E-ZPass: Universal Way to Pay for Transit and Tolls?

E-ZPass: Universal Way to Pay for Transit and Tolls?

Mobility Lab – Feature Article

When my family and I drove to Washington DC recently, we spotted an opportunity to bridge the difference between driving and transit. We realized there is a way to enhance transit in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.

Heading out from New Jersey, we had a simple goal. We wanted to see our nation’s capital, visit museums, walk the National Mall, and visit Alexandria, VA which has a lot in common with our hometown of Hoboken. From New Jersey to DC, and every state in between, we were able to move seamlessly, and pay our tolls easily, all because of E-ZPass.

The little E-ZPass transponder mounted on our windshield makes driving convenient in seventeen states. So convenient, in fact, that E-ZPass processed $9B in tolls for 21.5 million customers in 2017. It’s all made possible by a group of transportation agencies who have equipped their highways, bridges, and tunnels with equipment to read the transponder, process tolls, and credit them to the appropriate member.

Once we paid those tolls and arrived, we put the car away for the weekend and planned to use the DC Metro to get around. But when we got to the turnstiles at the King Street station in Alexandria, we ran into a problem. Our MetroCards didn’t work. Neither, of course, did any of the other transit fare cards I carry: Boston CharlieCard, SEPTA Key, or PATH SmartLink card.

So we had to buy another – the DC SmarTrip card – three in fact, one for each person in our family over two years old. There’s a $2 fee for each one, and that’s before you add a balance or buy a daily or weekly pass. That’s one more card to squeeze in my already-bursting wallet, which is fast becoming like George’s Exploding Wallet of Seinfeld fame. You never know which one is going to make it all fall apart. As George’s irascible father Frank Constanza famously exclaimed, “There has to be a better way!”

Let’s look at other forms of payment. There’s no need to pick up a local credit or debit card each time we travel. That’s because payment networks like MasterCard, VISA, and American Express provide a shared payment platform. Merchants can accept cards with confidence that they’ll get paid, and customers can use the same card everywhere it’s accepted.

That’s where E-ZPass comes in. Imagine if your CharlieCard in Boston was an E-ZPass CharlieCard, linked to the E-ZPass network just like that transponder in your car. There are two things that make this feasible.

First, these systems are account-based. Your CharlieCard, SEPTA Key, or SmarTrip Card is linked to an online account that contains your balance, transaction history, and payment information to replenish it. That’s exactly how E-ZPass works too. I can log in to my E-ZPass account, update my payment info, choose a threshold at which E-ZPass automatically replenishes my balance so that I can pay tolls with ease and confidence. Since both types of platforms – new transit fare payment systems and E-ZPass – are account-based, linking them is largely a software project. One possible direction for this integration: E-ZPass could introduce support for Apple Pay, so that E-ZPass members can add their E-ZPass account to their iPhone alongside other payment methods.

Second, many of the agencies that are already members of E-ZPass directly operate toll facilities and transit, or are connected to the agencies that run transit. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees MTA New York City Transit, which operates the city’s subway and bus network, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels, which uses E-ZPass, creating a natural opportunity for collaboration on seamless payment. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is directly responsible for both the tolled Massachusetts Turnpike, and Boston’s T. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for the state’s toll facilities, is a sibling of the Maryland Transit Administration. Both are overseen by the Maryland Department of Transportation, creating another opportunity for interagency collaboration. Linking toll and transit payments would transform customer experience by eliminating a barrier to transit use, drive more customers to use transit, and help agencies save money on user fee collection.

As E-ZPass connects transit, the convenience of using transit throughout the seventeen-state region will mirror the ease of driving that E-ZPass customers enjoy today. A Chicagoan can use a Ventra card while visiting Boston, a Pittsburgher can use a Port Authority ConnectCard while visiting Philadelphia, and a Bostonian can use a CharlieCard when in DC. As agencies throughout the E-ZPass region continue to introduce new fare payment platforms, like the OMNY from New York’s MTA, Indianapolis’ IndyGo, and Cincinnati’s Cincy EZRide, integrating these new platforms with E-ZPass from the start will accelerate adoption.

In addition to the new convenience, here is another reason why this idea’s time has come. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report in 2018 that calls for unprecedented action to keep warming below the 1.5°C threshold above which the most damaging effects of climate change will be inescapable. Transportation accounts for 28 percen of worldwide energy demand, and 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that directly contribute to atmospheric warming.

To reduce transportation’s impact on climate change, the UN report specifically calls for a greater switch from cars to buses and trains: “it is primarily the switching of passengers and freight from less- to more-efficient travel modes (e.g., cars, trucks and airplanes to buses and trains) that is the main strategy.” Enabling seamless transit fare-payments will add a new chapter to the E-ZPass success story. It will accelerate the transition to more diverse mobility options. It will better balance use of roads and rails. It will further boost quality of life. It will benefit our environment.

The author presented this idea at the New Jersey Future Redevelopment Forum in March, 2019. Presentation slides are available on SlideShare.

Subway Photo: John St. John. E-ZPass Toll Booth Photo: Peter Titmuss / Alamy Stock Photo.

