Transportation is one of the most obvious venues for mobile transactions, though it can also be one of the most difficult, given the legacy infrastructure and the vast scale of most systems.

Cubic, one of the companies behind the Chicago Ventra open loop contactless payments project and transit automation initiatives in other cities such as London and San Francisco, is duplicating the technology hub strategy that the card networks use to build general retail and payments technology. Its Cubic London Innovation Center will gather clients, transportation industry experts, technology developers and academics to build, demonstrate and evaluate new transportation concepts.

Through the Cubic London Innovation Center, Cubic and its partners will collaborate to find solutions to challenges that affect the quality of life in metropolitan areas, such as congestion across travel modes, and the interaction between those modes.

"Mobile technology is a big element in changing transit systems. It's been happening for a number of years, but now we want to push the boundaries," said Boris Karsch, vice president of strategy for Cubic Transportation Systems

Transportation, particularly rail-heavy urban mass transit, presents the ultimate innovator's dilemma. Most of these systems are more than a century old and have processed passengers and payments the same way for decades. Yet contactless and Near Field Communication promise myriad ways to move passengers faster, manage volume spikes and make it easier to embed transit into other transactions.

"It all comes around to taking friction out of adopting new transit technology," Karsch said. "One way to help consumers do that is by coming up with solutions that are simple and make use of existing payment methods that people already have on them."

That includes open systems. The U.K. hopes to expand a relatively open London system to other rail and bus systems in the U.K. Similarly, the Chicago Ventra card is designed for use at other businesses.

The innovation center's participants will seek other ways to link virtual cards directly to ticketing systems as an alternative to the transit cards that have existed for years. "We don't want transit systems to require riders to deal with 'other acquirers' issuing special payment media or requiring people to learn how to use other technology," Karsch said.

A couple of interesting near-term initiatives involve elements from retail, Karsch said. The center's researchers are seeking ways to more widely use Bluetooth technology to allow riders to 'check in' and automatically pay for rides, similar to how Bluetooth beacons recognize shoppers when they enter a store. The tecnology has been piloted in Germany, and could prove useful in other settings, Karsch said.

"The riders can pay and receive information about routes, or other content, without being stopped by a barrier," Karsch said.

Another project is using mobile preordering to allow riders to book and pay for transit bus trips in advance, then just board and exit the bus without engaging the driver, a terminal or using  a card.

"We see this as a way to have buses spend less time taking payments and more time running," Karsch said.

The challenge is deploying these concepts in older transit systems that are often a mash-up of even older legacy railroads. As such, mobile projects can get delayed, or inadvertently get restricted to just a portion of a broader transportation network.

"There's a lucrative opportunity to improve mass transit, that odd anachronistic system still using printed paper tickets and cards," said Daniel Van Dyke, an analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research.

Open transit systems have made more progress in Asia, and demonstrate the potential for NFC elsewhere, Van Dyke said.

"A wallet provider could gain a strategic advantage over the competition by supporting transit ticketing," Van Dyke said, adding Javelin has found that 40% of U.S. smartphone owners would be likely to use mobile ticketing to pay for mass transit if they could.

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