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Big Blue Bus to Take Another Step Promoting Cashless Future

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

August 3, 2020 -- The Santa Monica Big Blue Bus (BBB) is taking another step this week towards a cashless future by proposing incentives to use "contactless" alternatives to pay fares.

Customers who use "contactles fare payment methods" would see discounts during "a six-month pilot period starting when fare collection resumes" in the fall, BBB officials said.

The proposal sent to the Council last week by Edward King, the City's director of Transit Services, comes as the agency furthers its plan -- approved before the coronavirus pandemic -- to transition to contactless fares by July 1 of next year.

"Beyond preventing contagion, contactless fare payment offers other advantages that include creating a faster boarding process and speeding up service," King wrote in his July 27 report to the Council.

It also reduces "the need for expensive cash handling after buses are serviced every evening," as well as "the need for and cost of manufacturing, loading, and distributing magnetic stripe passes."

The agency's promotion of cashless payment methods have reduced the use of cash and magnetic fare cards from 98 percent of all transactions at the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year to 53 percent four years later, King said.

"BBB’s goal is the eventual elimination of cash and magnetic fare payment through attracting people to contactless fare payment," he wrote.

"The realities of the coronavirus pandemic have caused BBB staff to reexamine customer needs and safety in light of the unsanitary nature of cash and magnetic passes and to look for ways to support a greater shift to contactless payment."

But the global transition from cash -- which has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic despite the lack of medical evidence that cash transmits the disease -- has some worried, according to a July 6 article in The New York Times.

"Consumer groups warn that vulnerable people risk being marginalized," the article said.

"Many low-income earners and retirees, as well as some immigrants and people with disabilities, have little or no access to electronic payments and are increasingly shut out as banks cut back on A.T.M.s and customer service."

The article also notes that "there is no medical evidence that cash transmits the coronavirus.

"Nonetheless, 'perceptions that cash could spread pathogens may change payment behavior by users and firms,' the Bank for International Settlements said in a recent study on the effect of Covid-19 on cash use," according to the Times report.

If the BBB eliminates cash by next July as planned, customers would have to rely on the agency's TAP program, which uses contactless cards, or pay using smartphones apps, agency officials said.

Introduced in February 2015, TAP (Transit Access Pass) allows customers to pay their fare by holding their fare card adjacent to a TAP card reader installed on all buses, King said.

"Customers using TAP are no longer required to touch the farebox or any other surface upon boarding," King wrote.

In April 2017, BBB introduced mobile ticketing through a smartphone app called Token Transit ("Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus to Launch App for Passes," April 5, 2017).

In November, the agency partnered with an additional app provider, Transit, to integrate mobile ticketing with that app ("Big Blue Bus Riders Can Use App to Buy Single Ride Tickets," November 14, 2019).

Using either app, customers enter their credit or debit card information and "pay their fare by activating a ticket on their screen that they show to the Operator," officials said.

The switch to contactless fare payments is expected to save BBB an estimated $355,000 during the 2020-21 fiscal year, King said.

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