Metro Pilot May Prove Apple, Google Wallet's Chops for Transit Fare

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The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), commonly referred to as Metro, will launch a contactless payment pilot to open doors for open-loop mobile wallets to be used for transit fare.

The DC system already uses tap-and-go fare payments from plastic cards, which New York tried in an unrelated 2008 pilot. The New York test failed in part because banks did not issue enough contactless cards, according to the city's transit officials. But even as contactless cards began to disappear, mobile wallets such as the recently launched Apple Pay have stepped into the spotlight.

Apple Pay is too new to be supported in the Metro pilot, but riders will be able to use other Near Field Communication-based apps like Google Wallet, said Tom Randall, director of fare payments for Metro.

"We certainly see the ecosystem [of payment technologies] developing significantly," he said. The Metro pilot will begin in January and last six months.

Most transit agencies that fare payments from smartphones do so through dedicated ticketing apps. These have sometimes proven problematic, such as when an app for the NY Waterway ferry froze under pressure last year, stranding commuters during rush hour and prompting an apology letter from the ferry operators.

Metro will use technology from Accenture for its pilot, and the agency is paying close attention to the performance of the Dublin-based vendor's systems. "The integrator will have to achieve the success criteria [including virtually uninterrupted service and reasonable customer satisfaction] over 90 uninterrupted days," Randall said.

The transit authority has already installed a test faregate for its contactless payment program on one platform, and early next year train and bus riders will be able to pay for rides by tapping their phone or card on six bus lines and 11 Metro stops.

About 2700 riders have signed up for the pilot program, which has a ceiling of 3000 participants. If the pilot is successful, Metro plans to quickly integrate its entire system.

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