Buy-Tap-Ride: Contactless Fares for Light Rail

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

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted transit providers to look for ways to reassure a pandemic-wary public that taking the bus or train is safe. On three light rail systems serving the New York City and Philadelphia metro areas, customers and employees still faced a fare system that required them to purchase paper tickets.

To build a better, safer experience, I made contactless, digital daily tickets for light rail a priority recommendation from the COVID-19 customer experience task force I led for NJ Transit. This helped me accelerate time-sensitive coordination with stakeholders throughout the organization to secure the resources and approvals to move ahead.

I assembled an ad hoc task digital ticketing 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 delivered contactless, digital fare-payment for more than 82,000 customers (source: Facts at a Glance, 2019) in seven weeks, start to finish.

The Paper-Ticket Two-Step

Before the introduction of contactless payment, riding the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, Newark Light Rail, or River Line connecting Camden and Trenton required 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 highlighted the potentially negative experience when mechanical validators malfunction or run out of ink. Left with an unvalidated ticket through no fault of their own, they worried whether a fare-enforcement officer would 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

When I began the light rail ticket project, the NJ Transit app already offered options to purchase digital tickets for bus and train service. To strengthen equity and ensure a consistent customer experience across all three transit modes, we decided to make light rail daily tickets available through the app.

To adhere to the existing “proof-of-payment”honor system for light rail, we designed the digital tickets on the app to 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.

We also developed technical requirements for future development of digital tickets that are auto-activated at the time of purchase. This option would ensure that people who are unfamiliar with the light rail systems are not penalized for forgetting to stamp their ticket.

Once activated, digital tickets match the validity of paper tickets: 60 minutes on Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and 75 minutes on the River Line. These time spans of ticket validity ensure a customer can make a complete, end-to-end trip on each line with time to spare.

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.

Putting digital daily ticket purchase and validation together in the app eliminated the separate, two-step customer experience for light rail. It cut down on confusion and inconvenience associated with finding a mechanical time stamper before boarding. It also gave customers great peace of mind by eliminating anxiety associated with the mechanical validators that could malfunction or run out of ink.

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 saw an opportunity to improve the customer experience by upgrading 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 professionals to deliver better fare payment with three goals:

  • 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.

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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