A 21st Century Approach to Fare Collection

Sept. 22, 2021
Contactless fare payment technology, such as mobile ticketing, gives transit agencies a future-proof solution that provides more flexibility and a more convenient, equitable customer experience.

The pandemic has already highlighted how contactless fare payment technology can contribute to a cleaner and safer environment. However, the technology offers transit agencies a host of other benefits, including access to more accurate data, streamlined boardings, simplified fare structures and a more flexible and future-proof solution. 

“The realization was that mobile ticketing was the technology we really needed to embrace. At the time, this is going back four or five years ago, where we thought that it was way advanced for what we needed. With every year that passed, we realized how much we needed [it]” said Cory Shrigley, customer support and engagement manager, city of Saskatoon, transit. 

Saskatoon Transit’s TGO Creates Opportunities for New Fare Products 

As Saskatoon Transit’s fareboxes reached the end of their useful life, the agency was going to simultaneously think about new solutions while conducting a fare review with the public. 

“COVID affected that a lot,” said Tracey Davis, Access Transit manager, city of Saskatoon, transit. 

Since the pandemic affected public outreach for the fare review, Saskatoon Transit launched its new fare payment system in phases instead of rolling out as a complete package with new fare products. The first phase introduced the TGO mobile app, which was rolled out June 2021, a little more than a year after the agency had awarded a contract to work with Masabi on the new technology. 

“The first phase was always to get that TGO mobile app up and running and get it into the hands of our riders,” Davis explained. 

The app offers customers a mobile ticketing option, which was also integrated into Transit, thanks to Masabi’s partnership with the app company. Also included in the first phase was integrating the local university’s U-Passes as a mobile ticketing option. 

The second phase will focus on expanding partnerships to businesses, high schools and a social service program to integrate their respective passes into the mobile ticketing platform as well. Riders will also be able to add transit value at partner vendor locations or via the web platform 

In addition to more partnerships, the next phase will involve launching account-based ticketing and offering a new smart card. This will be contingent on when thorough public engagement can be completed for the fare review and when the agency is able to present recommendations to the city council. 

“The flexibility of contactless solutions and account-based solutions are opportunities to inspect fare policy and fare equity decisions, especially as a way to respond to riders coming back to public transportation,” said Sara Poulton, head of services, Masabi. 

While these modernized products will benefit many riders, Saskatoon Transit emphasizes it will maintain onboard cash payments. But something that could benefit everyone is the fare capping feature that could be rolled out in a later phase. 

“That will be tied to the fare review, which will be about an eight-month public engagement where we’ll meet with the public and do a complete review of our fare products and pricing,” Shrigley explained. “Then that will prepare us for setting some new fare rates and open the door for fare capping.” 

Along with the possibility of new fare products, the new fare payment system also provides Saskatoon Transit with more accurate, real-time data, informing the agency to make better decisions such as providing better services or offering the right fare products. Part of this means making it easier for people to access the products they need. 

“We envisioned [the new fare payment system] to create new partnerships with leisure services with other city departments, where we could see perhaps a loyalty card or some sort of a package that will involve a transit pass. The door is opening for us to make a transit pass more readily available to everyone in the city,” Davis said. 

To Travel Seamlessly and Conveniently with HOLO 

The Department of Transportation Services (DTS) for the city and county of Honolulu recently eliminated all paper passes as it completed its transition to the HOLO card. HOLO, a Hawaiian word meaning to travel, is an account-based ticketing system with a smart card where information is stored on a central system. For now, the card can be used on the fixed-route bus system. 

“We also plan the HOLO card to be a strategic card for Honolulu. We are committed to trying to ultimately expand into parking and a few other things that are related to public transportation,” said J. Roger Morton, director, DTS. 

There are also hopes to expand the system to the paratransit service, as well as the fixed guideway rail system that is expected to open in 2022, creating seamless transfers between transportation modes. The rail system will only be accessible with the HOLO card, which fueled the timeline and decision to eliminate paper passes and rollout HOLO cards to different groups of customers. 

