What Mobile Payments Will Mean for San Francisco Public Transportation

On November 16th, San Francisco will show that it’s finally ready to accommodate changing consumer behavior. If all goes well, this is when MUNI Mobile, an app to let people pre-pay for their bus fare, will launch.

What will this mean for the future of San Francisco public transportation? Will ridership boom ? Most importantly, how will this affect the often-angst-filled experience of a daily transit rider?

These are the questions I’ve set out to answer.

Opportunity for Impact

In a city where 32% of residents commute to work each day using public transit, the impact of this new payment option is enticing.

A recent study showed that 55% of people use Clipper, San Francisco’s transit card most often. These are dedicated riders for whom this change means little. The other 45% however, use “cash/other” as payment type and could benefit greatly from MUNI Mobile.

In age of smartphone taxi rides and digital payments for just about everything, the process of checking to see if you have $2.25 for a public transit fare is one that feels cumbersome and frankly, slightly humiliating.

How can we expect people to have exact change of $2.25 for the bus in an age when 9% of people don’t carry any cash, and 80% of people don’t want to carry coins?

Without this extra step, I expect we will see some “undecided riders” favor MUNI more often now over alternatives like walking, Lyft Line, or Uber Pool. We may also see this move further hurt Taxis, as tourists will feel more comfortable using city transit with a better payment experience.

Mobile Payments for Public Transportation: A Track Record

San Francisco is not the first city to support mobile payments for public transportation. This means we have a few years of other city’s programs to learn from.

  • Boston saw mobile tickets grow to 16% of all transit purchases within the first year of their mobile ticketing app
  • Portland saw 11% of their 2015 fiscal year fares come via mobile app
  • A happy side effect — vending machines for tickets cost ~$50,000 (not to mention upkeep costs). Mobile ticketing could lessen the burden on existing machines and cut down on replacement costs.

Cross Your Fingers

I’ve argued a best case scenario for this rollout, but we know all too well that when government and technology mix it’s often not pretty what comes out the other end.

Chicago’s mobile ticketing app missed two deadlines and is still not out yet, 6+ months overdue and counting.

Other mobile ticketing apps have found criticism in the app store — both NJ Transit and LA Mobile have a 1.5 star rating.

San Francisco seems undaunted, however, even going as far to already hint at future uses for the app, saying it is “potentially open to other transportation providers that we manage and regulate, including taxis, car share, bike share and others.”

Summary: What to Expect

  • Rollout will be slow and buggy — Education will take time, and there will almost certainly be glitches in initial app releases. Here’s a chart of daily use for Boston’s mTicket app in Month 1:
  • 10–20% of fares in Year 1 via MUNI Mobile would be a success — These are baselines from Portland and Boston, the cities with the two most successful apps so far.
  • This will increase MUNI ridership — As it becomes easier to use public transportation, more people will choose it over alternatives. Paired with a growing San Francisco population, MUNI ridership should increase into 2016. (obvious forces competing against this prediction are increasing ease/low cost of ride sharing)

This shift to digital payments for public transportation in San Francisco is too late. There’s no way around this. But, I’ll take it now rather than never. It’s a small change that should remind us that people who ride public transportation are not second class citizens and deserve the best possible experience. This includes everything from routes to service to yes, payments.

Now, cross your fingers for a smooth rollout :)