After a two-year delay to meet federal safety requirements, Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s smartphone payment system will be available for use on the light rail system as early as next week.
And once the app is available across the PRT system, the agency will promote it and could use it to make other customer-friendly changes to how riders pay for public transit.
The agency introduced the mobile payment system, known as Ready2Ride, with no fanfare in August 2021 because it was only available on buses, and PRT didn’t want to confuse riders who transfer from bus to light rail or make them use two different payment systems. As a result, only about 13% of riders have become aware of the app and started using it on their own.
The agency installed devices known as validators in more than 700 buses to scan phones for mobile payments, but Jeffrey Devlin, PRT’s chief information officer, said the agency and contractor Masabi LLC knew it would have to develop a different type of validator for light rail vehicles. That’s because federal transportation rules require higher burning and melting temperatures for equipment in case of fire for vehicles that travel underground, where passengers could be trapped during an emergency, said Terry Riley, manager of fare systems at PRT.
“It just took a long time to work through the labs and come up with the materials that meet the standards,” Devlin said. “Nothing has been easy the past couple of years” due to COVID-19 and supply-chain issues.
Instead of the estimated one year, it has taken two years to develop validators that meet underground safety standards, but now crews are finishing installing them on 80 light rail cars. Once that’s done, PRT will launch a promotional campaign.
“I think that 13% [mobile app use] is going to increase substantially just because we have it available on rail,” authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said. “Given an easy alternative, I think people will naturally use it.”
The availability of the mobile app also will open the door to other improvements for customers in the future, Riley said. For example, the mobile app will allow customers to add cash to their account instantly if their balance runs low or keep a steady balance like an E-ZPass device on toll roads by linking it to a credit card.
The mobile app also would make it possible for the agency to adopt fare capping, where cash riders would receive the same reduced cost for buying numerous rides in cash as riders get for buying weekly or monthly passes. That is something that advocates such as Pittsburghers for Public Transit have been pushing for the past several years so that cash customers — often poor people who can’t pay the large up-front fee for a pass — don’t pay higher fees to ride.
That would require approval by the agency’s board of directors.
Devlin noted the mobile app also will make it easier for visitors to figure out the agency’s payment system.
“The transition from bus to rail will be so much easier now. The incline, too,” he said. “You now pretty much have a ticket vending machine in your pocket.”
Brandolph stressed the agency isn’t going to eliminate fareboxes for customers who pay fares in cash.