Metro's Multiplexed Method for Public Transport

Riders on D.C.'s subway system will experiment with a smart card that can be used to pay for trains, buses and parking

When the U.S. Department of Transportation decided to pay for a "smart-card" technology experiment that would work across more than one form of public transport, it looked in its own backyards for fertile ground.

After all, the Washington, D.C. , Metro subway system was one of the first to use magnetic-strip farecard technology that has become a standard in many metropolitan areas, including San Francisco, Chicago, London and New South Wales, Australia.

Public transit riders in the capital region will now be the first to use one farecard to pay for subway rides, bus trips and also for parking at rail stations. If the test is successful and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority decides to install the technology at all its facilities, Washington could be the first city in the world with an intermodal smart-card system.

The cards will be used during a one-year trial period starting in Feb. 1995. Approximately 1,000 patrons will put the smart cards, also called proximity cards, to the test. The DoT's Federal Transit Administration is supporting the experiment with a $1 million grant.

The federal government hopes the Washington test will lead to deployment of the technology in other cities' mass transit systems as soon as 1996.

"If you can make it work here, with all of D.C.'s intergovernmental problems, you can make a case for it working anywhere," said Grace Crunican, deputy administrator of the Federal Transmit Administration.

This region was chosen because of the proven history Washington's transit authority has had with innovative transportation technology, said Crunican. Moreover, the capital region draws a lot of tourists, which would expose more people to the technology, she said.

Use of this technology at Metro rail, bus and parking systems represents the broadest application of smart-card technology in the world. A small number of transit operators in Europe and the Far East have been piloting various versions of similar technology, but none have been deployed as widely for multiple applications.

Smart-card technology is more advanced than the memory cards subway riders use now. Each smart card incorporates a microprocessor and fully integrated circuit that allow it to process information. A small battery within the card activates the microprocessor to send low power radio waves, signaling the faregate, farebox or other fare collection device of the transaction.

The proximity card does not have to physically touch the fare collection device in order to deduct the travel amount. Patrons only have to bring the "GO CARD" within a 2-3 inch range for it to deduct the appropriate amount. The card can be read from a commuter's pocket, wallet or purse. The card being used in the Washington experiment is the size of a credit card, but about three times as thick.

"The next generation GO CARD, which is already being used for some small projects, eliminates the battery and is about the same thickness as a credit card," said Denis Greening of Cubic Automatic Revenue Collection Group, the systems integrator that developed the GO CARD. The firm, which has offices in Vienna, Va., is the largest subsidiary of $221 million Cubic Corporation of San Diego.

Other companies, including AT&T, are developing smart card technology. But Cubic says its card is truly "contactless," unlike other cards that must be put into a reader to work.

Cubic's smart card technology will also be used by Virginia drivers for toll collection along the Dulles Toll Road. Cubic says the technology exists to incorporate electronic toll collection on the same card used for mass transit, but there are no current plans to do so yet.

The goal would be to for commuters to have one card they could use for all their transportation needs, said Greening.

The 1,000 patrons who volunteer to test the new technology will pay $50 for a card with a $55 value for use at 19 Metro rail stations, five parking lots and three Metro bus routes. Additional credit can be added at Metro rail stations using a farecard dispenser similar to the ones used at stations now.

But smart cards are not just more intelligent than today's magnetic strip technology, they are also more secure.

If the GO CARD is lost or stolen, its owner can call Metro and the card can be disabled. This would make it impossible for anyone finding the card to use it, and the patron can be given a replacement card.

"Public transportation has come a long way from tokens and turnstiles," said Metro General Manager Lawrence Reuter at a recent public demonstration of the technology in Vienna. "The GO CARD helps us make a giant leap from those farecards into a transportation era that can be truly seamless, cashless, and secure."

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