"Fare Media" And Other Logistical Nightmares

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(Washington, DC — David Schultz, WAMU) "Fare media" is the transit industry term for the stuff you use to pay for a ride on a bus or a train. It used to be tokens, then slips of paper with magnetic strips. Now many cities use a rectangular piece of plastic that riders can put money on, much like a debit card.

D.C.'s version of this is called the SmarTrip card. (Note the photo at the right of my SmarTrip card. And of my hand.)

Metro, the transit agency here, would like as many people as possible to use SmarTrip cards. Unlike paper fare cards, they're reusable and, thus, cost much less to produce. So, earlier this year, Metro's Board of Directors cut the price of a SmarTrip card in half - from $5 to $2.50 - as an incentive to get more Washingtonians to use them.

And that's where the trouble began...

Metro's attempts to halve the price of a SmartTrip card immediately caused three unforeseen (but, arguably, not unforeseeable) problems:

Problem #1 - Metro charges rail riders when they exit a station. But, if a rider's trip costs more than the balance on their SmarTrip card, Metro allows the rider to exit the station with a negative balance, rather than forcing them to put more money on their cards before they can leave.

However, with the SmarTrip cards now costing only $2.50, Metro realized this could open the door to riders "gaming the system": someone could purchase a new SmarTrip card for $2.50, take a train or bus trip that costs more than $2.50 (of which there are many now that Metro has increased fares), exit the station with a negative balance and then throw the newly purchased SmarTrip card away. The rider would then repeat this process the next time and the next.

Metro estimated that, depending on how widespread this becomes, "gaming the system" could cause it to lose up to $1 million per month.

Problem #2 - Metro also discovered it has a limited supply of SmarTrip cards and the company that makes them no longer exists. To make matters worse, this non-existent company has a proprietary claim on the SmarTrip technology, so Metro can't even work with a different company to make more.

Metro estimated that its current supply of SmarTrip cards would last two years. (Although if people are buying the cards and throwing them away after each trip as outlined above, that supply would run out much sooner.)

Problem #3 - The Board of Directors reduced the price of a SmarTrip card to $2.50 because they were told by Metro staffers the cards cost $1 each to make. This was incorrect.

Several months after the Board made the decision to reduce the price, Metro staffers came back and informed them that, in reality, SmarTrip cards cost $3.40 each.

This means, at a price of $2.50, Metro would lose 90 cents each time one of its riders buys a new card. News of this actually caused one member of the Board of Directors to repeatedly bang his head on the table in front of him at a public meeting.

So, it appears Metro is mired in fare media frustration. But recently, some encouraging news came in from overseas that could solve all of Metro's problems. Officials in London are working on developing a universal transit card that would work in multiple subway and bus systems, from New York City to Austrailia.

Let's hope they roll that out in D.C. sometime within the next two years.