Sara Rubin here, struggling to remember the last time I rode the bus. Public transportation and the experience of fumbling around for change are things I haven’t done since pre-pandemic. While public transportation is most definitely still around, local public transportation officials are hoping that the whole gathering change part might be a thing of the past.
Today, Monterey-Salinas Transit introduced a touchless payment option on its buses, and it’s a big deal for a few reasons. One, unlike other touchless transit systems you may have used that first require you to download an app specific to that system, these new machines accept MasterCard, Visa, smartphone wallet and FitBits, more generalized payment tools. Two, that innovation—of accepting universal forms of payment—is the first of its kind to launch in California, thanks to the California Integrated Travel Project, a Caltrans initiative. (Sacramento and Santa Barbara in the process of joining the pilot initiative.)
Contactless payment is something that MST riders requested during the pandemic, and besides adding a sanitation boost it also adds convenience and a few tech boosts. One, it gives MST a chance to experiment with changing rider behavior based on how they charge. Instead of paying for a full route now, you can pay only for the portion you actually ride, by tapping your card when you board and when you exit the bus. There’s also fare capping, with a $10 maximum per day, even if you ride more than $10 worth of travel. And for riders who register as veterans or people with disabilities through the DMV, the card readers will detect those for automatic discounts, no need to present proof as you board.
If that all sounds kind of nifty and modern, that’s not what MST General Manager/CEO Carl Sedoryk is most excited about. It’s the possible addition this summer of accepting payments via Square cards, which function like credit cards but are designed as a tool for the under-banked—for people who might not have a bank account at all, much less a credit card.
As of 2:15pm today, day one of the new system, 10 riders had used contactless forms of payment. That number is expected to grow as people get used to the system, and once Square comes aboard, expanding access. (Square representatives declined to be interviewed, or to confirm what their plans are.)
In 2017, the FDIC did a survey and reported that 8.4 million American households, or 6.5 percent, are unbanked, meaning no one in the household had a checking or savings account. Another 18.7 percent of households were under-banked, meaning they might have an account or two, but conducted other financial transactions and services in venues other than a bank—places like payday lenders, rent-to-own services, pawn shops and international remittances.
Sedoryk is under no illusions about who rides MST in our car-friendly county, and especially during a pandemic: “Nobody's riding the bus right now unless they absolutely have to,” he says. “MST is proud to provide new opportunities for low income and underbanked members of the communities we serve.”
But the nice thing about making it easier to pay to ride the bus—the same way you tap a card to pay for coffee or lunch—is that it benefits everyone, no matter who you are or how you bank. It’s one little tool in making public transit easier to use and more accessible to all.