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Metro Working on “Smart Card” for Bus & Light Rail Service

August 22, 2006 Public Transit 15 Comments

Earlier today I posted that I was interested in some sort of system where I could buy a pre-paid transit card to be used on both MetroBus and MetroLink. The idea would be to swipe the card as I entered the bus or light rail station. Guess what? Metro has received a $20 million grant and it working on just that!

Metro’s Senior VP of Engineering & New Systems Development, Stephen Knobbe, explains:

Off camera he mentioned the technology is advancing so fast they trying to decide on a system. Right now they are in the planning stages but hope to roll something out in about 2 years. Knobbe indicated, off camera, they are looking at possibly having a system that doesn’t require you to literally “swipe” the card but just run it in front of a sensor — in close proximity. That, he said, would help with large crowds of people.

– Steve


Metro’s CEO Discusses New MetroLink Light Rail Line

Today was the first chance for the public to ride the new 8-mile extension of St. Louis’ popular light rail system, MetroLink. I caught up with Metro CEO Larry Salci on the ride and asked him to share his thoughts on the extension.

His concluding words, “I think people will see it was well worth the wait.” More video from this inaugural ride to come soon!

[Note – the sound is not in sync with the video, something happened in the uploading process. Sorry, I’m not Antonio French…]

– Steve


Metro’s Customer Service Denied Access to Urban Review

August 22, 2006 Public Transit 7 Comments

Yesterday I sent an email to Metro (formerly Bi-State Development) asking about their policy of running trains through areas where vehicular traffic has been halted due to real or perceived dangers (see In The Interest of Safety?). Well, I got a prompt response from someone in customer service asking me to forward what my post said (I had given them a link) because they were able to access Urban Review.

Interesting, very interesting.

Explanations range from the spectrum from they have a very strict policy on browsing and simply do not want employees reading a bunch of long-winded websites during work to Metro doesn’t like my positions on transit and wants their employees to only listen to management’s views. The truth is probably someone in the middle leaning toward the former.

As I copied and pasted the post into an email I just found it rather amusing.

– Steve


A Couple More Transit Thoughts

August 22, 2006 Public Transit 18 Comments

With MetroLink events today (paid preview ride), this weekend (ribbon cutting & free rides) and Monday (new fares, revenue service on Cross County line) this is becoming an unofficial transit week here on Urban Review. I have some additional thoughts that I’ll toss out for discussion: Fare based on distance, not direction and a renewable transit debit card.

Distance Based Fares:

A person traveling a short distance on our light rail system, MetroLink, pays the same rate as the person traveling the full length. To the person traveling to the end of the system (Illinois, Lambert or now Shrewsbury) the fare is a bargain relative to travel time, fuel, parking and such. But the person going only one or two stations away the fare really sucks. For local travel the MetroLink is set up to be more regional in its approach and the fares reflect as much. But not all cities are this way.

In Washington D.C. and San Francisco, for example, their system charges you based on distance. You swipe your card as you enter the system and again as you leave. It deducts the rate from station to station. The greater the distance you travel the more you pay. For those that only travel one or two stations it really makes sense. The issue here is how to track the coming and going of everyone. In these examples they have more complicated stations and you must swipe your card to enter and leave the stations. This adds cost, lots of cost. When the original MetroLink system was being designed in the late 1980s and early 1990s a decision was made that we’d be on the honor system for payment, thus reducing the necessity to have costly limited access stations. Our stations, if you haven’t seen them, sell tickets which must be validated before boarding the train. Weekly and monthly passes are available and offer real value for those using the system often.

Transit Debit Card:

No, I’m not thinking of a Visa card with the Metro logo on it to show your support for transit when making a purchase a Target. Rather, one thing I like about the D.C. and San Francisco systems, among others, is the ability to buy a transit card with an amount such as $20. As I use the system the fare is deducted from the original balance. At any point I can go to a machine, check the balance and add more money to the card. As someone who rarely has more than $10 in their pockets this is really convenient. But, as described above, we have a ticket/honor system for our light rail. Currently transit officers randomly check passengers for a validated ticket or a weekly or monthly pass for the current period. How would my debit card work in this case?

