Mobile devices now can pay fares on Atlanta Streetcar, are tip of iceberg for region
By David Pendered
The future of transit fare collections in metro Atlanta is on display now on the Atlanta Streetcar. Mobile payments are accepted. This digital system is to be deployed across MARTA in coming months, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Near-term milestones for fare payments include: 2023 – credit card payments are to be accepted directly at a station turnstile or bus door; 2025 – the transition to a new Breeze card system is to be complete, in time for the start of passenger service on MARTA’s first bus rapid transit system, from the Summerhill neighborhood to near the Five Points Station.
A major caveat of the new fare collections system is that cash will still be accepted.
Although MARTA has had mobile payments in discussion since at least 2015, the decision to implement was a big one that took time. MARTA is ranked as the nation’s fifth largest transit system in terms of ridership, according to a May 27 report from the American Public Transportation Assoc. Annual ridership in 2018 was 120.2 million in unlinked trips, meaning one trip on a bus or a train, according to a report by the Federal Transit Administration.
From 1992 to 2007, tokens the size of a nickel were the standard method of payment on MARTA. In 2007, the Breeze card was implemented for reasons that included a crackdown on fare evasion. The Breeze stored-value card was cutting-edge at the outset, which was a time a phenomenon called “cell phone addiction” was just starting to make headlines.
As MARTA observed in a Sept. 4 statement about the evolution of its fare technology:
- “It wasn’t that long ago that customers paid their MARTA fare with a token! We upgraded to the Breeze card system in 2007, and it has since been adopted throughout the region so customers can transfer seamlessly between MARTA and CobbLinc, Gwinnett County Transit and Xpress bus.
- “However, technology develops rapidly and we have begun an effort to again modernize our fare collection system. In the next few months, we’ll be rolling out Breeze Mobile. This new payment system, which will complement and operate alongside the existing card-based Breeze system, will give customers the option of using their mobile devices to pay fares on all MARTA services (rail, bus, streetcar, and paratransit) and satisfies a growing public demand for a mobile payment alternative. Mobile payment validators have been installed on all buses and at all stations, and a new Breeze Mobile app will allow customers to manage passes and payment methods.”
The pending opening of the Summerhill BRT system is partly behind the change in fare techology. The unique challenges regarding fare collection for a BRT system was a final impetus, Rhonda Allen, MARTA’s first chief customer experience officer, said in a presentation at the Sept. 3 meeting of the board that oversees the ATL, the Atlanta Region Transit Link Authority.
“MARTA is a closed system – there are gates,” Allen said. “With BRT and LRT [light rail transit], most of those systems are for off-board payment, or rear-door payment.”
MARTA’s implementation of mobile payments is significant for the transit riding public, especially in Gwinnett County – where voters on Nov. 3 face a sales tax referendum to pay for the proposed expansion of heavy rail, bus rapid transit and buses. MARTA is the backbone of the regional transit system and, even for transit riders who don’t use it often, MARTA’s fare collection system affects the other transit systems in the region.
MARTA is collaborating closely with the ATL to develop new fare collection methods, according to Chris Tomlinson, the ATL’s executive director:
- “There are multiple points of collaboration between MARTA and the ATL staff, with MARTA looking at long-term fair policies being worked with our regional fare policy….
- “Where MARTA is going, is going to bring a lot of flexibility with mobility apps and mobility service. The complexity of [shifting from] card-based trips, stored on cards, to an account-based system has a lot of benefits, but is a lot of work. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s going to take time to do this successfully.”
This is MARTA’s projection for its fare collection technology:
- “On the five-year horizon, we are undertaking automated fare collection, or AFC 2.0. In the initial stage of this effort, we are researching industry trends in automated fare collection to improve the customer experience, increase operational efficiencies and reduce the cost to operate and maintain the system.
- “We are also working to ensure we are ready for future BRT operations, which often require off-board payments and boarding through all doors. Some of these industry trends use an account based system (instead of our current card based system) and contactless payments such as open payments (swiping debt card or credit card directly at the faregates instead of having to go the ticket vending machine).”