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Big Blue Bus to Stop Accepting Cash, Fare Cards; Could Impact the Poor

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

June 25, 2021 -- Starting July 12, Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus (BBB) will stop accepting cash, tokens or paper magnetic fare cards as part of a six-month pilot program, according to agency officials.

BBB's new completely contactless fare payment system -- which could adversely impact a growing number of low-income passengers -- will only accept mobile ticketing or the regional TAP fare payment system, officials said.

Cash-paying customers who are "unbanked" or don't have smartphones can replenish their TAP balances using ticket vending machines, according to a report sent to the City Council on Thursday by Ed King, Santa Monica's director of transportation.

The machines are available along every BBB route, at Blue: The Transit Store or at the nearly 900 retail TAP vendor locations across the County, the report said.

The contactless system could impact low-income customers whose numbers have grown since the coronavirus shutdown, according to the report prepared by Tim McCormick, the agency's manager of planning and performance

These customers "are now living in more concentrated areas of high poverty than in the past" and "are also more likely to live in concentrated areas of recent past COVID-19 infection."

According to the report, "Large numbers of both Seniors and Interagency Transfer customers are not taking advantage of their available fare discounts, due to either unawareness or confusion about the fare systems."

Jones of the Bay

The pilot program marks a major transition that began in 2015, when BBB began to offer alternatives to the traditional payment systems that used cash and paper magnetic fare cards.

"These two fare systems have significant downsides for both customers and BBB, and BBB has sought to promote other fare payment solutions as a result," according to the report.

It takes longer to process cash payments, which under the old system added as much as 13 additional minutes for every 40 passengers that boarded a bus, the report said.

"These delays cause slower service that decreases ridership, increases costs, and makes transit less attractive," according to the report, which adds that "farebox maintenance and cash counting incur significant costs."

In addition, cash and the fareboxes "are known vectors for disease transmission for customers, operators, and those assigned to count and process cash."

While fare cards can be processed faster than cash, customers still touch the farebox, the report said.

The magnetics also tend to fail and are not integrated into the regional TAP system, which uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

The cornonavirus emergency accelerated the transition from cash and fare passes -- which accounted for 53 percent of all boardings before the shutdown -- to contactless fare payments.

After State, County and City officials declared a health emergency in March 2020, the bus system stopped enforcing paying fares and had passengers enter and exit only through the back door.

"The pandemic led BBB staff to reexamine strategies for shifting customers more quickly to contactless fare media," the report said.

By last summer, the agency had created the pilot program to eliminate cash and fare cards after it resumed collecting fares when health restrictions were lifted, according to the report.

To ease the transition, on April 19, BBB began to distribute a free 30-Day pass to any customer who pledged to use contactless fares.

"Cash usage started to decline within the first two weeks of free pass distribution and continues to decline as of this writing," according to the report.

The agency will work "with vulnerable populations to address concerns, remove barriers, and to create communications and programs that empower all users to embrace contactless fares," the report said.

BBB will survey passengers during the pilot program and hold public hearings in the fall to get feedback from customers, agency officials said.

BBB staff will then return to the Council "with recommendations for a long-term fare structure and new fare policy, updates to fare media, and the future of contactless fares," the report concluded.

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