We’d need some sort of device at the stations to swipe before boarding a train. Unlike the closed systems in other cities, this could just be on a platform and not be required to enter/exit. Officers checking tickets & passes would need some sort of hand-held device to swipe the transit card to ensure the holder swiped the card back at the station and thus “paid” the fare for that ride. To offer the “distance based fare” noted above, when the card holder swipes the card at the first station it assumes the full fare. But swipe it again upon arriving at a shorter station then you get a credit back for only using a portion of the system. But, this idea has a bigger upside.

The debit card could also work with MetroBus. Again, I seldom carry cash and I almost never have any coin in my pockets. I see stores near bus stops proclaiming “No change for bus” as they don’t want to break someone’s $5 bill or even give change for a buck. “Buy a monthly pass” some might say but for those of us that don’t or can’t use the system enough to justify a monthly pass we are left with exact change being our only option. The debit card would allow someone to put money on the card when they got paid and monitor their balance as they use the system. When it gets low they might add a few bucks or even that $5 to the card. As I noted in my previous post, if I ride the bus all semester it will cost me just over $50, less if I bike home sometimes. I would gladly put $50 on a card that could be used on the bus or light rail.

The obvious problem is where to sell the cards. It is easy to put such devices at MetroLink stations but we certainly can’t put one at the thousands of bus stops. This is where convenience stores earn their name — they could sell Metro cards along with all the other items they sell. Stores along popular bus routes might sell quite a few and it would let bus riders use their debit or credit card if they are short on cash. Once you’ve got the card you can simply add to it at a MetroLink station or one of the various bus transfer stations.

The other question becomes the existing card readers in the buses. They currently can note who has a valid weekly or monthly pass but it is unclear if they could be programed to both keep track of the fare paid for that bus route as well as subtract the amount from the holder’s card. Most likely they could not deduct the fare from the debit card. New card readers and the associated equipment in all the buses and at the stations may not be cost effective — the number of new riders to the system not justifying the capital expense.

The idea behind these concepts is to look at some new ways to get more people, like myself, that have several bikes a scooter and a new car to consider using transit. The more transit choice riders added to the system the better it can become for those that are transit dependent. Maybe these ideas have already been examined and rule out for any number of valid reasons?

Frequency and total travel time are probably the two biggest factors in determining whether someone takes transit or not. Beginning on Monday we will see greatly improved frequency between Forest Park in Missouri and Emerson Park in Illinois combined with reaching a whole new area of the region. These factors should contribute to many new transit riders. Still, we cannot discount convenience factors such as a debit card vs. exact change.

With the exception of the weekly and monthly passes, the light rail and bus service are very separate from a ticketing and perception point of view. Bus service has the ‘only for the poor’ stigma about it. Having a debit fare card that works on both systems might help bridge that perception gap.

What are your ideas, other than increase frequency, to bring in more riders to mass transit in our region?

– Steve


I’m Too Old For a Student Transit Pass

I keep telling myself that being just shy of 40 is not too old to return to college for a Masters. My first class in grad school starts a week from today. But, faced with hostel SLU safety officers that don’t like my scooter locked out of the way on the sidewalk and parking rates ranging from $145 to $1200+ a semester I’m considering bus transit to get me to my two classes this semester.

Sadly, our transit agency thinks I’m too old for a transit pass (source). In fact, I’ve been too old for the last 16 years! Ouch.

Full-time students age 23 and younger with a valid Student ID card who attend a registered school are eligible to purchase a Student Semester Pass for only $125.00 (valid for the fall 2006 semester)! Please check with your school to see if they are currently registered with Metro.

Well, I’m only part-time this Fall anyway. I did manage to save $2 at the Chase the other night by flashing my student ID when purchasing a ticket for The Devil Wears Prada.

On the plus side I will be able to qualify for the senior discount in just over 25 years. Assuming, that is, they don’t raise the senior age by the time I get there.

In truth my 15-week semester with two classes would require only $52.50 in bus fare per the new rates which take effect on August 28th — the day before my first class. I’m looking at biking to the #70 Grand bus and then using it to get to the SLU campus, biking the rest of way to class. Weather and energy permitting I may simply decide to bike home rather than taking the bus. Having my bike would give me the freedom to stop at the store and pick up a few items or head to a coffee house to study. From my door to class I estimate about 45 minutes via this method — about 15+ minutes longer than if I rode my scooter. Driving my car would also save time but there I run the risk of getting parking tickets if parked more than 90 minutes at a meter (the classes are 2.5 hrs long).

Taking the bus certainly looks good, even for us old students.

– Steve