A Complete Guide To Mobile Ticketing For Public Transportation

A Complete Guide To Mobile Ticketing For Public Transportation

We’ve covered a lot about mobile ticketing on this blog – from UX and UI to its key position in the MaaS adoption process. A few years ago, it seemed like something from out of a sci-fi movie; a gimmick that transit agencies considered a hook for younger generations only. We have come so far in our understanding that innovations like this one are indispensable! In this article, we will try to sum up everything we know (and what we don’t know) about mobile ticketing for public transportation – a colossal task but one we feel needs to be done!

In this article…

What is mobile ticketing?

So, first things first – what exactly is mobile ticketing? Mobile ticketing is the latest step in the evolution of fare collection. While we still use paper tickets and smart cards, tech companies quickly discovered the potential of one ubiquitous item we all carry around with us – our smartphone, and transformed it into a legitimate travel document with the help of special applications. The first transit agency to use mobile ticketing in the US was Boston’s MBTA in 2012. Since then, technology has come a long way, both in terms of smartphones and in terms of applications.

Mobile ticketing apps provide riders with a digital alternative to paper tickets and smart cards. Travel documentation is stored securely on the device or in a customer account accessible through the device. When needed, the rider pulls up their ticket (or pass) from the mobile app and validates their right to travel. As opposed to paper tickets and smartcards, patrons don’t need to acquire anything from the agency which can be a major barrier for infrequent riders or visitors to a city.

As years passed, mobile ticketing apps grew to be much more than mere digital tickets. We added other layers of useful functionalities (some even went over the top). Trip planning and real-time information, purchasing fares in-app, account management and history… Often, riders needed a few apps to access these functionalities until vendors like us managed to combine them into one unified app that makes the whole process of getting from A to B easier and more streamlined. A process you can forget about.

Mobile ticketing solutions for public transportation

While mobile ticketing is not something strictly confined to the public transportation industry, it seems like this is the best use case around (at least to us!). There are a few types of mobile ticketing technology to choose from:

Visual inspection

This is the simplest type of mobile ticketing. The rider uses the mobile ticketing app to start a journey and when prompted by inspectors, she can prove the right to travel by showing the inspector the active fare within the app. To bypass the challenges of riders using screenshots or screencasts of valid fares, tech developers came up with special forge-proof types of visual inspection cues. A downside of this type of mobile ticketing is that it gives limited data to the agency.

Barcodes and QR codes

This type of mobile ticketing relies on the generation of specific barcodes and QR codes within the app. To validate, riders need to scan them at validator machines equipped with a scanner or at fare gates. Alternatively, inspectors can check the fare by scanning its code with a handheld device. This technology is widely used and is very intuitive to riders. The only downside is that poor connectivity or low lighting can affect the scanning process and lead to validation issues. On the other hand, if connected to a robust analytics system, it can provide the agency with a treasure trove of data.


Like paying parking fees, some agencies allow their customers to request a ticket by sending a short message with a specific code or phrase to a designated number. In return, they get a message with a code they can use to validate their right to travel. Some agencies will use an MMS service to send barcodes for validation. With SMS-based mobile ticketing, the agency charges the rider’s mobile service provider. This type of technology is convenient for people who don’t possess a bank card or a smartphone but has its limitations such as the need for the transit agency to enter a partnership with the mobile service provider.


Near Field Communication is an up-and-coming technology that has a lot of potential in the public transportation industry. In this case, riders can purchase tickets with their smartphone at designated kiosks using the NFC function and digital wallets like Apple Pay or Android Pay. In exchange, they receive their travel documents within the mobile ticketing app. NFC can also be implemented in an open loop system where riders do not need to visit a kiosk but can buy their fare directly at the validator or fare gate. NFC is not currently available on all smartphones and some riders fear the potential for data theft. Still, this type of payment is becoming more and more popular.

Bluetooth Low Energy

The final type of mobile ticketing involves the Bluetooth standard for data transfer. Bluetooth LE is a variety that uses much less energy and while it is not as popular as NFC in the transit industry, there have been pilots proving its capabilities. With Bluetooth LE, beacons can be installed at fare gates or at the entrance of the vehicles and as the rider passes through, they validate their right to travel using data from the smartphone.

What are the benefits of mobile ticketing for public transportation?

So, what does mobile ticketing give riders that other types of fare collection do not? How about agencies? What is the unique selling point of the technology? We already know that user experience is a major driver of public transit adoption, but this is not the only reason why we need to move in this direction. Let’s sum up the benefits for riders and agencies and we will let you decide for yourself…

Mobile ticketing for public transportation: benefits for the riders

  • Cashless: mobile ticketing takes cash out of the daily trip. This means that riders don’t need to have exact change, handle coins in the hustle and bustle of public transit, wait in line to purchase a ticket from the driver, deal with incomprehensible and often glitchy ticket vending machines or kiosks.
  • Contactless and hygienic: riders touch fewer surfaces. This proved to be especially important during the pandemic. Contactless ticketing has been consistently trending in the transit industry in the past few years.
  • Native to most smartphone users: mobile ticketing is not an isolated technology; it is part of our digital literacy nowadays. Most riders already have a smartphone in their pockets and know how to find their way around different types of apps. Scanning a QR code is way quicker than having to punch a ticket on board a moving vehicle, right?
  • One app for all things transit: with integrated mobile ticketing apps, riders can plan and execute a trip within one and the same app. We now take real-time information for granted and expect it, and mobile ticketing apps need to provide it. Trip planning is another piece of the everyday puzzle that adds to the user experience and can be of incredible convenience to first-time users or infrequent users of a transit system. Buying a ticket and validating it with the same app saves a lot of time and makes the whole process more seamless.
  • Provides valuable data in real time: riders can receive not only real-time data about the arrival of their bus, but also about detours, disruptions in service that may affect them, or other news that the agency wants to push.

