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Contactless Transit Fares Get a Pandemic Boost

Long in the works, open-loop payment systems that let riders use smart cards and mobile devices have found their moment among U.S. transit agencies.  

A rider swipes a MetroCard at the Fulton Center subway station in New York City. The familiar plastic cards will soon go the way of the token. 

A rider swipes a MetroCard at the Fulton Center subway station in New York City. The familiar plastic cards will soon go the way of the token. 

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America

Monterey-Salinas Transit is neither the smallest nor the largest among California’s 300+ transit operators, and its domain neither fully urban nor rural. Its ridership is a true cross-section of California: Salinas Valley farmhands, affluent Big Sur tourists, San Jose airport travelers, plus military members, college students, hospitality workers and more, all shuttling around a 295-square-mile service area. (At least in pre-pandemic times, before ridership dropped nearly 50%.)

It was those microcosmic characteristics that positioned MST to take a leading role in California’s effort to modernize how residents pay for transit. Targeted to launch in February pending contracting details, a six-month demonstration across the agency’s 160-bus fleet will let passengers pay for rides using contactless credit or debit cards and enabled mobile devices. Instead of feeding bills into fareboxes or standing in line to buy payment cards, riders can just tap their card or phone to contactless readers aboard MST buses.