Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Recent News: Reviewing TriMet’s New Ticketing System

Reviewing TriMet’s New Ticketing System
by Josh Capps

            If you’ve ridden a TriMet bus, chances are you received your pass on flimsy sheets of newsprint with a multitude of punched holes and cryptic codes. The printed pass has been TriMet’s ticketing system for decades. However, this year TriMet is upgrading their system to, “produce studier, more legible two-hour tickets and day passes.”[1] Currently in the testing phase, TriMet is analyzing the new fare collection system and barring any serious glitches, plans to upgrade their entire fleet by July 1st at a cost of $1.5 million.

            The new system requires a rider to insert funds into the farebox but instead of tearing off a paper ticket, the TriMet operator will press a button and up pops a more durable, legible ticket, expiring exactly two hours from the time of purchase. 

            Last fall when TriMet eliminated fare zones, the agency vowed to explore and introduce methods for validating tickets for the full two hours. With the old tear-and-punched system, the two-hour transfer wasn’t always a guarantee. “The time varied depending on the location of a stop along a route.”[2]

Traditional TriMet Farebox with Retrofitted Ticket Printer
            The benefit to this new method is a more straightforward and accurate system. Gone will be the days of the ticket that shorts a rider on the two hour standard, leaving little time for transfers or return trips. However, gone are also the days of the three or even four-hour transfer receipt handed over by the liberal operator who understands that two hours simply isn’t enough time for most round trips. This is especially true after peak hours, where the TriMet system has less frequent service creating longer interval spans for those riders who need to use a transfer. In order to offset the wait time during these hours, operators would compensate the rider with an extra hour or so of ticket time.

            With the new system in place, discretionary fare time will be eliminated. “Two hours means two hours”, says TriMet officials.[3] The organization boasts “the new system will be easier for operators and fare enforcers, and may speed up the boarding process for riders.”[3] Many riders have expressed discontent and see the new system as more of a sales tactic to increase revenue rather than a service improvement. Those riders who exceed the two-hour range, such as riders who are traveling long distances or want return trips, will need to purchase another two-hour pass. Many argue the new system will force riders to buy two TriMet passes, which is of equal cost to an all-day ticket.

Traditional TriMet Paper Transfer Tickets
            Others are curious why TriMet is moving from one antiquated system to another when they could leapfrog the older technologies and implement a modern ticket purchasing system such as a TAP cards[4] or Smartphone technologies. They plan to. “TriMet will also be piloting a new mobile ticket system in the coming months.”[1] The system has already proven popular as TriMet easily received the required 1,500 participants to beta test the future technology. If that exploratory program proves successful, the Smartphone payment method will appease the digital crowd while the regulated farebox system handles those riders who opt to pay with cash or individual tickets.
            With the cost for the new farebox system and retrofitting the fleet, will the revenue increase for TriMet make the new system worth the investment? Considering the increasing cost of transit operations, one would assume any measure to streamline the ticketing process would reap benefits. Since the results of the new fare ticketing system won’t be fully available until after $1.5 million is already spent, TriMet and its riders will have to wait and see if the new system is truly worth the price tag.

Thanks to Max Scheideman for editing this post.

[1] TriMet testing new ticketing system
[2] TriMet's new ticket printers may not be pretty, but they guarantee a 2-hour fare
[3] Riders and operators give the new bus tickets a big thumbs up!
[4] Transit Access Pass (TAP) Card Official Website


  1. This will be really interesting to test out once it gets implemented. I kind of like the idea of a more clear cut system but that is too bad for people (unlike myself) that often can't afford a second 2-hour pass. I feel like they relied a lot on bus drivers' discretion, of which they'll no longer have with this new system (or at least not to the extent that they had with the old/current one). Great post!

  2. Great post, Josh. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is looking to switch to a Ventra pre-paid debit card ticketing system. However, it has faced severe criticism since many feel it compromises low-income riders (the annual fees amount to $188) and poses potential credit risks.

    While the Ventra card will not be required, riders without it will be subjected to pay 33 percent more per ticket, which poses another equity question.

    However, the primary intent of the Ventra card is to eliminate the exchange of cash and mitigate the potential for crime.

