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A local transit geek looks at MARTA’s upcoming fare system

When I saw this MARTA press release about a new automated fare collection system drop recently, I was quick to pore over the bullet points and let my imagination run wild with the possibilities. Fare systems are something I’m particularly interested in as a longtime MARTA geek and freshly-minted web developer. I’ve annotated the press release below, with my own assumptions and interpretations. 

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) Board of Directors today awarded the contract for the installation of a new automated fare collection system (AFC 2.0) to Innovation in Transportation Inc., or INIT. MARTA has renewed its focus on Service, Experience, and Expansion, or SEE, and customers will quickly SEE how user-friendly the new fare system is, allowing multiple methods of payment, including debit and credit cards and mobile wallets directly at the fare gate without having to use a vending machine. 

“Mobile Wallets” is the big news here. Tap-to-Pay is something that MARTA has been promising us since the Keith Parker era, but due to licensing issues and the general slowness of procurement processes, has been out of reach. I experienced this on the MAX light rail system in Portland: no worrying about how much to pay or having to purchase the fare medium first, just tap and board. While this is certainly something that will make transit use a smoother experience for those with modern cell phones, I get why this hasn’t been a top priority. MARTA rightly should be focused on things that will make life easier for daily riders, “captive” riders. But it looks like we’re getting a bundle of nice things…

“First and foremost, this new, state-of-the-art fare collection system will improve service and provide customers with a better overall experience,” said MARTA General Manager and CEO Collie Greenwood. “And from our side, AFC 2.0 will allow us to further optimize our operations and increase farebox recovery. It’s a major win for both MARTA and our riders.”

I want to highlight the mention of farebox recovery here. There are some ambitious programs going on even in the US, but we live in Georgia and MARTA is an agency of the State. Until Atlanta has greater influence over those people who really hold the agency’s leash, improving farebox recovery (from whichever segment of ridership) is essential to the success of the system.

“This is an exciting day for MARTA,” said MARTA Board Chair Thomas Worthy. “We’re often asked when customers will be able to tap their debit or credit card at the fare gate, and they’ll be able to do so with this new system. We’ll also be better positioned to meet the needs of our customers well into the future.”

Eventually, AFC 2.0 will fully replace MARTA’s existing Breeze card and Breeze Mobile systems and will involve the replacement and upgrading of rail station fare gates and bus fareboxes throughout the system. The new automated fare system will be deployed over the next 5 years.

Ooh, this paragraph does some heavy lifting. Lets break this one down:

  • “Fully replace existing Breeze card and Mobile…”
    • I’ve been wondering if the word “Breeze” is permanently  synonymous with the MARTA system. We don’t get a clear answer here, so I get the impression that this is an extension rather than a revolution. That doesn’t necessarily mean that by the end of the process, all the parts will be new; but I don’t think the word Breeze is going away until at least AFC 3.0, if ever.
  • “Replacement and upgrading of rail station fare gates and bus fareboxes.. Over the next 5 years”
    • People are always here for tangible improvements like new hardware and these are some big setpieces that are part of every interaction with the system. We’ve all had frustrating moments with faregates at the train stations, and fareboxes on the buses. Easier fare transactions don’t just mean a more pleasant experience either, it means faster boarding and especially on buses – those seconds matter.

The new AFC 2.0 system will provide many benefits to MARTA and its customers, including:

  • A more convenient open payments system: Customers will be able to use their debit card, credit card or mobile wallet, as well as a Breeze card, to pay the fare. This will make the system more intuitive, shorten the fare payment process, and reduce wait times at ticket vending machines.

BreezeCards aren’t going away. Payment terminals are getting an overhaul. This combo seems ideal: Legacy users might not have to buy new cards or mail in their old tokens, and we still get shiny new things.

Update: A friend showed me the MARTA board meeting where this system was adopted and I might have spoken too soon. Final details on technology are still being worked out, so it’s possible that legacy BreezeCards will have to be replaced.

  • Upgraded faregates: The new faregates at each of MARTA’s 38 rail stations will be faster and more reliable.
  • More user-friendly ticket machines: Rail stations will also have new ticket vending machines that will be more dependable and will do things like provide exact change in bills rather than just coins.

