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If you want to ride an e-scooter or bike share around town, all you have to do is whip out your smartphone and reserve and pay for your ride with your debit or credit card. With only a few phone taps, you’re on your way to your destination. And now, similarly digitized approaches to fare collection are reportedly being adopted by public transportation systems around the world — especially as COVID-19 thrusted us into a no-contact world in the name of public health.
But what about those people who will get left behind in the rush toward cashless convenience? While this can amplify convenience for some and maximize data collection for transportation agencies, it will pose barriers for some, many of whom are largely non-white and lower income — who tend to rely on public transportation as their sole option.
A study completed last year asked exactly that, in an effort to examine the issue of automated payment solutions in public transportation through an equity lens. It notes that 15% of adults in the U.S. don’t have a bank account or credit card. Others have voice-only, data-restricted cell phone plans that don’t offer the same freewheeling internet use. Some don’t even have access to smartphones at all. What this means is that a sizable percentage of the population gets left behind when digital fare solutions are prioritized in the name of increased convenience.
Andrew Martin, a development planner for Eugene, Oregon-based Lane Transit District who participated in the study in a personal capacity told Next City that there was not a lot of research on how different people would be affected by said changes in fare systems. “It’s pretty obvious that a fare system that uses smartphones might not be accessible for everyone,” he said. “We have a group of riders who rely on [cash fares], whether it’s because they like it or trust it or whatever. We wanted to learn more about our system and riders but also how to help people more broadly.”
Motivated by the fact that it’s estimated that over the next decade, the shift towards cashless systems is going to increase in the U.S., the aforementioned study did just that. It was led by Aaron Golub, director and associate professor in the department of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. The research explored current mitigation practices that allow people to pay transit fares in cash despite digitized systems, the effect of those practices on riders, and their efficacy in providing equitable access to transportation, and was conducted in Portland, Denver, and Eugene.
Golub’s research found that all of the payment options that included cash fares increased transit access among residents in the case study cities. When no cash was accepted, 91.62% of previous riders could still use the transit system. Retail-based fare purchases allowed 95.08% of previous riders to participate. Systems that accepted cash on board allowed 96.90% of previous riders to participate. When cash was accepted at ticket vending machines, 96.54% could use the system; and 100% of previous riders could use their transit systems where cash was accepted everywhere.
The study also looked at how far along the U.S. is in making the transition to cashless fares, which Golub estimates it to be in about 10 years out from completing a full transition. His study found that across 10 years, accepting cash for transit payment does incur additional costs. However, cash systems also add riders, which leads to more net fare being collected every time another avenue for cash payment is added. The net revenue for systems that don’t accept any cash come in at roughly $980 million; and it increases to $1.01 billion when retail networks are added in; $1.02 billion when cash on-board is added in; $1.0 billion for cash at vending machines; and $1.03 billion for full cash acceptance at all outlets.
Golub reportedly said the biggest lesson from the study was the fact that the country isn’t ready to make the full transition to cashless systems yet. “A good share of riders claim that they could switch [to cashless], but I think that the lesson tells us that we need to be careful and communicate with our riders and be interactive with them, instead of [saying] ‘this is how things are done,’ or just putting out some program or policy,” he said.
Martin reportedly added, “As more agencies adopt automatic fare collections and explore reducing cash acceptance. [The research] makes the case that we can easily address a lot of equity concerns” by finding ways to continue to accept cash in some form.