    Currently, the controversy is being sorted out through state legislative public committee hearings. The biggest issue revolves around the debit feature of the card.

    There is still lots of uncertainty in regards to when and if the Ventra card ticketing system will be launched. Which poses the question..why some cities can successfully implement a TAP card system and others continue to struggle? What's the best way to balance efficiency and equity?

    Additional reading:,0,693700.story

  3. It will be interesting to see how the operators that accept these newly printed transfer tickets begin to regulate the printed times. Perhaps they might be a little more lenient towards accepting tickets that may have surpassed the 2 hour time limit. Looks like there is a loophole!

    1. Good point, Tom! I have seen operators accept paper passes that are past their expiration date in the past (mine included), so I'm guessing that is something that could possibly continue in the future.

    2. It's true that drivers can still be lenient with the new system but I do think that the leniency will drop. With the paper receipts, for example, you could often easily argue that the 2 hour limit expires at 3 when it actually expires at 2:30 because of the way it was ripped off the stack. With these new printed receipts, it will say the EXACT time it expires, so while bus drivers may still be lenient, it's going to be less often. Especially since they'll often randomly have Trimet people on board checking people's tickets, and a driver could be more likely to get in trouble for allowing someone to ride when it's obvious that they're past the expiration time. With the old receipts, that was not so much of a risk.

  4. It seems to me their is a missed opportunity with the development of a machine that prints out accurate receipts. Why couldn't they design it to also accept credit or debit cards? $1.5 million to equip all the buses? I'd like to know what the marginal cost would have been to make it capable of taking a Mastercard.

    I don't ride transit frequently, but when I do, I'm scrambling to get cash or find a ticket kiosk at a MAX station. It's not very conducive to attracting marginal ridership.

    The argument that it would slow down the boarding process seems erroneous now that there are credit card machines that need just a single swipe, no signature. I can remember the overly-elaborate choreographed VISA commercials where all the dancing stops because someone decided to write a check or pay with cash.

    Even though technology is being developed to purchase tickets with smart-phones or other NFC devices, it shouldn't be used as a reason not to invest in card transactions either. Not everyone has a smart phone, particularly retiring baby-boomers who are going to become more reliant on transit for mobility.

    1. You make a really good point, CJ. I've thought of a similar idea in the past. I worked on a project last fall to increase bike/ped ridership at Barbur Transit Center. One of my ideas was putting in a ticket machine at the center (they only have them at MAX stations). I know this is a little different from what you're stating but both have to do with making it easier for people with cards, not cash.

      Anyways, we were working on our projects with Alta Planning and Design, and I asked them about that. They expressed that it most likely wouldn't be an effective use of funds for the amount of benefit it would receive.

      It's also good to take into account the fact that there are still many bus riders who do not have credit/debit cards, and it's possible that it is actually a significant portion of the ridership population. So it doesn't make much sense to implement an expensive system that caters to only a certain percentage of riders.

      If I had to choose between guessing what would be a more convenient option for the "high-low"-middle-upper class riders with smart phones and debit cards, I would say people would pick the smart phone option. And for those without a smart phone (myself included), we'd just have to plan on having cash (which was the only option not too long ago).

    2. Good point, CJ. Before I started purchasing a FlexPass, when my trips were too infrequent for it to be cost effective for me, I was constantly digging through my house for the change that I needed for my ride to campus. The ride back was easier because I would just stop by the MAX platform on the way and swipe my card, but it was always a pain to get to school in the first place.

      With the wireless technology we have today, how is it we can know exactly where the bus is and when it will arrive, but we can't buy a ticket with a credit card?

      I would disagree with you, Haley. Upwards of 70% of the U.S. population has credit or debit cards. Additionally, there are many prepaid card options for those who do not want to open a bank account. I don't believe that TriMet will ever plan on precluding the option of cash, however, so that option would still exist for those without cards.

      Also, increasingly, people are going cashless, and according to a Rasmussen survey, 43% of people have gone a week without using cash. Since the trend of credit/debit card usage is only going up and the cash trend is going down, why not still encourage those who don't carry cash to ride transit by catering to their needs? I don't know how many people would actually use a smart phone payment option, but I agree that the percentage of the population would probably be pretty small.