Hallelujah – I think everyone who’s been on MARTA in the past several years knows that the credit card readers in these machines are on their last legs. This upgrade means we should have more payment options, and more responsive terminals for conducting these transactions.

Once upon a time, some out-of-towners at Civic Center generously tried to donate the overflowing “tokens” to me that they had received as change… Those were gold dollar coins. 

Gold dollar change was a huge headache, and I’ve been told that transporting cash to and from the machines is one of the system’s biggest expenses.

  • Modernized bus fare boxes: MARTA’s buses will be outfitted with fare boxes with large digital screens and improved software that will speed up the boarding process.

I remember the late Jeff Parker watch me struggle to scan a QR code on the recently installed bus payment terminal. He let out a sigh and dove thumbs-first into his work phone. Someone got an unpleasant email that morning.

  • An expandable system: The new system will bring in all transit modes, including bus, rail, MARTA Rapid, and the Atlanta Streetcar, which is currently on its own payment system. And regional transit partners can also be integrated quickly into the system.

The current system is certainly fractured, but unifying fare systems for the regional transit agencies was something high on many Atlanta transit nerds’ wish list in the pre-pandemic epoch.

Bringing the streetcar into the same payment system will likely become necessary as its expansion advances, although I feel like the major wrinkle in the current system is that a $2.50 fare will seem excessive for the limited range of the existing service. They do tout pricing flexibility further down..

  • A more adaptable system: The AFC 2.0 system is “open-architecture,” allowing a variety of software and apps, such as trip-planning apps, to connect to the MARTA system.

As an amateur web developer, even I can get excited about the implications of this. Will there be a payment API, allowing developers to develop bespoke integrations? Spitballing here: what if a visitor coming to Atlanta for DragonCon could access a fare payment QR code and payment system embedded into the DC app? This lowers the barriers for new riders to consider MARTA in their travel plans, and with a more flexible architecture, the options are greatly expanded for novel implementations.

  • Improved ability to customize pricing: The system will allow MARTA to be nimble and flexible with pricing, whether it’s for employer programs, senior or student rider discounts, or for special events and promotions.

I see a lot of unhappy comments from people wishing that that the BreezeMobile2 app could accommodate their monthly passes or Mobility fares. Those are certainly necessary upgrades, although I’m aware of pilot programs to that effect. I’d also love to see MARTA have more power to employ dynamic pricing or promotional fares.

Breeze Mobile app

What gives me a moment of pause here is the possibility that MARTA is exploring “zone-based” fares – something that riders of DC metro are familiar with. I didn’t enjoy the confusion of that system, although MARTA’s network is nowhere near as convoluted, and a zone fare system could feasibly reduce costs for intowners on ITP errands and shift some burden to OTP commuters. 

  • An expansive retail network: Cash customers will be able to load their Breeze cards at the checkout lines of as many as 240 retail locations. Currently, MARTA’s cash customers must first travel to a rail station or justice center to reload their Breeze cards.

I posted about this one initially because it always struck me as such a common sense, community based integration that Atlanta would probably get great use out of: The idea that you could reload or purchase a BreezeCard at Kroger or WalMart or Publix. Why shouldn’t I be able to buy rides where I buy stamps? To me, this gets at the idea that transit is a daily utility. 

I am a little curious about “as many as 240 retail locations”… Does this point to a specific retail partner? Is this a technical limitation on the number of credentialed vendors that can be accommodated? It’s a pretty specific number, and a small enough one to make me think that there’s already a partnership waiting to be announced.

Questions for the future:

Are we measuring the economic impact of these changes? For instance, all the major events we host have an economic impact on our city. MARTA already makes getting on and off the train easy for large crowds for concerts, though MARTA service was noticeably less convenient for the 2023 Pride fest, even though our Pride is among the largest such events in the nation.

How does the ‘farebox recovery’ system impact income inequity? The city has been exploring free fares for some.

How do these changes impact last-mile connectivity? It’s something MARTA might want to consider as part of their marketing. If changes make MARTA easier to integrate into other systems, then companies like Bird, Lime, etc. can do a better job of dispersing their product to compliment transit.