Automated fare media

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The Clipper Card is an automated fare medium used in the San Francisco Bay Area by seven of the region's transit agencies, including Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Photo by Flickr user sam_churchill.

Transit agencies traditionally used cash fare systems, but cash is expensive to transport, count, and guard. It can also be inconvenient for riders to have to pay an exact fare for each leg of a trip. For these reasons, many agencies have introduced automated fare media by expanding fare payment to electronic, magnetic stripe contact cards and more recently to smart cards. A smart card is a contactless, reusable, prepaid card that includes an embedded microchip to monitor fare transactions and stored balance. Payment is processed through the microchip using near field communications. Transit agencies view smart cards as a potentially revolutionary advancement due to their benefits, which include convenience, greater fare flexibility, operational cost savings, service enhancements, decreased fare processing time, centralized fare collection, more efficient fare pricing, and greater capacity for data compilation of ridership and travel behavior.

Types of Systems

Automated fare media can come in a variety of formats and can even include credit and debit cards. One key point to remember is that there are two types of systems: open and closed. Open systems accept payment through fare media issued by an entity outside of the transit system, such as a bank or a university. Closed systems accept payment forms only issued by that system.

Transit system management of fare collection can be a costly endeavor and there may be some advantages to outside management of the fare payment system. However, with credit and debit cards, some of the advantages of prepayment will be lost.[1]

Interagency coordination

Automated fare media can be used to consolidate fare media among several agencies within a region. This has the benefit of making transfers between agencies more simple and straightforward for transit customers. The Bay Area's Clipper Card is a good example of several agencies working together to use a common payment medium.

Reducing vehicle dwell time

An automated fare media can reduce or eliminate the need for transit customers to pay in cash, a typically time-intensive process compared to electronic fare media. Many electronic fare media in use feature the ability to pre-load the fare card with passes or cash value.

The Federal Transit Administration notes:

Many transit agencies offer prepaid fare media, such as a season pass, stored value card, or ticket. If a driver is required to inspect passes, boarding can be longer than with payment in change. An electronic fare box with a card reader can reduce boarding time for pass holders.

Fare cards with a microchip, or smart cards, can allow transit agencies to offer a more sophisticated fare policy. Contactless smart cards need only be waved at a marked spot, and therefore can reduce payment time.[2]

Resistance to use of smart cards

There are many reasons why riders would choose to use cash for fare payment rather than smart cards or other prepaid fare payment. They include the perception that the initial cost of obtaining the card will not be worth the investment, the fear of losing a pre-paid card’s value, concerns about privacy, and the convenience of cash for the occasional rider.[3]


  1. Transit Cooperative Research Project. “Report 32: Multipurpose Transit Payment Media.” 1998.
  2. Federal Transit Administration. "Fare Collection."
  3. Transit Cooperative Research Project. “Report 32: Multipurpose Transit Payment Media.” 1998.