City of Calgary gets on board with mobile transit payments

On Wednesday, the city's transportation and transit committee recommended city council implement a mobile ticketing and fare payment system for Calgary Transit.

Last attempt at electronic fare payment, the Connect Card, was a bust

Calgary Transit is considering whether to implement mobile far payments for the bus and LRT. (CBC/City of Calgary)

After two failed attempts at an electronic fare system and decades of requiring exact change to ride the city bus, Calgary Transit is now considering allowing customers to use smartphones to purchase fares. 

On Wednesday, the city's transportation and transit committee recommended city council implement a mobile ticketing and fare payment system for Calgary Transit. 

While other cities use refillable smart cards, provide one-week passes or offer electronic fare systems, paying for Calgary Transit has long been more or less the same.

Ticket vending machines were first installed at LRT stations in 1989 and they've since been upgraded to accept credit and debit cards, as well as cash. Taking the bus itself requires monthly passes, prepaid paper tickets or exact change. 

Pay with smartphone app

The city says these electronic upgrades will improve customer satisfaction and that customers want more flexible and convenient options.

Users would download an app to their smartphones and create an account which would allow them to purchase a fare that would activate upon boarding a bus or train. When required to show their ticket, mobile users would simply show the bus driver or transit officers a virtual ticket on their smartphone. 

"In many ways, it's automatic," Coun. Shane Keating, who chairs the committee, told the Calgary Eyeopener. "You can do it anywhere due to the wireless technology. 

Upgrading to mobile ticketing and completing the required replacement of the existing ticket vending machines is expected to cost $20.5 million over five years, and administration estimates it would take one to two years to implement.

This illustration from the City of Calgary shows how a mobile fare payment system would work. (City of Calgary)

That's a far smaller budget — and shorter timeline — than implementing an account-based electronic fare system like Toronto's PRESTO card. Going that route, which the city has twice tried and failed to do, would cost $55 million to $75 million and take more than four years to put into effect.

Connect card failure

Calgary Transit twice gave up on an electronic fare payment system, called the Connect card. (CBC)

The city first started experimenting with electronic fare payment in 2010. By 2012, it was testing the smart cards, but terminated the project a year later, citing problems with the company that had been given the contract.

Late in 2013, the city rehired the same company and relaunched the project. Testing took place in 2014, and by June, 2015, the city announced it was once again giving up. 

"Unfortunately that didn't pan out and was cancelled," Keating said. "Now we're re-looking at what can be done and where we can do something in the short term ... which is the mobile app."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener