Buy, Tap, Ride: Building Faster, Safer Fare Payment for 80,000 Transit Riders

Spurred by COVID-19, I delivered contactless, digital fare payment in just seven weeks.

COVID-19 created a new urgency to reassure a pandemic-wary public that taking the bus or train is safe. Customers and employees on three light rail systems in the New York City and Philadelphia metro areas still faced a , I made contactless, digital daily tickets for light rail a priority recommendation from the COVID-19 task force I led for NJ Transit. This helped me accelerate time-sensitive, tight coordination with stakeholders throughout the organization, assemble a digital ticketing task force, and deliver contactless, digital fare-payment for light rail customers in seven weeks, start to finish.

Here were the three requirements for success:

  • Strengthen customer confidence in transit by removing a COVID-19 concern about hand-to-hand or shared surface contact with fare payment equipment.
  • Deliver a timely customer experience enhancement to ensure consistency across three demographically and geographically diverse light rail systems.
  • Optimize revenue collection in compliance with established policies for a turnstile-free honor system, Title VI inclusion, and ADA accessibility.

The Paper-Ticket Two-Step

Until the end of July 2020, riding the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, Newark Light Rail, or River Line (between Trenton and Camden) entailed two steps for every trip. A customer needed to:

  1. Buy a paper ticket at a ticket vending machine.
  2. Stamp the ticket at a separate time-and-date machine to validate it for use on the next arriving light rail train.

Customers reported that using two mechanical machines—and sometimes waiting in line to do so—forced them to miss their train. Moreover, new customers often thought that purchasing a ticket was enough to ride light rail. Only when one of the fare-enforcement officers who randomly ride the honor-system service appeared and asked for a validated ticket did newcomers realize their error.

Customers also shared their concern that when mechanical validators malfunction or run out of ink, they are left with an unvalidated ticket. With a no-time-stamp ticket, they worry whether a fare-enforcement officer will believe them or impose a fine. These factors can influence customers to consider competing alternatives like ride-hailing apps.

Accelerating the All-in-One App

Discussions with customers and fare enforcement officers helped refine the design of the digital fare payment customer experience. Since most customers already use NJ Transit’s digital app to purchase bus and rail tickets, adding light rail daily tickets to the app creates a more consistent customer experience across all three transit modes.

To accelerate this move, I assembled an ad hoc task force with team members from communications, fare enforcement, finance, government relations, graphic design, information technology, light rail service delivery, marketing, planning, point-of-sale and fare collection, and user experience design. We collaboratively defined the scope of software development, testing, and post-release messaging to customers.

We worked together to build the new light rail customer experience in the app, then conducted internal “alpha” testing to ensure it worked as designed. We then expanded validation with a beta release to 1% of iOS users and 5% of Android users, before ramping up general availability of the new app in the Apple App Store and Google Play ahead of the public announcement on July 28, 2020.

Stewart Mader tests new daily digital tickets for light rail on the NJ Transit app.
Testing new daily digital tickets for light rail on the app ahead of launch.

To adhere to the existing honor system, light rail digital tickets on the app become valid for travel three minutes after activation. This pause is to ensure that customers adhere to the policy of activating tickets before boarding a light rail train. Once activated, digital tickets match the validity of paper tickets.

Putting digital daily ticket purchase and validation together in the app eliminates the separate, two-step customer experience for light rail. It cuts down on confusion and inconvenience associated with finding a mechanical time stamper before boarding. It also eliminates customers’ anxiety when those mechanical validators malfunction or run out of ink. Contactless fare payment and digital daily tickets give customers greater peace of mind.

Getting Customers Onboard with Contactless Payment

To tell customers about this new, more convenient way to pay, we prepared a high-impact communication campaign spanning the website, social and news media, stations, ticket vending machines, and the interior advertising spaces on light rail trains.

Platform displays, ticket vending machine screens, and interior advertising cards on light rail trains let customers know that they can pay fares conveniently using the app on their phone. The interior cards, seen by customers while riding light rail, are an important way to inform customers in an environment where they have ample time to read the message, download the app, and familiarize themselves with the new fare payment option.

To ensure that staff who regularly interact with customers are informed of the new enhancement, an updated tariff bulletin provides essential information for light rail fare enforcement officers, bus operators, train conductors, ticket office personnel, and other frontline staff.

A Can-Do Coalition Delivers for Customers

When I first started using NJ Transit light rail as a customer in 2013, I knew if I ever had an opportunity to improve the customer experience, I would upgrade the paper-based ticket system. My interest in streamlining digital fare payment was heightened during my five years as chair of the PATH Riders Council. Learning from PATH customers whose trips connect to Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and Newark Light Rail heightened the need, in my mind, for streamlined fare payment.

Once I joined NJ Transit as its first chief customer experience officer, I built a “can do” coalition of transit pros. We gave light rail customers a fare payment experience that is on par with buses and trains, reassured riders with safer payment options in a pandemic, and made transit easier to use at every step of the customer journey.

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