USA transit fare system evolution

Reece Martin posted an interesting video, So you built the wrong transit system, that examines the American penchant for building cheap light rail systems that don’t make long term sense. Public transit is a waste of money to Americans with money, so cheap is only way to fund and build public transit infrastructure. The problem is this cheap short term thinking costs more money in the long run. It’s a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

But as Reece points out, systems can evolve from humble beginnings. Many private Japanese rail lines started out as street trams (that evolved from horse trams) but evolved into the heavy duty regional rail lines we have today. Fare system have evolved too, from paper, to mag strip, to IC smartcard and now mobile devices.

Transit fare systems in America suffer from the same short term cheap thinking, on full display on the MTA OMNY system, the world’s first EMV only open + closed loop fare system. When it’s completed in 2023, barring more delays, MTA will have farmed out every aspect of their fare collection and OMNY transit card issue to banks.

Not to rehash points I already made about OMNY, but Reece’s wrong transit system analogy struck a chord. And unlike rail system evolution, once the transit fare system in locked into the bank payment card infrastructure, from technology (EMV) to payment network processing (VISA, mastercard, AMEX, etc.), it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to change anything later on.

But why is America so short sighted when it comes to public transit, never investing in a long term self-sustaining viable business model? I ran across an interesting take that explains it neatly. The USA will never have a transit platform business because public transit is a welfare and jobs program, not a self-sustaining business model:

Public transportation in the US is generally very bad and very heavily subsidized. It’s cheap because extremely little service is being run, and the government picks up most of the bill.

Public transportation in the US is less of a way normal people get around, and more of a welfare program and jobs program. Even in places where public transportation is a way normal people get around, e.g., NYC, it is run more like a jobs program than an essential public service.

Reddit user Sassywhat

Open loop fare systems are also vulnerable in new ways nobody predicted: imagine the mess if payment networks go down in a cyberwar, à la the Moscow metro when digital wallets and bank payment card networks were suddenly and omniously turned off. In the case of OMNY where, unlike Moscow metro, everything is EMV payment networked…there is no backup in-house payment settlement system, there is no plan b.

In other words not only is OMNY EMV one size fits all. it’s all or nothing.