For example, DTS has been transitioning its reduced-fare senior cards and fixed-route disability cards to HOLO cards over the past two years, and a new HOLO card will come July 1, 2022, since the city council approved a new low-income fare. 

The HOLO card can also be issued as payroll deductions or subsidized cards by HR departments via a website for local government agencies and businesses. 

“HR [departments] in these organizations can manage those cards themselves. We see it as another area where we can make continued inroads. We’ve got most of the major employers, the hotels, the banks, the hospitals, but we haven’t got them all,” Morton said. 

More convenient fare offerings are just one benefit. DTS has also implemented fare capping for its daily and monthly passes, as well as reinstating free transfers, which had been eliminated due to complexities of paper passes. 

The new HOLO system has been embraced by bus operators since it is a much simpler fare structure. 

“Prior to this, we had probably about 35 different fare instruments that drivers had to keep track of. And now, they don’t have to worry about that little obscure type of fare that they only see once a year or something like that,” Morton said. 

Ultimately, Morton says his goal is for the system is to go completely cashless, but he notes this is years away and would require overcoming several barriers. For now, a more attainable expansion would be to turn on open payments. This would allow riders to tap-to-pay with contactless credit and debit cards instead of using the HOLO card. 

“We’re looking at doing that and particularly in our visitor markets with our tourists. If we can figure out a way that they don’t have to obtain a card and they can directly use a credit card, we’ll probably make more money that way. And we’ll make it more convenient for the customers as well,” Morton said. 

NJ Transit Pilot Leads to Streamlined Boarding 

Michael Kilcoyne, senior vice president of surface transit for New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit), says he and his team developed the idea of using off-board fare collection at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Port Authority) Bus Terminal for Route No. 126 during weeknight evening peaks to help improve the customer experience by generating more consistent and timely bus service, as well as eliminating large queues of passengers. 

“Because of that high volume of traffic in that very constrained environment, the ability to land a bus on a platform when you have five-to-seven-minute departures off the same platform is difficult and really can be enhanced by loading a bus quicker,” Kilcoyne explained. 

Right now, Kilcoyne says it typically takes more than three minutes to load a full bus of passengers. On top of that, customers may sometimes have to wait for two buses to come through before they can finally board. 

“So, the concept of having customers pay their fare while they’re waiting for the bus to arrive [is] certainly something that seems to make sense because our focus has been on increasing the throughput through the terminal without adding buses,” Kilcoyne said. 

Instead of more buses, NJ Transit is using articulated buses for several bus routes. With this increased capacity and off-board fare collection, boarding times can be cut in half. For example, during a recent Friday there was an incident in the Lincoln Tunnel, delaying some buses’ arrival. When the bus arrived, it took one minute and 15 seconds to board a full bus. Comparatively, it took two minutes and 22 seconds to do the same thing on Route 128 in the traditional boarding manner. 

“One of the next phases of the pilot is to adjust the doors on the gates at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, so that customers can access both the front and rear door when they board, which will decrease that boarding time even more,” Kilcoyne said. 

Kilcoyne adds the agency is finding the pilot to be successful, with the expectation to expand this to other routes that have similar constrained timeframes with large numbers of passengers. 

“There are probably 10 other routes that we are interested in pursuing. A lot of the timing of that will fall on post COVID-19 ridership levels. So, it’s obvious the benefit, but to really see the impact to the queues in the terminal we need to see those post pandemic numbers rise before we start to expand the project,” Kilcoyne said. 


Whether it’s a new app with mobile ticketing, account-based smart cards or a new way to collect payment, the opportunities for fare collection seem endless. 

“There are so many benefits when transforming to digital experience with more ways to provide digital ticketing, whether through an agency mobile app, through retail networks or through other applications like ride-share or trip planners. Getting key user groups involved in the transition process helps build the grass roots confidence in the new solution,” concluded Poulton. 

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.