Buy, Tap, Ride: Easier Payment for 80,000 Riders

Spurred by COVID-19, the team I led updated NJ Transit’s app to streamline fare payment in just 7 weeks.

Successfully navigating two seemingly conflicting objectives—contactless fare payment in a no-turnstile light-rail system, and a more positive experience for 80,000 daily light-rail customers—I accomplished both as COVID-19 imposed new challenges on NJ Transit, the nation’s third-largest rail, bus, and light rail transit provider.

In short, I led digital fare-collection transformation of NJ Transit’s three light rail systems by gathering customer and employee input and assembling a “can do” team of colleagues that implemented the enhancement in seven weeks, start to finish.

Here were the three requirements for success:

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

What Customers Want

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 buy a paper ticket at a ticket vending machine, then step to a separate time-and-date-stamp machine to validate it for use on the next arriving light rail train. Customers told me that using two mechanical machines—and sometimes waiting in line to do so—forced them to miss their train.

Moreover, new light rail 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 told me 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.

Goodbye to the Paper-Ticket Two-Step

The paper-payment two step felt increasingly antiquated to customers. Most of NJ Transit’s customers already had embraced NJ Transit’s digital app to purchase bus and commuter rail tickets. The app enables them to buy daily and monthly tickets, and activate exact payment upon boarding a bus or train. COVID-19 accelerated the move to the no-contact digital experience that an app provides.

My discussions with customers and fare enforcement officers helped refine the design of the digital fare payment customer experience. Expanding light rail fare payment options with daily tickets in the NJ Transit app aligns with existing bus and train fare payment, ensuring a consistent customer experience across all three transit modes.

Putting light rail daily ticket purchase and validation in the app streamlines the two-step customer experience. To adhere to the existing honor system on 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 within the system’s fare-payment zones and before boarding light rail vehicles—rather than activating the app only when spotting a uniformed fare enforcement officer approaching down the aisle. Once activated, digital tickets match the validity of paper tickets.

Offering digital daily ticket purchase and validation in the app reduces confusion and inconvenience associated with finding a mechanical time stamper before boarding. It also eliminates customers’ anxiety when mechanical validators malfunction or run out of ink. Contactless fare payment and digital daily tickets give customers greater peace of mind.

Accelerating the All-in-One App

Recognizing that COVID-19 created a new urgency for contactless fare payment to protect customers and employees, I made digital daily tickets for light rail a priority recommendation from the COVID-19 task force I led. This helped me accelerate time-sensitive, tight coordination with stakeholders throughout the organization whose involvement was essential to delivering digital transformation.

  • Communications
  • Fare Enforcement
  • Finance
  • Government Relations
  • Graphic Design
  • Information Technology
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Planning
  • Point-of-Sale and Fare Collection
  • User Experience Design

We collaboratively defined the scope of software development, testing, and post-release messaging to let customers know about the new availability of digital daily light rail tickets in the NJ Transit app. 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.

The result of this coordination: we built a contactless fare payment experience for light rail customers in seven weeks.

Stewart Mader tests new daily digital tickets for light rail on the NJ Transit app.
Here I am: testing new daily digital tickets for light rail on the app ahead of launch.

Telling Customers about Contactless Fare Payment

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

On the NJ Transit app and website, messages promote the availability of daily digital tickets on the app, and answer frequently asked questions about the new enhancement. A press release provides key information for news media to cover the enhancement. Social media posts on the main NJ Transit accounts and light rail line accounts announce the availability of daily digital tickets for light rail, and emphasize this enhancement as part of the broader Safe NJ campaign.

In stations throughout all three light rail systems, digital announcements on platform, gate board, and kiosk monitors promote daily digital ticket availability in the app. Messages are also displayed on light rail ticket vending machine screens to let customers know that they can also pay fares conveniently using the app on their phone.

On-board light rail trains, interior vehicle cards promote the availability of daily digital tickets in the app. These 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, get 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.

Expanding the Constituency of Committed Customers

By successfully completing this project, I accomplished a goal to streamline the digital light rail fare payment customer experience that began when I first started using the system in 2013. My interest in streamlining digital fare payment was heightened during my five years helping PATH implement similar customer enhancements as chair of the PATH Riders Council, and learning from PATH customers whose trips connect to Hudson-Bergen Light Rail or Newark Light Rail. COVID-19 heightened the need for no-contact fare purchase and optimal fare collection, and my subsequent position as NJ Transit’s first customer advocate enabled me to champion light rail riders’ desire for a digital experience.

This project demonstrates how collaboration by a “can do” coalition of transit pros delivers an enhanced experience for more than 29 million annual customers. Giving light rail customers a fare payment experience that is on par with buses and trains, and making contactless fare payment available for all tickets, on all transit modes helps expand a growing customer base committed to using and promoting public transit.