While big names such as Visa U.S.A., American Express Co. and Target Corp.s Target stores have taken center stage as early innovators of smart cards, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is quietly yet aggressively carving out a niche of its own.
Greg Garback, executive officer, department of finance and program development for the WMATA, in Washington, is proud that WMATA was the first public transportation system to adopt smart cards, launching a pilot in 1999. Today, nearly 60 percent of riders use smart cards (about 210,000 cards are in circulation).
Riders can load as much as $200 on a card using cash or a credit or debit card at terminals in stations. The smart card can be used to pay for parking spaces at stations as well as rides. Fares on trains are based on time and distance. The smart card offers advantages for riders over a magnetic-stripe card. The smart card can be reprogrammed indefinitely; in fact, Garback is still using the same card he got when the pilot launched three and a half years ago. In addition, if a user loses a card, the money on it isnt lost. The user can call WMATA, and it will cancel the card and put any balance on a new card. “The thing people love about it is transaction speed,” Garback said. The contactless smart card processes five times faster than a magnetic-stripe card, he said. Riders can leave the card in a wallet or purse and wave it over the turnstile to gain entrance.
Garback said he plans to expand the application to all public transportation in the Washington and Baltimore region. But hes not stopping there.
Garbacks working on a pilot project with First Union Corp. that couples the smart card with a debit card. Riders can use the same card to add money to their transportation account.
“We would ultimately like to be in a position where we become an application on a card issued by a bank,” Garback said. Hed also like to team with the government so the General Services Administrations Federal ID card can be shared with WMATA so that subway fares can be paid with the GSA card.
Garback said he believes that the best way to ensure security among applications is to place multiple chips on a card. “Multiple chips is a sure-fire firewall,” he said. However, most experts dont believe the multiple-chip-card concept will take off because it would require new card readers.
“I dont see that standard changing because merchants are investing in readers that read a single chip,” said Kenny Thomas, director of corporate relations for Visa U.S.A., in San Francisco. Standards dictate where the chip should be positioned so a reader can interact with it.
Public transportation authorities in other cities are hot on the trail of WMATA. The San Francisco Bay area transit agencies recently announced they will introduce smart cards that can be used on any public transportation in the Bay area. San Diego is another smart-card user.