Mobile ticketing for public transportation: benefits for the agency

  • Fare flexibility: with mobile ticketing, agencies can quickly and easily implement and monitor different fare strategies. It is as easy as managing the inventory of an e-commerce store, and any changes are pushed to all devices simultaneously. Compare that to the task of printing and distributing new tickets and you will get our point.
  • Free fare media: yes, apart from the operational costs, mobile ticketing does not cost the agency a cent as a smartphone is a fare media purchased and owned by the riders. No more paper ticket printing, no more smart cards that get lost. This also makes mobile ticketing more environmentally friendly!
  • Quick deployment: implementation can take under six months thanks to the flexibility of the technology and the minimal need to upgrade old equipment. We can finally forget about transit projects that become obsolete by the time they are implemented.
  • Safe and secure: mobile ticketing applications need to adhere to strict security guidelines in order to be operational. The riders’ data is always protected, and payments need to be secured according to the highest available standards.
  • Regular updates: forget about having to manually update tons of ticket vending machines or fare gates – with mobile ticketing, updates are done overnight and only after they have been rigorously tested.
  • Data, lots of data: nowadays, we need data more than anything to improve transit performance. Mobile ticketing backed by a robust account-based system can generate an astonishing amount of data for the agency to use in their daily work.
  • White-labeling and customization: most vendors nowadays provide a white-label service that allows agencies to customize the app to their needs.

What are the challenges and how can we address them?

Now, it might seem that mobile ticketing is all the rage. The pandemic drove a wave of digitalization across the US transit landscape, but we are still far away from complete coverage. Some agencies still have not gotten up to speed with the need for innovation, while others struggle to convert paper tickets and smart card users to mobile ticketing. Still, we are seeing a surge in the demand for mobile tickets.

Let’s look at some of the blockers that prevent riders from adopting mobile ticketing.


Today, people are increasingly concerned about how companies manage and use their data. And this is to be expected – in the past few years, leaks have exposed how vulnerable some systems can be to hackers. The unpleasant truth is that most transit agencies don’t have cybersecurity measures in place, or even a disaster recovery plan. When choosing a digital fare collection and mobile ticketing system provider, agencies need to prioritize cybersecurity and make sure that the provider has a robust cybersecurity strategy in place.

When it comes to processing input from the system, transit agencies can make use of data streams to improve the service significantly. And riders need to be sure that their data is anonymized and protected so they don’t feel exposed.

Battery usage

As mundane as it is, most smartphones don’t boast a great battery – and the danger of the battery dying right when a rider needs to validate is real. In this scenario providing charging stations at bus stops might save someone’s day (apart from being a real convenience in our hectic lives).

Equal opportunities

Unfortunately, not everyone owns a smartphone and/or a bank card. In order to provide equal access to mobile ticketing for unbanked people, agencies need to make sure that rider accounts can be topped up via other methods – including cash.

Connectivity issues

In an always-connected world like ours it is the gravest sin to face connectivity issues, right? Sadly, there are many areas of the US where 4G/5G coverage is scarce which can lead to problems with mobile ticketing validations. To tackle such hiccups, digital fare collection platforms can implement protocols that help the system update itself as soon as it enters service.

An antidote to implementation costs

Transit authorities across the globe have experience with costly implementations and are risk-averse when it comes to new technology. That is easy to understand. From the perspective of a technology provider, we at Modeshift are confident that in the future, these costs will gradually be reduced and even disappear completely. Account-based ticketing platforms like ours provide all-in-one validator devices that can replace fareboxes, TVMs and whenever riders are ready – customer service desks. With their tickets in their phones, riders will be free to travel more easily across the public transit network and beyond (MaaS, we are looking at you!). This means that providing mobile ticketing can certainly be cheaper than the gargantuan legacy systems of the past.

Some of the challenges are easier to overcome than others and when choosing a provider, agencies need to look for one that is already familiar with operational issues and is constantly working to solve them.

Mobile ticketing in the future

Mobile phones are here to stay, mobile payments too. We have come to a place where we have the technology and we are refining it, exploring potential use cases such as MaaS. What about a quantum leap to new technology – like facial recognition, for example? It remains to be seen whether the advance in ICT will take us somewhere entirely new in the following years. In the meantime, we at Modeshift will continue working to bring account-based fare collection and mobile ticketing systems to as many riders as possible.


Mobile ticketing is the latest step in the evolution of fare collection. Tech companies quickly discovered the potential of one ubiquitous item we all carry around with us – our smartphone, and transformed it into a legitimate travel document with the help of special applications.
Benefits for riders: cashless, contactless and hygienic, native to most smartphone users, one app for all things transit, provides valuable data in real time. Benefits for the agency: fare flexibility, free fare media, quick deployment, safe and secure, regular updates, provides lots of data, customizable.
Mobile ticketing is quickly gaining traction as an easy substitute to regular fare collection media.