A pleased rider recently tweeted that NJ Transit’s mobile ticketing “is the best thing since sliced bread.” Sliced bread is largely overrated, but we should still appreciate the huge strides the agency has made in ticketing in the past decade.
Ticket technology has actually changed twice in that period- First we saw the movement away from cash transactions on board the train to ticket machines. Now those ticket machines are becoming less important as people can buy their own ticket on a smartphone.
The paper ticket era:
In the long forgotten days before 2008 or so, at most stations you could get on a train, and the conductor would collect your fare, punch a series of holes into a strip of paper, and that was your ticket. This was largely the same way train tickets were sold 100 years ago.
It was a good system. Buying a ticket was relatively simple for first-time riders. There was no need to buy the ticket before getting on the train. It was quick.
While it worked for passengers, this system has significant downsides for NJ Transit. It took up a lot of the conductors’ time, and labor is expensive. On crowded trains, the conductors and ticket collectors simply couldn’t reach everyone. Some people got by without their fare ever being collected.
The ticket vending machine era:
The era of on-train ticket sales ended when NJT started installing electronic ticket vending machines. Within a few years, TVMs were installed at virtually every station. Passengers would be required to buy their ticket from the machine before boarding, and then present it to the conductor on the train.
It became easier for NJ Transit to collect fares, and the workload for conductors went down. Most of this work was offloaded onto the passengers. It was now the passenger’s responsibility to find the ticket machine and figure out how to pay. For many riders, this meant arriving a few minutes earlier at the station, and potentially waiting in line to buy a ticket.
This was especially inconveniencing for riders at stations where the ticket machines were located only on one platform, and crossing between the platforms isn’t always quick. Buying a ticket on the train is still an option, but is subject to a $5 surcharge.
There were benefits for passengers too. For the first time, it was possible to pay with debit or credit cards at most stations. It was also possible to buy 10-trip and weekly/monthly passes at outlying stations.
The mobile app era:
The app spread to other rail lines, and then light rail and bus routes. It now has 600,000 users. Mobile ticketing gives passengers all of the advantages of the ticket vending machine but without the downsides of waiting in line for the machine, or having to arrive at the station early. Now, you can buy your ticket when you get on the train, just like in the paper ticket era.
There are kinks to be worked out. Cell service is very poor in the caverns below Penn Station. Sometimes the app has bugs. And there still isn’t a solution for the passenger whose battery runs out.
Obviously, we’re not anywhere close to the point where everyone will have smartphones and be able to buy tickets with them. But smartphone ticketing is already improving the transit experience. It makes it possible to arrive a few minutes later at the station and still catch the train, which makes the trip quicker and more convenient for a lot of people.
MyTix works on buses now, but has yet to really catch on for one-ride payment. Every time someone fumbles around in their wallet for change or, on a bus to New York, asks the driver for change, the bus gets delayed. Mobile ticketing can reduce some of the dwell time buses spend at busy stops, and make things easier for passengers who don’t have exact change. And as more and more people start to use mobile ticketing, the benefits will only increase.
For an agency that doesn’t innovate much, ticketing technology is definitely one of NJT’s strengths. Did I mention that the MyTix app was made in-house?