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TriMet hopes new ticket app clicks with bus, rail commuters

Free mobile app is first step toward paperless ticketing


by: COURTESY TRIMET/GLOBALSHERPA - TriMets mobile app displays puchases (left) and then becomes the ticket when they are used. It is being field tested now.TriMet will consider moving the transit system to paperless ticketing later this summer.

The agency’s board is scheduled to take up the issue at its July 24 meeting. The proposal being prepared by staff would allow all bus and rail tickets to be purchased on electronic devices such as cell phones and smart cards.

Although cash would still be accepted, it has not yet been decided what kind of receipt would be issued.

Electronic ticketing would be more convenient for riders and reduce administrative and operating costs to the agency, according to Chris Tucker, TriMet’s director of revenue operations.

“Consumers are already paying electronically for purchases for many reasons, and TriMet is considering becoming an early adopter of such technology among transit agencies,” Tucker says. According to Tucker, although electronic ticketing is common in Europe and China, in the United States it is only being used on a Boston commuter rail line and a New York ferry system.

Tucker estimates the change initially would cost TriMet between $20 million and $30 million, however. The union representing TriMet employees already has criticized the potential expense as unnecessary, given the agency’s budget problems. Amalgamated Transit Union 757 officials have accused TriMet of raising fares and ending free rides last year to fund the project.

“Who decided that our transit system had to be the most newfangled one in the country? Shouldn’t our primary focus be the passengers and the good of the community?” asked Bruce Hansen, ATU 757 president in a March news release.

Riders in the field

TriMet staff has been working on the proposal for around two years, Tucker says. The change would begin in September 2015, to coincide with the opening of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project, and would be completed in 2018.

As part of TriMet’s research into how paperless ticketing would work, the agency began field testing a mobile smart phone app for purchasing and displaying tickets Thursday morning. The app was developed by GlobeSherpa, a Portland startup company.

“This is the wave of the future,” says Nat Parker, GlobeSherpa’s president and chief executive officer.

Parker demonstrated his company’s product to reporters at TriMet’s new downtown headquarters Monday morning. Like other so-called e-commerce sites, it includes both a smart phone app and a website where consumers make their purchases. Consumers charge them to debit or credit cards. The tickets show up on the phones, where they can be activated when needed.

“It’s just a couple of clicks to get your tickets,” Parker says.

Riders must display their activated smartphone tickets to TriMet employees, including fare inspectors. Employees can verify the validity of the ticket by launching the unique QR code embedded in it.

TriMet is not paying any upfront costs for the development of the app. Five to 7 percent per transaction will go to GlobalSherpa. Another 4 percent pays for card purchasing. Those fees are not added to the cost of the ticket.

TriMet solicited riders to field — or beta — test the system several weeks ago. Out of 1,500 who applied, 150 were selected. The test will last about a month.

According to Parker, the goal is to see how the system works in the real world, identify any problems, and fix them before it is made available to all riders. TriMet hopes to complete testing and begin using the system this summer.

The system is intended to allow riders to purchase tickets for all buses, MAX trains, the WES commuter rail line, and the Portland Streetcar. After purchasing their tickets, riders are expected to activate them just before boarding. They display on smartphones as an animated TriMet bus with Portland’s skyline moving visibly through the windows. The animation is designed to prevent counterfeiting with static pictures, Parker says.

At this time, the system is only available on Apple and Android. Parker says a version for Windows and Blackberry operating systems will be developed in the future.

The test covers two-hour tickets and one-, seven-, 14-, and 30-day passes for youths, adults and honored citizens. LIFT fares, annual and group passes, and employer/school and college programs may be added at a later date.

A $5 minimum purchase is required.