As ubiquitous as automatic fare collection systems are, they might seem like magic to some people. You tap a card to the reader at the faregate and it opens – just like in the well-known story about Ali Baba (there’s no magic word, though)! We have already demystified the magic in a number of posts on this blog, but why not go further and explore automated fare collection systems and their components in depth?
What Is Fare Collection?
Fare collection is the process of collecting fares in exchange for the use of a public transportation system. It is an important part of public transportation not only because it generates revenue for transit operators but because it also has the potential to provide insights into transit usage patterns which lead to service improvements.
A fare collection system uses various fare media to collect fares from passengers. These may include magnetic stripe cards, barcode tickets, contactless smart cards (such as bank cards), mobile phones, or even key fobs. Some of them can be purchased or topped up at ticket vending machines, service desks, and even at various retailers. On the receiving end, inside the public transit system itself, are validators and readers that pass the ‘magic word’ toward a special back office. In some areas, this role is still reserved for the driver.
What Is Automated Fare Collection?
An Automated Fare Collection System (AFCS) is a combination of hardware, software, and communication systems that allow passengers to purchase tickets or passes and validate them. Those types of systems are used to manage the entire fare collection process, from ticket sales to validation, and to provide passengers with a reliable and secure way to pay their fares. AFCSs have been used in public transportation since the 1960s. The earliest known system was introduced in New York City where commuters used a token-based system to pay for their journeys. This system was replaced by a magnetic stripe card system in 1995, which evolved into the use of smart cards and automatic fare collection today.
AFCSs offer many advantages for both passengers and transit operators. For passengers, the process of buying a ticket or pass and validating it is simplified. Instead of waiting in line to buy tickets from a customer service desk, passengers can simply top up their card at a ticket vending machine and then tap it to the special reader when boarding the bus. Furthermore, these systems often offer discounted daily, weekly and monthly passes, making public transportation a more affordable option.
For transit operators, AFCS are also cost-effective and reliable since they eliminate the need for manual fare collection, which can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. The system also helps to reduce fraud and can be used to track passenger usage and provide data for transit operators. Automated fare collection systems can also help boost ridership numbers by reducing dwell times, reducing crime on vehicles and at stations, and improving the overall efficiency of the service as transit operators can better monitor passenger flow through their systems and adjust schedules and routes accordingly.
Overall, automated fare collection systems have revolutionized the way we pay for public transportation, making it easier, faster, and more secure. With their increasing popularity, they are sure to become an even more important part of the public transportation experience in the years to come, turning to account-based models and open payment.
What Are The Most Important Features Of An AFC System?
Automated fare collection systems have become a part of our everyday life – not only on public transit systems but also for parking, entertainment, and more. There are many different types of AFC technologies available for use in cities around the world, but they all share some common features. These include:
- Equipment that allows users to purchase fares and passes: ticket vending machines, service desks, integrated reader/validator equipment, web portals, and mobile ticketing applications.
- Equipment that allows users to validate their fares and passes: readers at faregates and turnstiles, onboard validators, handheld devices, and mobile applications used for inspection purposes.
- Communication panel and back office: a panel inside the equipment that carries out the connection between the equipment and the AFC system’s back office. This might be a Wi-Fi modem, an LTE/3G/4G or recently – a 5G transmitter, depending on the type of connection needed (some systems use real-time communication, some systems connect to the back end only while the vehicle is at the depot). Some systems also require a GPS panel to track location data.
Let’s take a look at some of these in detail.
Components Involved In Fare Payments
Ticket Vending Machines
A TVM is a self-service machine that allows passengers to purchase tickets or passes quickly and easily. TVMs are typically placed at stations and are used to dispense tickets or passes or top up prepaid cards. The TVM usually accepts cash, debit cards, or credit cards as payment, making it even more convenient for riders. When compared to regular human-operated service desks, TVMs have many advantages for both passengers as well as transit operators. They can help increase riders’ satisfaction by removing interactions at service windows, plus since they can operate 24/7 TVMs can help transit operators be more flexible without putting an extra strain on their workforce. Further, TVMs are usually located at places with high foot traffic – platforms and stations – making them perfect for airing ads and travel promos, allowing for an extra revenue stream for transit operators. Unfortunately, they also have their shortcomings – they are expensive to purchase and even more expensive to maintain as they are frequent subjects of vandalism (as well as technical malfunctions).
Customer service windows
Nowadays, customer service windows are usually reserved only for important locations like transit hubs and high-traffic stations. The service desk operator can assist not only with ticket sales but also with general help with the system, troubleshooting, and information. Customer service windows can be digitalized with the help of equipment that connects them to the AFCS’s back office – allowing for smart card issuing and top-ups.
Web portals and mobile ticketing applications
Mobile ticketing applications and web portals are the latest development in the fare collection industry. They allow riders to quickly and easily purchase fares and passes and top up their accounts (in an account-based fare collection system). This can happen 24/7 and without ever visiting a service window.
It will be unfair not to mention the types of fare media currently in use.
- Smart cards: magstripe or NFC, smart cards are here to stay for the foreseeable future. They store or process the rider data and enable people to validate quickly with a single tap or swipe.
- Smartphones: today, almost everyone owns a smartphone so smart transit mobile applications make validations a breeze with their secure dynamic QR code generation mechanisms. Why get a separate fare media when you can use your own phone?
- Paper tickets: the trusted classic. Paper tickets also have their place in an automated fare collection system – modern ones have a QR code that can be scanned just as quickly as the QR code from a mobile app.
- Smart wearables: validation with a smartwatch? Why not!
Components involved in validation (proof-of-fare)
The proof-of-fare system includes components such as fare gates, validators, and readers. Fare gates (or turnstiles) are used to control access to the transit system by ensuring that passengers have valid fare media, such as tickets or cards before they even enter the station itself. Validators are mostly used as onboard devices (or sometimes at platforms) and operate in the same way just without the physical barrier part. Handheld readers are used by inspectors to determine if the passenger has a valid fare while traveling.
Back office: software & hardware
The back office system consists of software and hardware components that are used to manage the transit system’s fare collection processes and the data it gathers. Back office systems handle tasks such as billing, data management, and reporting. They also keep track of customer data and provide reports on performance metrics. Legacy systems relied heavily on on-premises solutions (hardware) to operate but nowadays, cloud-based solutions are increasingly the norm as they make real-time communication easier and enable a host of transit agency management tasks to be carried out in one back office.
These components together form the backbone of an automated fare collection system, ensuring that passengers can easily purchase tickets and passes and that transit operators can effectively manage their fare collection processes. With these components in place, operators can ensure that their public transportation systems remain efficient and profitable.
In short, a fare collection system is much more than just the hardware that riders see. It involves complex software development and integration and requires extensive testing before deployment. The technology behind these systems is constantly evolving and becoming more advanced, which means that transit operators will be able to offer more advanced services to their passengers and have more control over their fare collection process. At the end of the day, automated fare collection systems are about improving customer experience, and increasing revenue for operators and society at large while reducing costs at various touch points in the public transport value chain.