Mobility Lab Feature Story By Stewart Mader
When my family and I drove to Washington DC in 2019, we spotted an opportunity to bridge the difference between driving and transit. We realized there is a way to enhance transit fare payment in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.
Heading out from New Jersey, we had a simple goal. We wanted to see our nation’s capital, visit museums, walk the National Mall, and visit Alexandria, VA which has a lot in common with our current hometown of Hoboken. From New Jersey to DC, and every state in between, we were able to move seamlessly, and pay our tolls easily, all because of E-ZPass.
The little E-ZPass transponder mounted on our windshield makes driving convenient in seventeen states. So convenient, in fact, that E-ZPass processed $9B in tolls for 21.5 million customers in 2017. It’s all made possible by a group of transportation agencies who have equipped their highways, bridges, and tunnels with equipment to read the transponder, process tolls, and credit them to the appropriate member.
Once we paid those tolls and arrived, we put the car away for the weekend and planned to use the DC Metro to get around. But when we got to the turnstiles at the King Street station in Alexandria, we ran into a problem. Our MetroCards didn’t work. Neither, of course, did any of the other transit fare cards I carry: Boston CharlieCard, SEPTA Key, or PATH SmartLink card.
So we had to buy another – the DC SmarTrip card – three in fact, one for each person in our family over two years old. There’s a $2 fee for each one, and that’s before you add a balance or buy a daily or weekly pass. That’s one more card to squeeze in my already-bursting wallet, which is fast becoming like George’s Exploding Wallet of Seinfeld fame. You never know which one is going to make it all fall apart. As George’s irascible father Frank Constanza famously exclaimed, “There has to be a better way!”
Let’s look at other forms of payment. There’s no need to pick up a local credit or debit card each time we travel. That’s because payment networks like MasterCard, VISA, and American Express provide a shared payment platform. Merchants can accept cards with confidence that they’ll get paid, and customers can use the same card everywhere it’s accepted.
That’s where E-ZPass comes in. Imagine if your CharlieCard in Boston was an E-ZPass CharlieCard, linked to the E-ZPass network just like that transponder in your car. There are two things that make this feasible.
First, these systems are account-based. Your CharlieCard, SEPTA Key, or SmarTrip Card is linked to an online account that contains your balance, transaction history, and payment information to replenish it. That’s exactly how E-ZPass works too. I can log in to my E-ZPass account, update my payment info, choose a threshold at which E-ZPass automatically replenishes my balance so that I can pay tolls with ease and confidence. Since both types of platforms – new transit fare payment systems and E-ZPass – are account-based, linking them is largely a software project. One possible direction for this integration: E-ZPass could introduce support for Apple Pay, so that E-ZPass members can add their E-ZPass account to their iPhone alongside other payment methods.
Second, many of the agencies that are already members of E-ZPass directly operate toll facilities and transit, or are connected to the agencies that run transit. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees MTA New York City Transit, which operates the city’s subway and bus network, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels, which uses E-ZPass, creating a natural opportunity for collaboration on seamless payment. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is directly responsible for both the tolled Massachusetts Turnpike, and Boston’s T. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for the state’s toll facilities, is a sibling of the Maryland Transit Administration. Both are overseen by the Maryland Department of Transportation, creating another opportunity for interagency collaboration. Linking toll and transit payments would transform customer experience by eliminating a barrier to transit use, drive more customers to use transit, and help agencies save money on user fee collection.
As E-ZPass connects transit, the convenience of using transit throughout the seventeen-state region will mirror the ease of driving that E-ZPass customers enjoy today. A Chicagoan can use a Ventra card while visiting Boston, a Pittsburgher can use a Port Authority ConnectCard while visiting Philadelphia, and a Bostonian can use a CharlieCard when in DC. As agencies throughout the E-ZPass region continue to introduce new fare payment platforms, like the OMNY from New York’s MTA, Indianapolis’ IndyGo, and Cincinnati’s Cincy EZRide, integrating these new platforms with E-ZPass from the start will accelerate adoption.
In addition to the new convenience, here is another reason why this transit fare payment idea’s time has come. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report in 2018 that calls for unprecedented action to keep warming below the 1.5°C threshold above which the most damaging effects of climate change will be inescapable. Transportation accounts for 28 percen of worldwide energy demand, and 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that directly contribute to atmospheric warming.
To reduce transportation’s impact on climate change, the UN report specifically calls for a greater switch from cars to buses and trains: “it is primarily the switching of passengers and freight from less- to more-efficient travel modes (e.g., cars, trucks and airplanes to buses and trains) that is the main strategy.” Enabling seamless transit fare payment will add a new chapter to the E-ZPass success story. It will accelerate the transition to more diverse mobility options. It will better balance use of roads and rails. It will further boost quality of life. It will benefit our environment.