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Vancouver’s Compass Card, still in tests after two years. Typical for transit smart cards or no?

April 13th, 2015 · 19 Comments

Transit smart cards are the in thing these days, I’ve discovered. Everyone wants them, in order to keep tabs on how transit is getting used and to give customers all the options they want for paying things these days.

Even systems that installed earlier versions, like Washington and Chicago, are upgrading their systems so they can expand to more modes and more ways of payment. (The hot thing these days is making sure systems have the capability to accept payments from bank and credit cards, not just a transit-only loaded-value card.)

I took a look around and called some people in the business for a story I did in the wake of the announcement about TransLink’s plan to roll out the card to another 130,000 people — university students — by September, bringing the total number of cards in use to 215,000. Still nowhere near the 1.2-million users a day but not peanuts.

It was interesting to find out that Calgary, for example, actually ended the contract with its vendor after years of not getting the system going and then had to go back because there weren’t any other options. And they’re still waiting, after about as many years as Vancouver. Other systems have rolled out their cards to everyone early, i.e. in Chicago, and then had some disastrous glitches that enraged people.

What I got from several long conversations was that it’s not always easy to tell from the outside who is the real problem: the transit agency for asking for too much? or the contractor for promising too much and then not delivering?

Sometimes it’s neither, consultants said — more a question of both sides constantly upgrading the functionality as things change in their worlds or discovering that something that worked in three other cities doesn’t work here.



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