Boston Officials Dream of a More Powerful Transit Card

Enter the "super CharlieCard." 

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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The streets and transit stations of Boston will have to absorb over 100,000 more commuters by 2030 — and if officials stick with the status quo of private vehicles and widened roads the city is, to put it scientifically, screwed. With those numbers no doubt in mind, planners have been experimenting with a number of streamlining innovations to make transit more attractive. The most recent: a super card that commuters could use to pay for the T, a Hubway bike, a Zipcar and possibly even an Uber or Lyft ride.

The card, called somewhat hyperbolically a “key to the city” by Mayor Marty Walsh, would be a “one-stop payment tool that would unlock virtually all forms of public and private transportation in Massachusetts,” the Boston Globe reports.

Other cities have made strides in bundling payment for various transit systems — the Globe mentions Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and Next City has also covered efforts toward universal fare in Seattle and Detroit (as well as the fact that such a system might come with equity concerns, particularly if it were to be centralized on riders’ iPhones).

But the Boston system — which could resemble the current CharlieCard, used by MBTA passengers, or a smartphone app — could be unique in that it seeks to marry public networks with private services like ride-sharing companies. That’s not necessarily a new idea in other counties. For example, Tokyo has a system that allows passengers to pay for coffee and newspapers with their transit cards, according to the Globe. But as Carol Kuester, director of electronic payments at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area, told the paper, such systems require complex business deals that could prove to be a struggle for many American transit operators.

And even Boston’s public systems are difficult to synch up as things stand today. The CharlieCard couldn’t be used to ride the city-owned Hubway without new technology due to how different operators process payments, according to the paper. But officials are planning for a new electronic fare collection system to be implemented by 2020, and that could be a good foundation for the integration project.

Another issue could reportedly be convincing competing companies to join (read: Uber and Lyft), although Kris Carter, co-chair of Boston’s office of New Urban Mechanics, told the paper that execs could probably be enticed by the opportunity to access the MBTA’s daily ridership of 500,000 with more ease — such as in Lyft’s new partnership with Amtrak announced in August.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: transit agenciesboston

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