Chicago Transit’s Digital Redesign Offers Blueprint for Transforming Customer Experience

Mobility Lab – Feature Story

Transit users are an agency’s most valuable source of insight. Customers typically use an agency’s website to plan trips, check arrival times, and get updates on planned work. Visitors typically need to get maps, figure out fares, and find their way around. Journalists, advocates, and policymakers need to keep up with capital plans, system improvements, and service quality for their constituents. Engaging with each group gives an agency the ability to inform, drive, and optimize its services in ways that can continually energize their relationship with transit. Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, and former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer during the Obama Administration calls this delivery-driven government. Continues…

PATH to Penn Station: Restoring an Underground Passage to Streamline Tri-State Transit

When New York Penn Station was built in the early 20th century, a passageway beneath 33rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues seamlessly connected passengers to transit, hotels, stores, and businesses along the block-long span adjacent to the new station. The Gimbels Passageway, as it came to be known, gave passengers easy access to the Hotel Pennsylvania, Gimbels Department Store (a then-major rival to Macy’s), and the rapid transit hub at 34th Street-Herald Square, where passengers could reach multiple elevated and subway lines.

The passage survived the decline of rail traffic in the mid-twentieth century, and the controversial demolition of Penn Station’s headhouse in 1963, but it was closed in 1986 during the period in which New York City nearly declared municipal bankruptcy, and disinvestment in mass transit led to a rise in crime and squalor throughout the subway system.

In 2009, Vornado Realty Trust made restoring and reopening the passageway part of a package of transit upgrades intended to win city approval for its 15 Penn Plaza project, which proposed to replace the Hotel Pennsylvania with a 1,200-foot tall office tower. Steve Cuozzo, commercial real estate columnist at the New York Post, described the changes in 2010 as a “wish-list” from transit agencies to streamline customer experience at the busiest rail station in the Western Hemisphere, and three of the busiest subway stations in the New York & New Jersey region.

According to the environmental impact study, Vornado would build new subway entrances at Seventh Avenue between West 32nd and 33rd streets; widen the congested northbound No. 1 line platform by six feet; and widen stairs and build new escalators and elevators to serve the subway and PATH lines. It would also improve access to the Sixth Avenue subway and PATH entrances, which are both now hidden inside the Manhattan Mall.

But the most dramatic change in the proposal might be a plan to open a sanitized, 21st Century edition of the old Gimbels Passageway — the creepy corridor that once connected the Herald Square and Penn Station/Seventh Avenue subway stations, until crime and squalor forced the MTA to close it in 1980.

The concourse would be widened to 16 feet from 9 feet and crafted like Rockefeller Center’s, with stores, artwork and mid- block access points.

Vornado commissioned visual artist Stewart Smith to create a potential public art installation for the reopened passageway. Smith proposed a simulation using 900 rotating digital discs to explore the theme of clockwork.

In an April 15, 2010 presentation to Manhattan Community Board 5, Bob Paley, director of transit-oriented development for the MTA, voiced the agency’s support for the project and the transit improvements it would bring to the area around Penn Station.

The MTA strongly supports this project – both the subway and transit improvements and the new tower that will rise above them. Although we can’t bring back the old Penn Station, through a series of very significant improvements such as those proposed as part of this development, we will be able to bring back the high level of convenience and amenity that the public deserves.”

Although 15 Penn Plaza faced opposition from preservation advocates over the proposed demolition of the Hotel Pennsylvania to make room for the tower, and the local community board voted 36-1 against it, the project was unanimously approved by the New York City Department of City Planning, and subsequently approved by the New York City Council in 2010. Citing market conditions, Vornado delayed the project in 2011. In 2013, the developer announced that it was exploring a makeover of the hotel instead of demolition.

In 2017, Vornado, Related Companies, Skanska, and Empire State Development Corporation finalized a $1.6B project to convert the James A. Farley Post Office into a new headhouse for Penn Station. Named after the late-U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who championed a new train station to replace the demolished Penn Station headhouse, the Moynihan Train Hall will be the transit centerpiece of an emerging neighborhood that extends from the Hudson Yards and Manhattan West developments west of the station to the Penn Plaza towers directly above, and the fast-growing Herald Square to the east.

Moynihan Train Hall’s expected opening in 2020 will give passengers new entrances, retail, waiting areas, and train access, and will enable the renovation and streamlining of existing passenger spaces throughout the station. In September 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans for a new pedestrian plaza and Long Island Rail Road entrance on 33rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The project also includes renovation and expansion of the LIRR passenger concourse under 33rd Street.

Reopening Gimbels Passageway would complete this transformation, by linking the B/D/F/M subway trains and PATH at Sixth Avenue, with the 1/2/3 and A/C/E subway trains, Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit at Penn/Moynihan Station between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It would be a low-cost, high-profile enhancement to the renewal of Penn Station, and an opportunity for an innovative public/private partnership with the real estate community.

A Transit Vision for the Tri-State Region

Customer experience is a major factor in consumer decision-making that can rebuild trust in transit.

