Arlington, VA

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

At the beginning of this month, Metro took a step into the 21st Century by allowing SmarTrip to be added to Apple Wallets.

A Google spokesperson also said they plan to roll out a Google Pay version later this year. This move has significant short term benefits, some improvements that are needed to improve equity, and in the long term will provide a significant boost to the efficiency of our entire bus system.

What will be improved right now

Customers save money: Do you even know the number of times you have lost your plastic SmarTrip? I have lost hundreds of dollars from misplaced SmarTrip cards over the years. When you lose your card you lose both the money you put on the card and the cost of the new plastic card. While there is an online option to save your SmarTrip number and connect employer benefits, many do not utilize this option. Having payment functions on your phone will save Metro customers big in the long run. 

Bus efficiency: To increase funds on SmarTrip cards for bus riders, riders usually have to do so while in line to get on the bus. Every time a bus rider has to add money to their card it averages 20 seconds of time per person, slowing down the bus route significantly. As fellow columnist, Chris Slatt, has mentioned, a quarter of bus travel time is spent boarding, and if you can halve that time you have sped up bus route speed by 12%. Allowing riders to update payment on their phone will increase bus speeds on every route in the county.

How tap-and-go tech can be more equitable 

Android capabilities: The average cost of an Android is lower than an iPhone, and ensuring that an Android rollout is successful will be key to achieving equity. While Google has stated they would like to roll out by the end of the year, Metro has said “it is coming,” and that definition is sometimes loosely defined by Metro. As a community we should hold feet to the fire to get a concrete timeline on when this capability will be rolled out.

Disability, UPass, & other reduced fare cards transferable funds: Reduced fare cards are not able to be used with this function yet. Only full fare and Senior SmarTrip cards are able to be transferred at this time. The reason we give people with disabilities, students, and others reduced fares is to have a more equitable transportation system. Ensuring these cardholders can transfer their funds is an obvious oversight that I hope can be addressed in a timely fashion.

Long-term infrastructure improvements

Columbia Pike & Route 1 off-board fare collection for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): Off-board fare collection is a significant part of how to create time-saving BRT. In 2014 off-board fare collection had an anticipated 20 hours of time savings per day just along Columbia Pike from off-board fare collection.

Anticipation of tap-and-go technology by local governments has dated back to a failed soft launch in 2016. This is likely to have caused delays in Arlington’s own implementation of BRT with off-board fare collection. If you look at the bid that was put out last year for the four most recent BRT bus stations along the Pike, you will see that it includes a section for “future off-vehicle fare collection equipment.” This was likely to avoid prematurely purchasing soon to be outdated technology — a smart move. In addition, with new funding from the state from the Amazon deal, this off-board payment tech will now be expanded to even more locations along Route 1 for BRT.

Conclusion

WMATA is joining a select few forward thinking jurisdictions across the world to implement “express transit mode” tap-and-go technology. Domestically we join New York’s MTA, LA’s Metro, and Portland’s TriMet, while internationally we join Japan, Hong Kong, London, Beijing, and Shanghai in providing iPhone tap-and-go technology for public transportation.

While we celebrate this great first step, it’s important to continue pushing for off-board fare collection for bus stops now that this technology is available, ensure Android users have access, and allow for reduced fare cards to be transferred to this new technology. Overall, this is a win-win-win for Metro users, Metro efficiency, and local governments looking to implement their own infrastructure improvements.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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