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Is Compass Card City’s Bus Ticket To 21st Century?

Video by Katie Euphrat

Bus fare is becoming a thing of the past. At least when it comes to putting coins in a fare box. San Diego is working to get everyone to use its electronic smart card. But reporter Tom Fudge tells us the MTS “Compass Card” still has some transfers to make before it reaches a final destination.

Cash fare for transit is becoming a thing of the past. But the San Diego Compass Card still has some transfers to make before it reaches the end station.

— Paul Jablonski, CEO of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), prepares to get on a trolley as he loads an electronic fare onto a white and yellow card. It’s called a Compass Card, and it’s a 21st Century answer to the old business of paying for the bus and the trolley. Jablonski walks up to a ticket vending machine at the Old Town Transit Center.

“So I’m going to put in five dollars. It says please tap the card on the reader below…. It’s now uploading,” he said as he held the card over an electronic eye.

Bus and trolley fare is becoming a thing of the past. At least when it comes to putting coins in a fare box. But the San Diego Compass Card still has some transfers to make before it reaches a final destination.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Matt Newsome, with Cubic Corporation, said smart cards offer lots of benefits but a lot of it is about speed, getting passengers on trolleys and buses quickly.

The Compass Card is what they call a “smart card,” and it has been in use for several years. But now the MTS is making it more difficult not to use one. A day pass on the bus costs you $2 more if you don’t use a compass card. Some aggravated riders call it a surcharge.

The official reason for the Compass Card comes down to quick boarding, convenience and security. There is also the ultimate goal of getting more people to use public transit in a city where the car dominates the traveling landscape.

“We ultimately hope it will be easier for the customer, and provide the customer with more options,” said Jablonski.

The MTS also hopes the Compass Card will save printing costs and make it harder to cheat the system.

“We’ve had a lot of fraud,” Jablonski said as he told of how counterfeiters can duplicate an MTS day pass. “Day passes were not only being printed, they were being sold. People would buy a day pass, go to work then go someplace later in the day and sell it for two dollars… And that’s been totally wiped out.”

Lots of people riding the trolley at the Old Town station use compass cards, and it gets good reviews.

“Right now it’s easier to buy a compass card than to put gas in the car to stop and start, and going back and forth all the time,” said Charmaine Merrill, one of several San Diego bus and trolley riders I spoke with.

But San Diegans who want a ticket to ride are still stuffing dollar bills and shoving coins into fare boxes as they avail themselves of public transit. The compass card works great for daily transit users who carry monthly cards. But for occasional users, there’s a lot of be desired.

Upon hearing about the compass card I thought it would be a great way to have ready bus fare, anytime you need it, without having to pay for bus rides you don’t need.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Paul Jablonski, CEO of the Metropolitan Transit System, said the Compass Card will offer "stored value" later this year.

See, I thought a compass card was like a Starbucks card. Put $20 on it and every time you want a cup of coffee you swipe it at the cash register and it deducts the cost of one cup. You just use it until it’s used up. But the Compass Card does not store value that can be used whenever you want.

Of course, not all smart cards are the same, and in some places stored value is old news. You learn that very quickly if you visit Cubic Corporation, a San Diego-based company that lies along the 163 Freeway in Kearny Mesa.

Matt Cole is a soft-spoken Englishman wearing a dark suit and glasses as he holds an transit card that bears a photo of a grinning Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Cole is a senior vice president at Cubic.

“This is the oyster card. It’s London’s smart card fare collection system,” he said. “And this is the commemorative card for the royal wedding in 2011.”

We don’t know if the royal couple uses the oyster card, but their subjects do. London Transit has about 10 million fare transactions a day, and their fare system is designed and maintained by Cubic Corporation. The company services 40 transit systems all around the world, including New York, Sydney, Australia, and San Diego.

London’s oyster card has stored value. So what about the New York Metro Card? You kiddin’?

“If I’ve got a metro card I can do a new one, I can refill it or I can trade in,” said Matt Newsome as he applied a practiced hand to a ticket vending machine just like the one you’d find in a New York subway station.

Newsome is regional director for the west coast for Cubic, and he showed me around a lab where company technology is displayed, tweaked and modernized.

Here you’ll see the same brown subway gates they have in the Washington D.C. Metro. Newsome says electronic fare systems can solve a lot of problems.

"A lot of it is speed…. With a smart card you don't have to take it out of your wallet, you don't have to dig for it. You just tap it and in less than a second, we say 300 milliseconds, you're getting through," said Newsome.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

The Compass Card, a smart card used by San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System.

Given the things smart cards do in Cubic’s other customer cities, when will the San Diego Compass Card get on the bus? Paul Jablonski, of the MTS, said the Compass Card will offer stored value starting later this year in San Diego. He said they haven’t done it yet because they want more information about how customers want to use it.

Back at Cubic headquarters, I asked Newsome if smart cards were the state of the art.

“It probably is state of the art. That is what most systems have today. There’s a new wave that’s starting now, and that’s taking those and putting them into phones,” he said.

Many systems are experimenting with smart phone apps that do the same thing as a Compass Card. San Diego will be the site of a pilot project that will place the Compass Card on smart phones.

In fact, credit cards with computer chips can be programmed to deduct fares when waved over an electronic eye at a transit station. Some day, technology will leave even the smart card behind at the station.

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