of choice.

While Cincinnati has been late to the game when it comes to upgrade its decades-old payment system, it allows transport officials to learn from others around the country and world. Innovative technologies and approaches should be used to make sure Cincinnati is on the cutting edge. London and Seoul have great payment system solutions, and Cincinnati should combine them for an even better one.

  • James

    I am still blown away by how bad our payment system is for the buses. Either you carry around pockets full of change or you go to one of two locations that have extremely short hours to buy tiny tokens. It’s literally a system designed around people who receive free bus passes from social service agencies. The “average” rider – you know, the one who pays for their fare – is an afterthought. I actually rode the bus for six months before even knowing that you could buy bus tokens and learning where to buy them.

  • The way one rides the Metro using a Metro card as opposed to cash is striking. When you pay for entry, you go from point A to B. When you have the Metro card you are more likely to stop along the way to go to the grocery, bank, comic book store, whatever. It is crucial to the success of Cincinnati’s streetcar to sell time instead of entry. This could probably help the bus system, too.
    I agree that these universal cards of which you speak could provide invaluable metrics on ridership that I believe are sorely lacking at Metro.
    I imagine they could also be integrated with new parking meters if the city goes that route.
    Taxis are all privately owned here. Is that the case in Korea? Is their transit publicly owned like here?
    @ James, get a monthly pass! OTR Credit Union & lots of check cashers sell ’em.

  • Matt

    I agree fo much about the “average” riders being short changed in the current system. My two largest complaints are the lack of google maps integration and payment. A solution for the former appears to atleast be in the works but the latter is just as important.

  • The current payment system drives me crazy. I don’t ride that much but I’m never quite sure how much to pay for kids. Infants are free, other are half price (or is it 85 cents?) And I’m always looking through my change at the stop thinking, how much is half of $1.75 plus $1.75 times two and do I need to run into the store and buy some gum so that I have change for my ten dollar bill etc… and is it worth going through all this to get out of the rain for 8 blocks, and by the way will the next bus come in 2 minutes or 20?

    Some kind of smart card is needed so that you can use it on an as-needed basis and so it can automatically calculate the fare. One question though: Does each person need a card, or can you use a smart card to pay for a whole family?

  • Dale Brown

    Paying for a cab in this town is the least of your worries, you have to find one first. Those are pretty cool concepts, although, as mentioned, I think most people probably have passes or pay in cash anyway, so I don’t know that it would be that popular, but things change.

    By the time this came about in Cincinnati I’d imagine that credit cards will be able to process just as quick as pre-loaded cards, and most people with access to debit or credit cards would rather do this.

    And good luck finding a cab in this town that takes credit cards (I’ll end my Cincinnati Taxi rant now).

  • Nick Workman

    Great article! I definitely think that Cincinnati should try to improve its payment system if it wants to integrate the bus service with other services such as streetcars and/or BRT. When I studied abroad in Holland, one of the things I loved about the the Dutch public transit system was that the electronic pay system. It was a “pay-as-you-go” program in which you put money on a card and, depending on the length or duration of your trip, money would be deducted from the card. Once you had depleted the funds on the card, you could go to a pay station and reload it.

    Another thing that was great about this system was that between transfers the fare for boarding another bus/train/tram went down. In other words, whereas a subway ride would cost $2.00 and a trip on the bus would cost $1.50 on their own, if I boarded the bus within 15 minutes of getting off the subway, it would only cost an addition $.25, bringing my total ride cost to $2.25. It would be cool to see something like this happen if I were to transfer from one bus to another or from the bus to the streetcar, etc.

  • Jorge

    If this type of system is implemented, I hope proper time is taken to avoid pitfalls.

    The Dutch system has been a disaster. Before the cards were even implemented, someone had hacked the system. They said it was hard to do and maybe patched it up a bit, and went ahead with implementation. Then a few months ago, someone hacked the card once again and posted a how-to guide on Bit Torrent sites and made the cards easily hackable for anyone.

    Now they have a mess on their hands, and they are in full damage-control mode. Further implementation has been delayed and they are accepting old forms of payment once again.

    Not only is this a big problem, but there were faults and complaints from the get-go. For one, you cannot pay for multiple people to travel on the same card. Everyone must have their own, and the cost is not insignificant to buy a card (independent of money added to the card for actual travel). (I think it’s about eur3, which is a few trips’ worth of money.) This is a hassle, especially for visitors (people you’d especially like to attract to the system).

    Another complaint people raised is privacy issues. Since the cards actually cost money and are not disposable (like, say, NYC’s metro cards are disposable), you will presumably be carrying the card for a while. Once you pay with a credit card to fill the card, all subsequent travel can be identified as yours. Some people may not mind this, but for others it is a concern.