      My argument is that why not make ridership as simple as possible for as many people as possible? More ridership helps provide a reliable and usable system and prevents that many more people from driving (I should point out that nearly all parking stations take debit or credit cards at this point).

    3. Currently, I purchase a 10 pack of Trimet passes and just keep them in my wallet. It's easier then making sure I have exact fare, and the packs are available at Fred Meyer, so I can pay with cash, check or credit card. While traveling in Italy via bus, they sold tickets at markets around towns near the bus stops and the buses only excepted tickets, so you couldn't use cash on the bus. Buses were equipped with a time stamp and I kept my paper ticket - I believe this is how it works with MAX currently.

    4. Glenn, I see your point. However, 30% of the population is still a significant portion of the population, even though it's not a majority of the population. Also, that is a US population statistic, not a ridership statistic, which could be quite different (but I could be wrong). This same portion of the population will also probably not have smart phones but I would think that smart phone transaction technology is cheaper, more convenient (phone's in pocket/hand already, still have to dig out card?), and possibly more secure (harder to hack into a phone to steal funds than to snag someone's wallet/purse and start charging). And while I kind of see the point in catering to the needs of people that don't carry cash, public transit is meant to serve those who NEED public transit more than those who have the choice of riding public transit, and I would bet that the majority of that 30% NEED public transit.

      I'm not arguing for a strictly smart phone system (because I would be out of luck!) but I feel that a smart phone/cash system would be more effective and convenient than a credit/debit card/cash system.

      Also, it should be pointed out that while I sympathize with the people that have to scrounge for change for the few transit trips they make, it sounds like those people are not part of the population that depends on transit on a regular basis. People that ride the bus to/from school/work several times a week know that they'll need tickets and will typically plan accordingly (always carry cash, yearly passes, monthly passes, 10 or 5 packs, etc.) Shouldn't they be the people that are catered to and not necessarily the people that take transit every now and then?

    5. Haley, the 70% statistic was meant to demonstrate that there is a large group of people who carry credit and debit cards, much more than the number of people who have smartphones (somewhere around 55%).

      When a grocery store accepts debit/credit cards as a form of payment they are just trying to make payment more convenient for a larger group of people. Catering only to card users would mean that they were not accepting other forms of payment except cards. The same concept applies to the transit issue.

      I also can’t find a relationship between whether or not you’d like to use a card and whether or not you need transit because it’s your only form of transportation. Having a debit card does not determine the need for riding public transit.

      Additionally, public transit is meant to serve everyone, not just low-income riders. The idea that public transit is only for the poor doesn't help grow ridership and eliminate cars. I think that growing the ridership by accepting more forms of payment only makes riding transit more convenient for more people.

    6. I totally agree that we should be focusing on increasing ridership. And while I agree that Trimet should serve everyone, I feel that people who have a bike/live in dense communities/earn a moderate income/don't have kids, etc. should be catered to less than people that are kids, alternately-abled (in wheelchairs, blind, etc), depend on transit as their sole transportation option, have kids, single parents, etc.

      That's part of the reason why some organizations like OPAL take issue with the new MAX line. Light rail attracts higher income riders than buses attract, so while this new MAX project may be increasing ridership, it is being built at the same time as the increase in fares, the removal of the fareless square, zone removals, and I think some bus lines were taken away as well. Sacrifices often are needed but not at the expense of people who rely on transit more than those that don't.

      But I guess this is mostly about smart phones vs. credit/debit cards. Cards have been around for a long time and I highly doubt that if there had been a credit/debit option since the beginning, the ridership would have increased significantly to warrant the costs of implementing the system. I'd feel similarly about the smart phone option if there wasn't a growing market for smart phone transaction use. And since so much of Trimet is phone-oriented, such as transit tracker, it might not be so much more expensive to implement something like that.

  5. What Trimet matter is to collect fares accurately, and it seems they do not intend to provide a better customer service from a new ticketing system. I believe they evaluate cost and benefit of this new ticketing system with more advanced ticketing system such as TAP card tap or Smartphone technologies. I am also wondering about the cost of implementing the more advanced one? It seems Tap card or Smartphone enables to collect fare more accurately, and gives more benefits including fast boarding time, convenience in use, records for transit demand research and etc.

