Since the beginning of this month, I’ve swapped out my old paper monthly pass for a Compass Card. As I’ve been tapping in and out of the system this week, I’ve been thinking about the benefits and challenges of the Compass Card smart card system.
The whole Compass Card project started when former Minster of Transportation Kevin Falcon decided that Metro Vancouver needed fare gates. Cubic Transportation Systems, the maker of fare gates and our Compass Card, was lobbying the province at the time.
Most people think that the Compass Card was needed to implement fare gates. This isn’t true. The magnetic fare media technology that TransLink has been using for years would have also works. New York’s MTA uses the same magnetic fare technology as TransLink to let people into the busiest subway system in North America.
Kevin Falcon’s desire to have fare gates could have been accommodated without needing the Compass Card.
Most regions in North America look at implementing smart card systems because of improved customer service. In the Los Angeles region, their tap Card allows transit riders to use 20+ transit agencies without having to worry about exact cash fare, or carry around multiply tickets and passes. This story is the same for regions along the West Coast including San Francisco and Seattle. Smart card systems make riding transit way easier in these regions.
There are other benefits too, like being able to load up your smart card via a computer or mobile phone.
There is only one transit agency in Metro Vancouver, so the biggest benefit of smart card systems —the ability to use one card for multiply agencies— isn’t present. While I like the ability to load my card up online, it is also super easy to walk to one of the hundreds of retail outlets that sell passes and tickets throughout the region.
If I’m being really honest, it was actually more convenient for me to flash a pass on a bus than use a Compass Card.
The Compass Card brings huge benefits to TransLink. TransLink can know exactly how people are using its transit network. This information will allow TransLink to better provision transit services as they will be able to match service with demand. The Compass Card is also a more secure fare media system which will help reduce fraud.
What really impresses me about the Compass Card system is that within minutes, I can look online and find out what stop I tapped in and what stop I tapped out at. TransLink can get a real-time view into ridership throughout its network.
Most regions look at implementing smart card systems to improve customer service, ridership data is secondary. When I look at the implementation of the Compass Card system, including its delays, it appears that a primary driver for the Compass Card system is to get ridership data.
If ridership data was a secondary objective, TransLink could have gone with a tap on-only system for its buses. In other North America cities, you tell the bus driver how many zones you are travelling before tapping your card.
Tapping out of buses is what delayed the launch of the Compass Card system in Metro Vancouver. Two readers can’t handle the rush of people leaving at busy bus stops like King George SkyTrain station.
There are solutions to this problem, but those solutions decrease the accuracy of data about how people use the transit system. At busy bus stops, TransLink could install readers on the street. This would reduce the load on readers on the buses. TransLink could also install more readers on the buses, allowing people to tap off shortly before their stop.
The slow launch of the Compass Card was one of the reasons why people voted no to more transit funding this spring. If TransLink wasn’t as focused on the data gathering aspect of the Compass Card system, would it have been launched before the referendum? Would that have changed the outcome of the vote?
The Compass Card story should be a cautionary tale for other regions in North America. Customer convenience should be the only reason for launching a new fare media system.