    I agree the cash-only, exact-change system is absurd. I just hope due diligence is put into making a new choice. NYC’s system seems to be fairly solid (disposable cards usable for multiple people simultaneously), if not so well-integrated as Seoul’s, London’s, or the Netherlands’.

  • Zack

    maybe its the flat fare, but 98% of the cabs i take to the airport take credit.

    Kudos to whoever mentioned parking. SOOOOO many meters downtown, ABSOLUTELY ZERO change machines in sight, and nothing but dirty looks from retailers whom you ask for change from. Every single street should have the electronic paystations like court st. as far as im concerned, especially given the rates on the meters.

    Im sitll confused how a smart card would know when you exit a bus, and charge the appropriate fare.

  • John Schneider

    If we’re going to charge fares to ride the streetcar — and there are good arguments for and against doing so — then we ought to sell tickets at new “Pay and Display” parking meters along the route.

    I’m thinking you could buy time-stamped streetcar tickets of varying time durations at those meters with a stored value card or you could use your credit or debit card. No cash would be accepted by the machines. I’d like to see a rate of $1 per hour to ride the streetcar. You could purchase your ticket in one-hour increments up to four hours — long enough to park in OTR and go to a Reds game and return, say. Or if you were running late to a meeting, you could just buy a $1 ticket.

    It would be nice if this system could be fully integrated with the parking program so the streetcar system could capture any incremental parking revenue it “earns” as a result. So if you were walking to catch a streetcar, you could stop at any meter along the way and buy your soon-to-be-used ticket and avoid the crush of people trying to buy tickets at the stop. If you were driving and parked at a meter in the streetcar precinct, you would select the amount of time you wanted to park and after you did, a menu would pop up and ask, “Would you like to buy a streetcar ticket too?” And the transaction would be seamless — one itemized receipt.

    The best “Pay and Display” parking meters issue a pass that has a “peel and stick” receipt you place on the driver’s side window facing the sidewalk so the meter reader can easily see it. The same sort of sticky thing could be worn on your clothing or coat like you do in some museums.

    If we’re going to charge fares, we really need to have thorough enforcement or there will be all kinds of problems. If fare-payers see others not paying, then they will also quit paying. An obvious way to enforce fare-payment is to use the people who are already patrolling the streetcar route — the people who write parking tickets. They are uniformed, have radios and already work with the police when they need to. The way I see it, if they are writing tickets for people who aren’t paying the meters, they can just as easily be hopping on and off the streetcars along their routes and ticketing people who aren’t paying to ride too.

    Maybe Metro should sell a monthly streetcar pass for, I dunno, $25 to $40 which gives unlimited streetcar rides. And any other higher-cost Metro pass should allow you to ride the streetcar anytime without additional payment.

    No American city has a particularly good fare policy for their streetcars; nor do they have good enforcement policies. Here’s hoping that Cincinnati can do better.

  • Zack:

    In Seoul you tap your card when you get on the bus, then you tap your card when you get off of the bus. It’s a pretty simple process…all it takes is a card reader at the front of the bus and at the side exit door.

  • John Schneider:

    I agree with your thoughts, but maybe that ticket approach should be done in addition to a unified electronic payment system. That way single use riders coming down and parking along the route could benefit from your idea, but the avid transit riders could benefit from the ease of a unified payment system.

  • The hidden beauty of an electronic payment system is that if people load up their card with say $50 at the beginning of a month that means the authority managing the payment system can collect interest on the $50 right from the beginning. Multiply this by a few thousand and you have yourself an innovative revenue stream that puts no additional financial burden on your riders, and doesn’t cost the system any more than implementing a new payment system.

  • Jim Uber

    Randy I have to congratulate you on your title for this piece. I’ll admit to being disappointed that Metro hadn’t actually done anything much regarding a good fare system, but well, at least this provides more motive, if any more were required.

    Another aspect of the Seoul system that deserves emphasis is the transfer possibilities. You not only tap your card on entry, but also on exit. That starts a clock (I recall 30 minutes), during which you can transfer to another bus – or train – at very little cost (I think that a bus transfer was actually free). All of this automatic.

    There are great systems out there; we don’t actually need to lead, it would be great just to copy.

    By the way Quimbob, the monthly passes really are lame, you must admit. The cost of a monthly pass is $70. How do they arrive at that number? 2 trips/day x 5 days/week x 4 weeks/month x $1.75/trip = $70/month. They can do better than using the monthly passes to shackle you to the bus system. They could provide a real economic incentive to loyal riders.

  • Jorge

    Randy and Jim:

    There is a trade-off with this check-in, check-out system. Each passenger uses their own card (which costs an initial fee apart from money on the card). This makes the system harder to use for visitors or those who haven’t used the system before.

