Raleigh looks to modernize bus fare payments

ccampbell@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2013 

— Most Capital Area Transit bus riders still pay their fares with the same method they’ve used since buses first rolled down city streets: offering a few coins or a dollar bill as they hop on board.

Don’t have exact change or need to pay with a credit card? You’re out of luck, unless you’re at one of two bus ticket stations. And don’t even think about buying a bus ticket online.

Last week, a Raleigh City Council committee began talks about how to modernize the bus fare system. Transit director David Eatman says he’s looking at the latest technology for bus fares: swiping a smartphone on the bus to pay for the $1 ride. “It may offer an alternative for a demographic that’s smartphone savvy,” he said.

The topic surfaced after a much simpler request from Craig Ralph, a member of the Raleigh Transit Authority. Ralph called for the city to offer prepaid cards – reloadable online by credit card and similar to cards offered by Starbucks – that could be used on buses and at city pools and recreation facilities.

“In today’s environment, we need to make (the bus) easier for people to use,” Ralph said. “We could reload our pool passes, we could reload our weight room passes, we could reload our bus passes, and make it more convenient for the city in general.”

In the short term, Raleigh is looking to partner with the Triangle Transit Authority, the regional bus service, to use its online pass sales platform. Upgrading the buses themselves, however, would be costly; the current fare equipment only reads magnetic strips.

“You have to figure out what is the cost of that infrastructure,” said Robin Rose, who works in the city’s finance department. “It would take awhile to get there.”

And Eatman said he’s not sure the majority of CAT riders would switch to prepaid cards or smartphone payments. While passes for multiple rides have been sold for years at Harris Teeter stores and the Moore Square bus station, the majority of riders don’t use them, he said.

“We have a large number of individuals that use cash, one trip at a time,” he said.

Despite those challenges, the council committee issued a recommendation to begin work on new payment systems. The committee asked city staff to continue researching smartphone payments and a Triangle Transit partnership and work toward a pilot program for smartphones following an upcoming study of R-Line ridership. The full City Council was expected to approve the plans Tuesday.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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