NorthJersey.com/The Record and Asbury Park Press

On August 23, 2018, the North Jersey Record published an op-ed on transit in New Jersey that called for a new vision for the mass transit systems serving the tri-state region. Here is my vision, based on my experience of having created and chaired the PATH Riders Council for the past four years. Let’s make the customer experience of transit rival that of the interstate highway system: Simple signage, standardized wayfinding, seamless payment, and a streamlined network that gets you from Point A to Point B. Continues…

Seamless Subway Rides Replace Shuttle Buses, Thanks to Port Authority, MTA Collaboration

Free MetroCards Streamline the Customer Experience During Weekend Service Changes on PATH

Mobility Lab – Feature Article

Taking cues from feedback in 2016, transit officials on both sides of the Hudson River this year collaborated on a new way of speeding weekend riders on the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) subway into midtown Manhattan from New Jersey during scheduled service disruptions. This year’s improved customer service program constitutes both an achievement and a model for further collaboration among transit agencies in the New York metro area. Here’s the story of how this latest innovation came together. Continues…

Verkehrsverbund: How Germany Standardizes Transit Customer Experience

Berlin Friedrichstraße

Mobility Lab – Feature Article

The customer experience of transit starts before you ever board a bus, train, tram, or ferry. For transit to compete effectively with driving, it needs to be easy for a person to make an informed decision that transit will offer a superior experience. Over the past half-century, Germany’s urban regions have harmonized their transit customer experience via the Verkehrsverbund, or transport association, a coordinating body that works with transit operators to synthesize their services and present them to the customer as a unified network. Continues…

Extending PATH: Newark Airport Access, New Neighborhood Connections, & Hudson Transit Resilience

PATH Newark Extension

The New York & New Jersey region has a transformational opportunity to improve airport access, and better connect Newark’s South Ward to transit, by extending PATH, New York’s ‘second subway’, to Newark Liberty International Airport. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which operates PATH, is currently in the advanced planning stages of the PATH Extension Project, and is seeking public input as the project moves forward. Here are three ways it would benefit the region. Continues…

Microtransit: How Private Residential Shuttles Can Become Hyperlocal Public Transit

Hoboken could make the Hop into an indispensable, hyperlocal transit backbone with expanded service, and an iconic fleet.

Every workday, 58% of the working population of Hoboken, New Jersey relies on public transit to earn their paycheck. That makes Hoboken’s share of transit use higher than every other city in the US, including New York City.

An increasing number of multiunit residential developments in Hoboken offer private shuttle service to the city’s major transit hub, Hoboken Terminal. These shuttles are a desirable amenity for real estate developments because they reduce the perceived distance to access mainline transit, streamline trips with luggage or strollers, and shield people from inclement weather. However, these shuttles are not open to all residents of the city, despite their impact on public resources. They contribute to congestion because each development operates its own shuttle service, impact the quality of life on streets maintained using public resources, and draw people away from The Hop, Hoboken’s hyperlocal municipal bus service.

With such a high rate of public transit use, Hoboken has an opportunity to turn The Hop into a case study for microtransit, a new service model outlined by the nonprofit transportation policy organization Eno Center for Transportation in its study UpRouted: Exploring Microtransit in the United States. Eno explored how cities are bridging the ‘last-mile’ between traditional, fixed-route rail and bus service, and people’s trip destinations in a way that eases congestion, reduces wear-and-tear on city streets, and is supported by an innovative public-private partnership.

Hoboken can do this by partnering with private-sector real-estate developers to subsidize redesigned Hop service that is more frequent, has extended operating hours beyond the current 7AM-8PM service, and reaches residential developments that currently run private shuttles. New vehicle branding, signage at stops, and simple service maps posted throughout the city will increase awareness and use of the system. The reimagined Hop would be funded by the city entering into agreements with real estate developers to subsidize public transit in lieu of their private shuttles, and through givebacks in future development agreements. Developers would be incentivized to support citywide public transit by a special transit assessment that would be applied to developments that opt to run private shuttles.

Eliminating The Hop’s current $1 fare would put it at parity with the private shuttles operated by residential developments, and is the first step to transitioning developer investment from privately operated shuttles that contribute to congestion to shared investment in building ridership on the public service. The existing 22% fare box recovery ratio isn’t high enough to justify the current $1 fare, whereas partnering with residential developments to provide a predictable operating subsidy for The Hop would enable the City of Hoboken to use its existing $250,000 annual municipal subsidy for capital investment in an expanded fleet of minibuses to support more frequent service.

Update – March 2019: Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla announced the city would drop the $1 fare for The Hop, making the hyperlocal bus service free for the first time.

Update – February 2020: The City of Hoboken announced that ridership on The Hop grew 30% in the year since the service was made fare-free.

Reimagined Hop service that is more frequent, reaches the residential developments that currently run private shuttles, and has extended operating hours will give all Hoboken residents access to better bus service. Partnering with private-sector developers to subsidize this service benefits the public. Strengthening street safety, transforming local transit, and building new public space at Hudson Place will advance pedestrian priority in Hoboken, and cement the city as a national leader.

Hoboken could make the Hop into an indispensable, hyperlocal transit backbone with expanded service, and an iconic fleet.

Hoboken could make the Hop into an indispensable, hyperlocal transit backbone with expanded service, and an iconic fleet.

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