When Cities Don’t Accept Cash For Public Services

I hardly notice the quick succession of beeps anymore as my fellow commuters board the D.C. Metrobus, paying with a tap of their SmarTrip fare cards. But every now and then, I hear the clanking of coins being dropped into the fare-box, or I look up to see someone inserting a wrinkled bill into the slot, only for the box to spit it out.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says transactions like these slow down their buses, which recently , they’re looking at a $100 million overhaul of their payment system making it possible for transit cards, smartphones, and other forms of contact-less payments to be used instead of cash payments. In New York City, meanwhile, express buses shuttling commuters from the outer boroughs into Manhattan started accepting fare-card payments only this spring, and soon, the Long Island Rail Road will no longer take cash for onboard ticket purchases.

In these cases—in which riders can still technically reload their cards using cash at transit stations or sometimes at retail stores—it’s a question of convenience and ease of access to government services, says ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. Mass transit, after all, is a battleground for equity, and how passengers pay is very much part of it.

Lotshaw, who co-authored a report on how transit agencies can create inclusive fare policies, sees the appeal of upgrading the nation’s many outdated fare systems. Not only would it make it more convenient for riders, but it would also allow operators to focus staying on schedule, instead of tracking payments. At the same time, she says the decisions need to balance revenue generation with the agency’s various other objectives. “You really have to think about who you are trying to serve, and what your riders need from the service,” she says.

Lotshaw points to NYC’s recent rollout of the OMNY system, which allows subway riders to pay with contact-less cards or their mobile phones. One thing she applauds the transit agency on was their effort to double the number of retailers that sell MetroCards from 2,000 to 4,000. “As [agencies] think about the convenience of going cashless, they also have to think about the investment it takes to deliver that kind of system and be inclusive of all of the communities that use it.”

That said, Lotshaw adds that the solution to better service isn’t always in the technology. Things like adding bus lanes, implementing all-door boarding, lowering—or even eliminating—fares for the poor, can result in dramatic improvements, and therefore, ridership. The perks of these strategies is that they don’t risk singling out low-income riders.

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