  6. Although it won't work for everyone, I'm really excited for the TriMet ticket app being developed. In Chicago I have a Chicago Plus card, which is loaded with money and gets reloaded from my credit card every time my account drops below a certain dollar amount. Because of this, I don't have to worry about waiting in line to buy a ticket every time I want to ride the train. In Portland, I'm stuck buying a ticket at the MAX station every time I want to ride the train. If the train is just pulling up to the station as I get there, I need to decided between buying a ticket and missing the train or not buying a ticket and risk getting ticketed by the transit police. With this new app, I'll be able to buy my ticket as I'm walking to the train or even buy my ticket on the train. I won't have to deal with swiping my credit card, waiting in line, or potentially missing my train.

  7. This is an interesting and necessary move for TriMet. Every since arriving here in July, I still have NO idea how to read those paper passes!

    About two years ago the Bay Area switched from a three ticket system for BART, Caltrain and Sf Muni (which made transfers a pain) to a new tap-on system. The Clipper Card allows you to put money on at transit stations or on the web. Although each system still produces it own ticket for one time use, people who commute from San Jose or Oakland now have an easier time transferring to buses within the city.

    Every MUNI bus is equipped with a scanner machine located both on the front and back door, which allowed for more efficient boarding. Also, when you buy a one-time pass in a transit station for the MUNI system you receive a pass with a barcode that can be used for the buses or light rail within San Francisco. A big push for this was to regulate the transfer times (also two hours).

    It will be very interesting to see if Portland also adopts a tap-on system. I am excited to see what their mobile ticketing system looks like and if it allows you to put a lump sum of funds rather than have to fumble with your phone every time you are about to get on a bus or train. Obviously the big draw is that riders will feel more freedom to jump on and off without the fear of not having cash to pay for their next ticket. I definitely believe this is a step in the right direction!

  8. Trimet replaced an 'ancient' technology with an 'old' technology.

    So what happens if it gets jammed, runs out of ink, or just doesn't work?

    Operators now have to focus on buttons rather than tearing a piece of paper, it adds an additional task to the position.

    Trimet should be upgrading into a swipe technology rather than this sort of thing.

    However there are 2 good things about it.

    Bus transfers used to be 1 hour, now they are 2 hours. Trimet had a discriminatory system in place giving light rail riders 2 hour transfers but bus riders only 1 hour transfers so that bias is eliminated.

    And plenty of bus drivers screwed up transfer times or didn't punch them accurately. This should eliminate that

  9. The paper ticket process solves no problem and creates additional work and headache for the agency.

    Stored value cards, such as Los Angeles' Tap card or New York's Metrocard, is a proven and tested technology that does not discriminate. Low income riders can just as easily obtain these cards, often being distributed through social service agencies that can then load value onto the card for the clients' use. Since the money is fixed to a card, it is harder for the clients to then abuse the system by selling passes for cash for purposes not intended by the agency (i.e. buying alcohol and tobacco). The cards are easy to load and refill at vending machines at rail stations and transit centers as well as vendors and customer service locations. And if you register the card with the transit agency, lost/stolen cards can quickly be deactivated and the value loaded onto a new card. (Registration is optional, but failure to register means you cannot claim a lost/stolen card.)

    The cards also provide hard ridership data - where riders get on and off, how they transfer, when they transfer, how long it takes between a transfer. It also enforces hard time limits. And best of all - bus drivers do not have to do anything, unless a rider with an invalid/expired card chooses to board the bus without paying an alternate fare...and that's simply to call for a fare enforcement officer.

    Riders who ride occassionally can still opt for cash fares, but will lose the ability for "free" transfers - it's simply one cash fare - one boarding. While this has been a complaint, the easy availability of the fare cards for low income residents have made this a moot point since anyone can get a card, and doesn't require a credit/debit card to obtain.

  10. It looks like Trimet is now considering extending transfer times to 3 hours with free return trips after 7pm. It will be interesting to see the cost estimate of the change.

    1. Joe, I hope you are right on this one. I made a roundtrip transit ride from Pioneer Square to OHSU and back with a short coffee break and finally got back on the bus on the way home 5 minutes after my 2-hour transfer expired and the driver had me pay again. Two hours is just not enough time to get much done.


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