Toronto studies smart cards for transit system

Taking a cue from Asia and Europe, a national consortium of government agencies are planning to use smart card technology to get Canadians out of their cars an onto public transit.

Moving the Economy (MTE), a program started

by City of Toronto Urban Development Services and the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, is part of an 18-member Integrated Mobility Systems consortium working towards the advancement of sustainable transportation in Canada. The consortium’s membership includes the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Toronto Transit Commission, the city of Hamilton, Vancouver’s’ TransLink and others.

MTE on Monday received a $41,250 grant for its IMS study, which will asses the feasibility of using smart card technology to introduce a coordinated, multi-mode public transit system in the Greater Toronto Area.

The study is going to look at the problems faced by Canadians using transit systems to get around large cities and their neighbouring municipalities, said Yvonne Bialowas, IMS project manager at the city of Toronto.

“”Convenience is a one of the main reasons why people are choosing to stay in their cars,”” said Bialowas. “”Currently there is a lack of fare and schedule information available to the transit rider or anyone wanting to come from another municipality into the city. Transit schedules are also disjointed so that you end up spending double the amount of time that the trip would take by automobile, even if there is congestion on the road.””

In theory, the project would allow the transit system riders to travel anywhere within the GTA using a single smart card to pay transit fares, parking costs and admission fees to any city-operated pools, Bialowas explained.

“”We’d like to have payment and selection of what services you’d like on that card be done over the Internet,”” she said.

Before heading out for the day, a user could electronically load the card with money, Bielowas explained. The card can then be used to pay swimming pool admission fees, pay for paking at a transit agency parking lot and then pay for transit fare.

“”All of this using just one fare medium, without having to fumble around for change or having to use your credit card for the parking machine,”” she added.

According to Evans Research Corp. senior market analyst Jennifer Ewen, the MTE proposition is a conservative move towards the type of transit system often seen around the world. Using smart card technology in the transportation sector is probably one of the more common uses for this technology, she said. Hong Kong, for example, uses smart cards for an intermodal transportation system.

“”They’ve shown you can use it for all varieties of land and water-based transportation. It makes sense,”” she said. “”Most transit companies have some kind of a monthly pass where people are already used to carrying a card. So it’s not a whole lot different to carry just another type of card, or one that might have a few enhancements on it.””

The MTE study is expected to conclude in December, when results on rollout coordination, costs and potential challenges will be delivered to the IMS Consortium and the federal Transport Ministry.

Ewen said she is optimistic about what the final results will show.

“”I don’t’ think organizing the transit system around a smart card will be hard. I think in a situation of a rollout, the logistics of getting this project coordinated and getting all the readers installed will be the biggest challenge,”” she said. “”It’s a very incremental step in what people are already used to doing, so customer acceptance is going to be high. In fact, I would expect that given the convenience factor, people are going to be beating down their doors asking for the cards.””

Although Bialowas said the study is not near enough to completion to make cost forecasts, Ewen said she didn’t think the funding would be a problem.

“”There are a number of different technologies that you can implement in this kind of situation and some of them are quite inexpensive, so you’re not generally looking at a huge investment in issuing the cards themselves,”” she said. “”In a situation like this where you’re looking at installing a high number of readers, economies of scale kick in.””

What may prove to be challenging, said Bialowas, is getting all of the different smart card technology providers to cooperate.

“”Technologically speaking, the challenge is that there is a very limited number of smart card technology providers on the market today and they are in incredibly intense competition with one another. We have to tread lightly to ensure that a monopoly for one individual provider doesn’t take place in the region, and secondly that the cost of trying to integrate the incompatible systems of two or three or four different suppliers is manageable.””

Ewen said that the providers should be more than willing to accommodate.

“”Smart cards have been poised to take off as an industry for about 10 years at least. Every year there’s more forecasts that this will be the tipping point. Everyone in the industry is waiting for that tipping point, for the market to actually tip over into mass acceptance,”” she said. “”The size is doable, the providers are ready to handle it and I’m sure they’re all chomping at the bit to get their hands on the RFPs.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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