Are Smart Cards the Smart Way to Go? Examining Their Adoption by U.S. Transit Agencies

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

ridership - commuting, policy - fares, mode - mass transit


Transit operators, Transit operating agencies, Transit lines, Transit, Technological innovations, Teamwork, Smart materials, Smart cards, Public transit lines, Public transit, Mass transit lines, Mass transit, Local transit, Interoperability, Intelligent materials, Integrated circuit cards, Fares, Fare collection, Fare and toll prepayment, Cooperation, Contactless fare cards, Collaboration, Chip cards, Advanced technology


Smart card technologies offer public transit agencies unprecedented opportunity to price services flexibly by time, distance, and mode and in conjunction with neighboring transit operators. They also can simplify boarding, streamline accounting, and provide better passenger data. Some transit systems have moved quickly to adopt smart card fare media, others are moving more cautiously, and still others eschew smart cards—at least for now. Why such differences? U.S. transit agencies were surveyed to gauge current levels of interest in smart card technologies as next-generation fare media; examine knowledge and perceptions of costs, benefits, and risks of smart card adoption; and determine the status of system implementation, the degree of planning toward implementation, and the levels of participation in interagency collaboration to realize interoperability. Factors common to agencies that have and have not adopted smart card technology also were examined. Results indicate that the consideration and adoption of smart card technologies and interoperable systems vary by funding availability and partnerships with other operators in joint projects for intelligent transportation systems. Perceptions of benefits, costs, and risks of such technologies also vary by status of smart card system planning and implementation. Managers often are uncertain about the costs in general and the benefits in particular of such a move, especially regarding interoperable systems. History predicts the future: technologically sophisticated operators tend to embrace smart cards, whereas those working collaboratively with other transit agencies are most likely to adopt interoperable systems.