With the advent of smart phones and — perhaps more importantly — the eponymous ‘apps’ that are inexorably intertwined with them, phones now do more in many ways than desktop computers.
A recent wrinkle (at least here in the United States) to cell phone technology is near field communication (NFC). NFC-enabled phones are able to transmit data wirelessly over a short distance (~4 inches). Sure this doesn’t sound like a big deal when you have a phone that accesses the Internet and allows you to email and tweet your thoughts to anyone in the world, but for NFC it’s not the distance that matters, it’s the data.
Already in wide use in Asia, NFC-enabled phones have been tested in San Francisco with BART riders as a method of payment. The test phones had a chip placed in them that stored the same information as a farecard. All the passengers needed to do was tap their cards on a BART gate and they could enter the system.
Now the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) and the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit are using the same technology in a different way — making sure their riders have already paid the fare.
Both the BART pilot and the LA and Twin Cities programs are the result of cooperation with Cubic, using the company’s fare collection technology as the basis, as Jane Matsumoto, Metro’s deputy executive officer, and Metro Transit’s senior manager of revenue operations, Tom Randle, explain.
For both Metro and Metro Transit, using a handheld device for inspecting farecards isn’t something new — it’s just that the new technology has made their jobs easier.
“This is our second generation handheld validation device,” Matsumoto says. “The original one was bulkier.
“It was cumbersome for our fare inspectors and uniformed law enforcement officers to carry this around. In fact our uniformed officers could not carry it because of its bulk.”
“It kind of looked like the thing stores use when they do inventory and they point this gun at a bar code,” says Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit’s director of customer services.
Both agencies were looking for something smaller and more reliable for their employees to use.
“It is just a far more convenient way to travel around the system with a cell phone device,” Matsumoto says.
“They are compact and lightweight and easy to carry. They hold a charge for the working day that the officers need to use them, so they are always available. And they are relatively speedy at reading a card, so they’ve really done well for us,” says Randle.
“One of the biggest concerns with our uniformed officers is that they just simply do not have real estate on their belt buckles to get anything else on there,” Matsumoto says.
“The older ones were very large. They were probably about 8 inches by about 4 inches and they were about an inch and a half thick so they were just too cumbersome.
“It required you to carry it in your hand. Well, if you are a fare inspector that is part of your job, but if you are a law enforcement officer, your hands have to be free. You can’t have something in your hand.
“Now with the NFC technology with the cell phone they are able to carry it in their pockets,” Matsumoto says.
Another benefit both Randle and Matsumoto pointed to was the ability of the new cell phones to download and upload information remotely. The previous handheld devices had to be placed in a base each night to download the information stored in it.
Putting It to Work
While the NFC technology in the phones is what makes all this possible, it’s the phone’s color screen that helps Metro the most.
“Our original handheld devices only displayed in black and white, but the cell phone enables us to use [its color screen,] and when a TAP card is tapped to the phone, if it’s an invalid card or somehow compromised, the display screen immediately glows red. If it’s a good validation the officer doesn’t have to read anything, it glows green,” Matsumoto explains.