Mike Madill

Test time for TransLink’s Compass card

New smart card brings many changes; less coin payment may speed bus boarding

TransLink officials say they’re confident their new Compass card will work well and be used by the vast majority of transit passengers despite criticism that those who pay in cash aboard buses won’t be given a valid transfer for SkyTrain.

The new payment system will undergo a beta test by 10,000 volunteers – twice as many as TransLink hoped to recruit – starting Sept. 9 ahead of a full launch later this year or early next year.

Riders will tap their smart card on blue reader disks as they board a bus or SkyTrain and tap out again on exit – the system will register the trip length and debit their account accordingly.

The transfer incompatibility of bus-issued tickets – blasted on social media as a double charge for those who pay cash – stems from TransLink’s decision not to retrofit either all the bus fare boxes at an extra cost of $25 million or else faregates at SkyTrain stations for $9 million. Neither fix would have worked for more than a few years and were deemed not cost-effective.

But not everyone hates TransLink’s decision.

Surrey transportation advocate Daryl Dela Cruz says those who pay in cash infuriate him because they slow down bus boarding, especially when they don’t deposit the right amount.

“It causes delays and holds up lines, especially on long and busy bus routes,” Dela Cruz said. “It’s almost a vendetta I have when I see the number of people who pay with cash fares.”

He predicts faster boarding as more people swipe cards instead of dropping coins and expects more buses will actually run on time as a result.

Mike Madill, TransLink’s vice-president of enterprise initiatives, said convenience is the main aim of Compass, but he agreed less cash payment should speed bus boarding.

“It’s more efficient and it keeps the lines moving,” he said, noting the new card can be read in less than a third of a second.

Cash payers who don’t want to pay again if they transfer from bus to SkyTrain can avoid that by getting a Compass card, so they’ll have a strong incentive to switch.

About 6,000 passengers a day pay in cash on buses and transfer to SkyTrain – 1.5 per cent of the 400,000 daily bus users.

Other transit systems, including London and Paris, don’t allow cash-paid transfers from bus to trains, and Madill said London saw its share of cash payers drop from 30 per cent to about 2.5 per cent after its similar Oyster card rolled out.

For now, TransLink will simply mirror the existing three-zone system and fare structure with the new cards.

Reloadable card

The vast majority of transit users who use a monthly pass or a book of pre-paid FareSaver tickets are expected to easily make the switch to Compass cards and find it much less hassle.

No longer will they have to go to a retail store each month to buy a new pass or book of tickets.

Most will buy a month pass on their card online or over the phone, as well as at vending machines at SkyTrains and some other locations.

Those who link their Compass account to their credit card or bank account can have it automatically buy a new month pass at the first of each month.

For those who prefer the equivalent of soon-to-be-eliminated FareSavers, which offer a discount on a book of 10 tickets, Madill said any amount of prepaid cash put on a card will qualify for a 14 per cent discount.

That’s less generous than the 24 per cent discount from cash fares that FareSaver buyers now get.

Asked why FareSaver users will pay more under Compass, officials say FareSaver discounts had become “artificially inflated” in recent years because TransLink was only allowed to increase prices for cash fares, not the prepaid tickets.

They say the discounts will become consistent under Compass.

An auto-load feature will let users program their card to automatically add a preset amount whenever the balance drops below $5.

A Compass card that’s lost or stolen can be replaced and the unused balance transferred over, provided the user has registered.

“For the customer, it’s going to be way more convenient,” Madill said.

Monthly pass users who claim the federal transit tax credit in the past had to collect their receipts each month. Compass card users who buy the monthly pass option will be able to go online and print out a transaction history to submit instead.

Cash can also be used to buy Compass cards at station vending machines in amounts as low as $6.

Low-income options

Responding to concerns that poor residents without bank or credit card accounts will face obstacles, Madill said there will be some additional locations, including a yet-to-be-announced retailer, where machines will dispense cards for cash.

Anti-poverty groups that hand out tickets to low-income clients to get to job interviews or appointments will be allowed to buy bulk Compass cards, valid for a single use for up to 90 days.

Some question marks remain.

TransLink doesn’t know how many riders will forget to tap out with their card as they exit the system and then get charged for travelling the default three zones when they may have only travelled one.

And it’s not clear what bugs the beta testers may uncover.

“We expect things will crop up that we don’t know about and we’ll be able to make some adjustments,” Madill said.

Asked if TransLink considered using some discounts or incentives to encourage early sign-ups – as TReO successfully did in getting motorists to register to pay tolls on the Port Mann Bridge – Madill said it was unnecessary.

“We really think that the card will sell itself,” he said. “We think the adoption rate is going to be pretty high right out of the gate.”

After Compass cards are offered to the general public, the old and new systems will run in parallel for a number of months before the activation of the new faregates – the other part of the $171-million system.

It should reduce fare evasion but more value is expected from better data on where transit users go, guiding future transit system improvements.

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