Washington, D.C. made history when it became the first U.S. city to deploy a contactless smart card system- wide for mass transit. The Smar- Trip® card has gained widespread acceptance in the Washington, D.C. area, particularly in the past year. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has more than 300,000 SmarTrip® customers and adds an average of 3,000 new customers each week.
SmarTrip® cards are permanent, rechargeable plastic farecards that utilize a contactless computer chip to keep track of the card’s value. Until SmarTrip®, the city’s commuters inserted a farecard with a magnetic stripe through the faregate slot. Today customers touch the SmarTrip® card to the target panels on top of Metrorail station faregates as they rapidly enter the station or vehicle.
The cards are multi-modal, meaning they’re usable across all modes of transit–including WMATA trains, park-and-ride facilities and now, buses.
SmarTrip® also enables Metro riders who are eligible for monthly employee transit benefits to become the nation’s first smart card users to receive their benefits electronically. Via the SmartBenefits® program, the value is automatically credited to the employee’s SmarTrip® card and becomes instantly available for use in the system.
For millions of residents in the Washington D.C. region, the Metro is part of daily life. Metrorail and Metrobus serve a population of 3.4 million within a 1,500 square mile area. The system serves the District of Columbia as well as suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.
Metrorail and Metrobus provide more than 1.1 million passenger trips on an average weekday. In terms of ridership, its 83 stations and 103 miles of line make the Metro the second largest rail system in the country and rank it fifth among bus systems.
Why contactless cards?
WMATA has always been a bit ahead of its time. In 1976, it pioneered the use of magnetic stripe cards, a hightech fare collection system that many cities have only just recently adopted. That system, although effective, had two disadvantages that officials knew could be alleviated by the use of contactless smart cards. First, passengers had to feed the magnetic stripe paper cards manually through a fare meter, a procedure that can cause commuter jams at Metro entrances and exits. And second, if passengers lost the card, it was just like losing cash.
The contactless card offers advantages over a magnetic-stripe card. It can be reprogrammed and recharged indefinitely; it is easier and more reliable; and if lost, the money on it can often be refunded. In a situation of card loss, the user can call WMATA and request that the card be cancelled and any unused balance placed on a new card. The card is flagged in the database and no further transactions are authorized. The remaining balance is then credited to a new card.
“The thing people love about it is transaction speed,” said Greg Garback, Executive Officer, Department of Finance and Program Development, WMATA. “The contactless smart card processes five times faster than a magnetic-stripe card.” Riders can leave the card in a wallet or purse and wave it over the turnstile to gain entrance. It is this new level of convenience that has customers raving. “It’s faster and more convenient than the paper tickets, what’s not to like?” said frequent metro rider and SmarTrip® user Lara Bogle. And contactless cards process high traffic flows rapidly, save on terminal and maintenance costs, and offer strong resistance against fraud.
Cubic gets the nod
In the spring of 1998, WMATA officials began to work with Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., a San Diego-based firm. In addition to providing the system for Washington, D.C., Cubic has introduced contactless systems in Chicago; London; Freiburg, Germany; Kuala Lumpur; and Seoul. They have pilot projects underway in Hanau (Frankfurt region, Germany) and Guangzhou, China. And contracts have been awarded for installation in San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Northern Virginia, and New York’s JFK AirTrain.
The company’s systems operate independently of a particular smart card technology enabling the system to select from a range of card types. The Cubic Tri-Reader® makes this possible providing transit authorities with the flexibility to select any smart card that meets the ISO 14443 specification (Type A or Type B) or Cubic’s own GO CARD®. In fact, different card types can be used interchangeably within the same transit system.
According to Kim Gregory, Marketing Communications Manager for Cubic Transportation Systems, the GO CARD® used by WMATA is a 2 K byte Ferro-electric RAM (FRAM) chip manufactured for Cubic by Fujitsu. It is the third generation of the GO CARD® and has the same functionality as the previous CUB01 and CUB02 cards. The company also offers the higher capacity CUB132 card with a 32 K byte chip.
Says Ms. Gregory, “FRAM is preferred because it provides transaction time at least 10 times faster than EEPROM. When we perform transactions for transit, speed is a necessity because commuters demand nearly instant access to the transit system; the longer the transaction time, the more it slows throughput.”
What is on the horizon for SmarTrip®?
On November 8, 2002, WMATA began a 3-month test of the SmarTrip® system in its bus network. Buses serving Washington, D.C. and parts of Maryland and Virginia are now linked into the SmarTrip® system. Rail travel, parking operations, employer transit benefits, and buses are all a part of the program.
Plans are in progress to include credit card functionality on the SmarTrip® card and establish a point-of-sale network at area merchants. This would enable cardholders to use the debit and credit functionality of the SmarTrip card to load value onto the contactless smart card for fare payment.
WMATA made history with the implementation of SmarTrip® contactless technology and card sales and usage have been extremely strong. Washington, D.C. is an operational testimony to the benefits of contactless fare collection.
The success of SmarTrip® has encouraged other cities–including San Francisco, Chicago, and New York– to pursue similar technology. But most importantly to WMATA officials, riders have found that the technology helps make travel more seamless and smooth while expanding the transit authority’s revenue streams.