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Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus to Launch App for Passes
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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

April 5, 2017 -- Santa Monica’s municipal bus system hopes to launch a smartphone app soon that allows customers to purchase bus passes, a move meant to buoy flagging ridership.

The Big Blue Bus (BBB) system is taking “Token Transit,” a mobile app, out for a test drive to see if it increases purchases of bus passes, said Edward King, the City’s director of transit services.

Using the Token Transit app, customers can buy and then activate transit passes on their smartphones they can show the driver, King said.

“Token Transit is a rapidly deployable alternative to smartcards that helps boost ridership, decrease costs, and improve service,” he said.

In a March 23 report to the City Council, King said several transit providers are either testing or already using similar apps, including and Chicago (CTA), Portland (Tri-Met) and Seattle (King County Metro).

Reno, Nevada and the Northern California city of Eureka use Token Transit's app, company officials said. (To view the app visit tokentransit.com.)

But King said a full-scale launch could cost the City $500,000 and take months “to procure and integrate with the existing fare collection system.”

Instead, BBB has decided to perform a short-term test, he said, possibly this month.

As of December 2016, 47 percent of BBB customers still pay fares by depositing cash -- a process that is time-consuming. King said BBB hopes the app will cut cash transactions by three percent.

More than two-thirds of BBB’s English and Spanish-speaking riders own smartphones, based on an independent survey, King said.

“Given that smartphones are commonly used to pay for various commodities including shared mobility (e.g., to hail a ride or pay for a bike share bike), mobile ticketing for BBB was a logical choice to explore as a fare payment option,” he wrote.

The smartphone app is one of several initiatives to reverse a long decline in ridership, which has dropped about 12 percent to an estimated 14.98 million passengers.

Santa Monica’s bus system has lost riders every year since 2010, when it peaked at slightly more 22.35 million passengers ( "Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus Continues Losing Riders," November 8, 2016).

Bus systems and mass transit in general nationwide still struggle with such declines. In Santa Monica, officials are trying to determine the impact of the Expo light rail system last May on bus ridership.

Token Transit is providing BBB with a license to pilot its proprietary mobile ticketing app. The trial run will not require integration with existing software of hardware, King said.

BBB staff has been following the rapidly-changing fare collection marketplace, attending webinars, trade expositions and conferences, as well as “engaging in peer surveys and site visits,” he said.

The pilot’s contractual maximum is $50,000 in commissions, which will be paid to Token Transit -- a small start-up founded in San Francisco -- during the pilot program.

The commissions translate to approximately $500,000 in mobile pass sales revenue, King said.

“The only cost associated with this contract is a commission rate of 10 percent of sales revenue,” he said.

The pilot project is expected to last from six months to a year. A modest public outreach campaign is being developed, which includes interior car cards on buses, take-one cards at the Transit Store and Twitter and Facebook posts.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that the cities of Chicago, Portland and Seattle use Token Transit's app. Those cities use a similar app. Reno, Nevada and the Northern California city of Eureka use the company's app.


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