Metro Considers Eliminating SmarTrip Loading Aboard Buses

When the No. 37 bus arrived at Wisconsin Avenue and Porter Street N.W. on Wednesday morning, 10 passengers quickly formed a line to board the bus. The first three entered, tapped the farebox and moved on to their seats. The fourth stopped, SmarTrip and cash in hand. The rider tried to figure out how to add value to his card while those behind him grew impatient in the frigid 20-degree morning.

Reloading SmarTrip cards has in a way become one of the greatest sins aboard a Metrobus– riders and transportation officials blame such transactions for bus delays and unreliability.

At Thursday’s Metro board meeting, officials discussed an idea the transit agency has been flirting with for years:  should Metro eliminate the SmarTrip loading option aboard Metrobuses?

“Each individual transaction may be relatively short, but over the course of an entire bus route the load transactions can lead to increased dwell times and slower average speeds,” Metro’s written presentation to the board says.

Taking the reloading option away could lead to faster bus trips, Metro officials have said. It happened in Alexandria, where the “add value” option was eliminated in April.

“People are getting on the bus quicker, buses are staying on schedule and the riders are happy because they are making their connections and getting to their destination faster,” said Sandy Modell, chief executive and general manager of DASH, the Alexandria transit system. “It’s been an amazing success.”

The change has been so positive, she said, that DASH is revamping some schedules this spring to adjust the time savings. On one route, the AT6 bus connecting the King Street Metro station to Northern Virginia Community College, DASH will eliminate one bus because the buses are making their rounds more quickly and the same service can be provided with one less bus, Modell said.

Metro is looking at the Alexandria experience, but such a change would have larger implications for a system that serves about 465,000 weekday passengers. Taking away the “add value” option could have a significant impact on travel time, especially in speeding travel for buses that are often stuck in traffic and in some of the region’s busy corridors traveling at speeds of under 10 miles per hour. However, it also could impact lower-income riders who only travel by bus and never go through a Metrorail station equipped with fare machines. For them, it would be hard to access locations to load their cards, Metro says.

“In particular, there are sections of the region (primarily in Southeastern DC and Prince George’s County) that are not close to Metrorail stations and that have few retail locations available. While these passengers could still pay their bus fare directly with cash, they would not able to make a bus-to-bus transfer, which is only available with a SmarTrip® card,” Metro’s report said.

Unless Metro adds additional retail availability or other options, including off-board loading kiosks, the change could be a civil right violation.

At Thursday’s meeting, Metro board members said more discussion is needed to make a decision, but some raised concerns.

Board member Malcolm Augustine highlighted the issue of limited locations for riders to reload their SmarTrip cards. In his Prince George’s neighborhood, he said, there is only one retail store where people can add value to their cards and it isn’t an easy process. Widening the network of options would benefit riders even if reloading on board buses continues to be available, he said.

One board member suggested public libraries as possible places where people could reload their cards.

Metro’s chief financial officer, Dennis Anosike, told the board that staff will spend the next few months exploring alternatives and will come back with more details about benefits and impacts.

Some transit advocates think investment in such solutions more off-board loading locations would pay off, if it means it would minimize boarding delays. Cheryl Cort, policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said Metro ought to look at other practices such as moving the reloading machine away from the front of the bus.

“I imagine the answer is cost, but it’s worth considering,” she said. “European systems place machines to validate transit payment in locations other than at the doors.”

Metro may have already found a testing ground for a system that could expedite fare payment. The District is studying an off-board payment system in the 16th Street corridor, one of Metro’s busiest.  The question remains how soon this or any other payment system that keeps buses running instead of parked at the bus stop could be implemented.

At Thursday’s meeting, the idea was up for discussion as part of a budget work session.

Metro officials made the case to the board that “with bus speeds across the region continuing to decline, Metro is looking for ways to improve the customer experience, increase ridership, and reduce costs.”

Eventually the board will need to decide whether to eliminate SmarTrip loading on all routes, test it only on some routes or defer the idea for future consideration.

Meantime, Alexandria doesn’t mind if Metro looks at it as a case study. Modell said the success is clear: buses are spending less time at bus stops and staying on schedule; and the city is spending less on cash handling services. Although riders can’t add money to their SmarTrip card they still have the option to pay cash.

Prior to the change, Alexandria began an aggressive campaign to inform its 14,000 riders what was coming, letting them know about the places where they can load their SmarTrip cards. The plan, said Modell, was to change the habits of about 1,000 riders in the system that used to make those transactions.

By making the change, she said, DASH was trying to fulfill the mission of the SmarTrip, which was supposed to be revolutionary in the industry by significantly reducing the time buses spent at the bus stop while people paid fares with cash. SmarTrip was supposed to improve overall bus performance and reduce the amount of cash fares.

“But the result of allowing people to add money increased that dwell time and added delays that we did not anticipate as part of the program,” she said. “It inconvenienced riders who tap and go.”

It also increased DASH’s operating costs, she said.  More time at the bus stop means more time that the bus needs in the route, so it forced the system to adjust schedules and add buses to do the same amount of work.

If the concern is where to add value, she said, there are multiple ways of doing it: online, at retail stores like Giant and CVS–  and Alexandria is working with 7-Eleven as a future option. If Metro wants to do it, she said, the key is to educate riders about the change, give them plenty of notice, and make sure they have plenty of places where to add value.

“We talked about it as a region for years and finally we got to the point where we said ‘we have to do this.’ We thought it was time to make a change for the system as a whole and for all of the riders,” she said. “There was a lot of concern that once we did it that the sky was going to fall in Alexandria and on April 1st the sky did not fall and in fact we started running a more efficient and on-time bus system.”

Photo courtesy of Linda Davidson. Click here to read the original story.