Payment Methods

In Hawaii, Streamlined Mass Transit In The (HOLO) Cards, Beyond The Paper Pass

You may be familiar with the drill: Get on the bus — or the train — and get out the ticket. The paper one, the one that gets punched (yes, that’s still a thing!) or gets put in the slot to log your fare and is returned to you.

It’s a process that is manual at least in part, and slower than it needs to be.

More likely you are headed to your final destination across a number of methods, with bus, train and possibly even bike in the mix.

If the longest journey begins with a simple step, might the streamlined journey begin with a simple tap of the card?

In Hawaii, we are about to find out.

Late April saw the debut of the HOLO card, used for Oahu Transit, a project in which the cards are to be used across the system’s busses and a rail system being built out over the next several years.

The goal: A continuum of transit, flowing with speed and across payments.

In an interview with PYMNTS, Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the Department of Transportation Services, said the program is in pilot mode, being rolled out over roughly 10 percent of the bus fleet (that 10 percent equates to more than 50 buses). The HOLO card can be loaded with cash via phone or bank account.

Nouchi noted his transit system is marked by density of population and high use — and has the fifth-highest ridership in the nation, taking its place alongside New York, San Francisco and Boston, for example. How bustling? The bus system carries 70 million people annually, a ridership that, of course, includes tourists.

As of now, it’s the only location of those five that is without a rail system, though that is slated to change.

Through it all, fares are conveyed through paper cardboard passes and paper transfers. Nouchi noted that as printing technologies have advanced in recent years, so has the ability of bad actors to falsify documents and tickets, and essentially get a free ride.

He told PYMNTS that the rail transit project currently under construction in Honolulu has offered a “good opportunity” to introduce smart cards, as the train system will have no drivers (i.e. it will be fully automated).  He said the smart card would work across all modes of transit, from bus to rail to paratransit and even bike sharing.

The pilot program entails 250 to 1,000 users keeping travel diaries and using the cards as the transit system verifies where they got on and what trips they took.

Nouchi detailed that transit planners had to choose whether they wanted a closed payment system or an open payment system. The closed loop account-based system is one where every card has an account linked to it. The open “choice” would allow someone to tap a chip-enabled Visa or Mastercard or standard credit card on the pass validator.

Upon designing the HOLO card tied to a closed loop system and creating a card that has its own built-in security features, said Nouchi, “We wanted to preserve the sales mechanism and the processes that our passengers were used to over the years. So that meant keeping the point of sale at all of the major supermarkets and convenience stores and our regular outlets … while adding web functionality.”

But the smart card also needed to be designed in terms of payments functionality so the passenger can board the bus quickly and not get bogged down in the paper-based process. In this case, payment is made by tapping a card onto a validator, said the transit executive, who also said the system can move to an open payments system later should that be decided.

“In terms of specifications, we made sure that the data backbones were very strong on the bus, on both the mobile and data sides, so that we didn’t increase the amount of time we spent at stops to board the same number of passengers,” he told PYMNTS.

As for larger trends, Nouchi said, “The transit industry is very collaborative. We share the things we do well. And we had the benefit of looking at our industry peers and really constructing a fare system around what everyone had done previously.” Notably, he said, some of those transit-innovating peers are on their second or third generation of smart cards. “The product that we are going to roll out is really the beneficiary of everybody taking those steps.”

The vendor being used, he said, is INIT, which makes hardware and software for public transit companies.

“How I perceive our multimodal network is that it’s always growing.” Eventually, he said, individuals would travel seamlessly through the system and across transport options. The first half of the rail line is slated for completion in 2020. This fare system will be running before that, and the transit authority needs to accommodate the transfers between bus and rail. The next tranche, said Nouchi, is a challenge, as the combined and expanded transit system wends its way through the densest part of the city and is expected to go live in 2025.

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