Mass transit advocates like me have been eagerly waiting for SEPTA to finally roll out its New Payment Technology –its project to leapfrog over existing cashless, stored-value electronic fare collection systems in use on other mass transit systems with a technology that would work with a wide variety of payment media.
As the agency has lurched towards actual implementation, now set to start late next year, one of the thorniest issues it has had to deal with is how to apply the system to the Regional Rail network. The lack of fareboxes or barriers on the Regional Rail system has had SEPTA’s techies scratching their heads over how to adapt a technology that relies on such devices to make sure everyone pays a fare.
The people in charge of the fare system project–I’m not sure they’re techies themselves–have decided to add fare control to a key part of the Regional Rail system in order to make it fit NPT: Riders will “tap in” and “tap out” of the system using contactless readers installed at the five central stations–University City, 30th Street, Suburban Station, Market East, and Temple University.
The advantage of this system is that it takes fare collection out of the hands of on-board personnel. But it’s still somewhat ill-suited to the Regional Rail system, where most stations cannot be reconfigured so that no one can enter the platform without paying a fare. Since that’s the case, why not adopt a practice and a technology that encourages self-enforcement?
I have in mind what’s known as proof-of-payment fare collection, or “the honor system” as it’s sometimes called in error, which is pretty much how Regional Rail operates now: fares are paid at a station ticket window before boarding, if you’re lucky and the ticket window is open when you arrive. You are then issued a proof of payment–the ticket. Don’t have one? On-board personnel, who check all passengers for proof of payment, can sell you one for an additional charge over the fare.
With modern proof-of-payment systems, on-board personnel don’t check each and every passenger for fares; instead, they serve as roving inspectors conducting random checks of passengers. If they find a passenger without proof of payment, that rider’s $2.50 trip turns into a $250 one once the inspector writes a ticket for the violation. This system is used widely across the world.
Contactless fare collection, at least in SEPTA’s eyes, is designed to eliminate the need for paper. Personally, I don’t understand the paperphobia, though saving trees is greener. But a paperless proof-of-payment system could still be implemented under NPT with a related technology – the QR-code-based system used by LevelUp.
Many of you have no doubt heard of LevelUp by now: Philadelphia was one of the two cities where the company first launched its service. To pay with it, you load an app onto your phone that produces a QR code, linked to a payment card, that’s read by a participating merchant’s cell phone app. When the payment is processed, the app generates a receipt that you can view on your phone if you choose.
On Regional Rail, riders would use the QR code-based payment system at platform-side readers to register their fare payment; the reader could handle rider input about final destination and total fare. Then, if requested from on-board personnel, the rider could call up the cell phone receipt to show the inspector. No receipt? Ticket for violation. Simple, and aside from the ticket, there’s no paper involved at all.
I’m not arguing that SEPTA should adopt LevelUp specifically as part of its NPT implementation; rather, I’m showing that there is a technology already out there that could handle the problem that most vexes the designers seeking to apply NPT to Regional Rail. But if it did use LevelUp, there would be a bonus for riders: LevelUp works as an online rebate program–participating merchants offer credit for paying with LevelUp, usually a nominal amount on first purchase, then a rebate of up to ten percent each time a spending threshold is reached. Doing this with SEPTA fares would hurt the agency’s bottom line, true, but the loss could be made up in increased ridership as non-riders discover how commuting just got truly rewarding.
About the author
Sandy Smith has been engaging in journalism and its hired-gun cousin, public relations, in Philadelphia for nearly 30 years. He started award-winning newspapers at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a team and at Widener University all by himself. He has a passionate interest in cities and urban development, which he gets to indulge as editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, and in trains and mass transit, which he indulges wherever and whenever he gets the chance. (You may know him as "MarketStEl" if you lurk on Philadelphia Speaks.)