Public Transportation Automatic Fare Collection & Interoperability

Public Transportation Automatic Fare Collection & Interoperability

There are several buzzwords every transit professional is currently bombarded with: multimodality, MaaS, open payments, sustainability… Automatic fare collection interoperability is certainly on this list, but it may be more important than we think. Why?  

Transit systems, especially automated ones, were built to be self-sufficient. But then, as new technologies started appearing on the transit scene, each trendier than the other, agencies started competing for implementing improvement over improvement on systems that weren’t compatible with other systems. Working solutions were found every time, and every time there was a cost.

A cost that became all too apparent with the advent of account-based automatic fare collection systems that promised to unify a fragmented transit world into one that operates seamlessly. In the past ten years, a host of entirely new solutions has swept the mobility market and offered way more modes of transportation than any urbanist could have imagined. But an outdated view on mobility and a heap of legacy equipment might be standing between us and the new, interoperable future that lies ahead. Here’s what we think it will look like. 

What is electronic fare collection? 

First things first…  

An electronic fare collection system is a digitalized version of a traditional fare collection system. Instead of paper tickets and punchers, modern transit agencies use systems that offer various digital options such as smart cards and mobile applications.  

Electronic fare collection systems consist of a few components such as a back office where rider data is stored, ticket vending machines, validators, fare gates, etc. They have been around since the last century and have evolved quite dramatically over the past 20 years with the advent of smartphones and account-based services. 

Account-based fare collection is the most recent and most convenient way to both manage a transit system and make use of it. Both agency and riders benefit from the centralized, often cloud-based solution that makes riding public transport a breeze. How? 

In an account-based electronic fare collection system, agencies get a feature-rich, user-friendly back office where they can easily adjust fares and monitor a large variety of analytics. On the other end, riders get a diversity of purchasing options (cash, mobile applications, bank cards and others), as well as validation options (paper tickets, smart cards, mobile applications and others). This leads to a more streamlined transit experience, shorter dwell times at stops and a cleaner, safer environment. 

Automating the process of purchase and validation has been proven to improve the customer experience and the ease of use of a transit system – thus attracting new riders on board. 

How does an automated fare collection system work? 

Automated fare collection systems provide riders with their preferred purchase and validation methods via several components.  

  • Riders can pay for their fares with bank cards (open loop payments), mobile applications, at ticket vending machines, or at service windows. They can top up their smart cards, or in the case of an account-based system – automatically reload funds to their account which is connected to their preferred validation media. 
  • Riders can validate their fares using their preferred fare media: smart card, mobile application, bank card, smart wearable, etc. 

In such a system, ticket validation usually happens at a fare gate or at an onboard validator. Sometimes, visual inspection is needed. 

Integration, interoperability, compatibility  

Now that we have brushed up on your knowledge of fare collection systems, let’s turn to the main course – automatic fare collection interoperability.  

“Interoperability is the ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information.” 

In the context of urban mobility, this term takes on a broader meaning to include communication not only between an agency’s owned systems and third-party providers but also between a larger network of companies that have partnered together to form a Mobility-as-a-Service ecosystem. But there is a difference between interoperability and its siblings – integration and compatibility. 

Imagine two scenarios. The first is a transit agency that decides to purchase a new component for their system – an add-on, or replace an existing component with a new one, from a new provider. The new provider needs to be able to integrate with the existing components of the system or prove to be compatible with them.  

In the second scenario, a public transit agency that operates a bus fleet might want to partner with a micromobility provider for its first mile/last mile needs. For this to happen, both systems must communicate in real time so that riders can use one ticket for both transit modes. What’s more, the data gathered from both modes can be used to paint a fuller picture of the city’s transit needs. This is interoperability

What makes a system interoperable? 

Interoperability occurs when two (or more) systems exchange, access and understand data shared between them. For this to happen, the data must be in a specific format and follow specific protocols, and both systems must be built so that they can read and utilize the data for their respective purposes in real time. Just like with GTFS feeds that support RTPI systems.  

To make this happen, interoperable systems use open architectures, or open APIs (application programming interfaces). This allows software engineers to build systems that can talk to each other and understand each other.  

You can say that automatic fare collection and interoperability go hand in hand for a number of reasons…

What are the benefits of interoperability? 

In a fast-paced world like ours, open architectures are becoming more and more important. Gone are the days when an agency could risk buying outrageously expensive new hardware only for it to be able to work for a few years before becoming obsolete – not to mention unavailable to micromobility partners. Interoperability aims to solve this (as well as a host of other problems) by making a transit system flexible and adaptable.  

Another important benefit is the ability of interoperable systems to generate vast amounts of data – amounts that are unimaginable for a system that works on its own. Several data streams can combine to create a powerful dashboard in which city authorities can quickly and efficiently spot trends and improvement opportunities.  

Lastly, interoperability provides the end user – the rider, with a world of new opportunities to use public transit and other services for one seamless ride from A to B. This is extremely important in our fight against global warming as it makes ditching one’s personal vehicle more probable (a notoriously difficult endeavor).  

Modeshift & interoperability 

At Modeshift, we began the journey to building an urban mobility platform with integration, compatibility and interoperability in mind. Our platform is hardware- and media-agnostic, which means it can integrate with almost any existing transit system without the need for costly hardware replacements. Components of the platform can work with available data streams. 

Modeshift’s Urban Mobility Platform provides all the necessary infrastructure for a MaaS ecosystem to be deployed – we have already partnered with cities on their parking solutions. The robust Analytics dashboard we provide is a treasure trove for public transit agencies and you can only imagine what a micromobility integration will bring to the table! 

Automatic fare collection interoperability: in a nutshell… 

If you are searching for a new urban mobility infrastructure provider, one of the first things you need to consider is if they are built to be interoperable. At the speed of current evolution in the industry, this is the best futureproofing you can get – insurance against being left behind in the modernization of the sector.