    Jim, I don’t know how the Seoul system works, but in the Netherlands there is no transfer fee. There’s an initial 75 cent fee to check into the system. After that, you get charged based on distance when you check out. Then you have a half-hour to make your transfer and check back into the system without being charged another 75 cents. At that point. Then when you check out again, you’re charged based on the additional distance you traveled.

    A downside to this distance-based calculation is that, in order to check into the system at all, you must have a certain amount of money on your card. This is in case you don’t check out of the system when you disembark — then you are charged that full amount. This further complicates things for those who don’t intend to use the system for an extended period of time, as most will inevitably end up spending a few extra bucks which they leave on their card after their last trip (in addition to the few bucks they spent to purchase the card).

    Punishing those who don’t intend to use the system much is a great way to discourage people from ever starting to use the system.

    John Schneider has a better idea, IMO, though who wants to stick something on their car window? Just use paper receipts to put on the dashboard. Ticket-checkers on the streetcar can then have people hand them their tickets for verification rather than stick them on their clothes (which can be done electronically, if that’s how it’s set up). Make the fines for not having a valid ticket high enough that it makes up for the occasional fare cheater. (Note you still need ticket checkers for any system we’ve been discussing.)

  • John Schneider

    ^ The problem with non-sticky tickets — to the extent it is a problem — is that when you have 150 people on the streetcar, the person checking tickets has only a couple of seconds to scan each one of them to see if he or she has a valid ticket. People will put loose tickets in their pockets, their wallets, purses, lose them, whatever — so you really need to have a way to display them, badge-like. I’ve seen people on the Portland Streetcar stall the ticket checker, supposedly searching everywhere for their “misplaced” ticket, prolonging the search just long enough to get to their stop and then get off without ever showing proof-of-payment.

    People with passes, which have durable value and thus won’t be lost, can just hold them up for the checker.

    The sticky ticket will not dirty your car windows or your clothing. It’s a proven system. It’s just more efficient to display it in the way it can be most easily read. When you put it on the dashboard, depending on where you put it, a person who is short in stature can have trouble reading it. Then imagine it’s placed upside-down or if the windshield is wet, foggy, etc. It’s less of a problem when it’s attached to the side window. The efficacy of all of these ticket systems, parking or otherwise, are driven by labor costs. So you have sometimes have to do some these that seem a little awkward but which, in the aggegate, reduce the cost of compliance. People get used to it.

  • Mt Uber, I thought I made out like a rat using a Metro card.
    Anyway, subway ticket checkers from the Hungarian comedy, Kontroll:

  • Ryan L

    While I do like the idea of a distance based charge and think it should be implemented, I also think they need to keep a monthly card that offers unlimited rides. I currently utilize the UC*Metro deal, and every time I put a quarter into the fare box, I know that I am spending money (even though it is cheaper than driving).

    I would prefer a card that offers unlimited rides so that I don’t have to think, “is it worth the money to go to [fill in the blank] or should I just not go and save my money?” With the unlimited rides it allows you the freedom of going anywhere as often as you like without getting charged per mile and thinking about the cost every time.

    Both payment types appear to be important and it seems logical to give people a choice to pick the one that best suits them.

  • Mark Kinne

    I whole heartedly agree Randy. My question is do we move to a proof of payment system like Portland uses or do we go to a fare control system where you pay before you board. This type of system is used in Curitiba and is very effective there. True it requires enclosed stations, but these can be beneficial especially as far as security goes which is a major consideration in this town. While I don’t see this happening at every bus stop, it’s a real possibility for BRT, the streetcar, and light rail.

  • John Schneider

    ^ How do you build enclosed curbside stations on thirteen-foot sidewalks?

  • L. Q.

    ^^The cost of a Curitiba type fare control system for the streetcar would greatly exceed the fares recovered by such a system. Greatly exceed.

  • Tim B

    It is truly a shame that spending $150 million on a streetcar of debatable need seems to be the driving force for a truly needed improvement (that won’t cost $150 million) in how people pay for bus rides.

    It makes a person wonder how many more people would use our bus system — and demand further improvements to it — if the smart brains who have fallen in love with streetcars would have been using their energy to push for better bus service for the past several years.

    But hell yes, we do indeed need more modern, faster, easier ways to pay for bus rides. So thanks for bringing up the issues involved.

  • Tim B:

    Most of the streetcar advocates I know are also some of the most vocal bus supporters, and users, out there. Also, the Cincinnati Streetcar is a $128M project…not $150M.

    One other thing is that I would not say the Cincinnati Streetcar is the driving force behind upgrades to Metro’s payment system. The transit organization has been working to secure funding for this for many years and appears to be very close to finally moving forward with the project. It just so happens to be well timed with the introduction of an additional transport option in Cincinnati.