How do contactless smart transit cards work and are they secure?

The way you use public transportation is changing, and for the better. In the past, you may have used a paper ticket or a token when boarding public transportation. Or you may have a transit card with a magnetic stripe on it, containing a stored prepaid ticket value that you have to “top up” at ticketing machines at the metro or train station.

In the last few years though, you may have started to use a new kind of fare card when you take the subway or bus in your city. If not, you soon will be. This is because several cities have implemented what is called “automatic fare collection” (or AFC) systems. These systems make your experience using public transit a lot easier because they implement fare cards that use contactless smart card technology. These cards, called smart transit cards, are becoming the norm in almost all major U.S. cities.


How do Contactless Smart Transit Cards Work and are They Secure?

Contactless smart transit cards are very simple to use. The card’s smart card chip is a tiny computer that works with the fare payment system to keep track of your remaining ticketing value. The “contactless” functionality of your card allows it to make a wireless connection with a reader. You simply hold your card up to a reader, your fare is paid, and you can go on your way. It is faster, easier and more convenient.

Contactless smart transit cards, together with the fare payment network behind them, deliver very high levels of security for you. Your transit card is, in most cases, anonymous, so no one can glean any information about you from the card. In addition, because contactless smart transit cards contain many layers of security, it would be nearly impossible for someone to counterfeit and use it.

Where are these changes happening?

If you live in the following areas, you probably have a contactless smart transit card, or will be getting one soon: Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Houston, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; Maryland; Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York City, New York; Newark, New Jersey; Orlando, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Diego, California; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Utah; and Ventura County, California.

In most of these cities, the smart transit cards work on a “closed loop system,” so you can use it only to pay transit fares. Now, some cities are working on an innovative new concept that converges transit payment with financial payments.

Converging transit and retail contactless payments

Contactless financial payments are increasingly popular in the United States for the same reasons as in transit—it is faster, easier and more convenient. Many companies that issue credit and debit cards offer these cards with contactless functionality. And a growing list of retailers accept these cards, including Dairy Queen, Walgreen's, McDonalds, CVS and Arby's. This raises the question – if the financial banking world is increasingly using contactless smart card technology, and the transit industry is, too, why not just have one card for consumers to pay for goods and service and transit? MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) and Utah Transit Authority (UTA) had the same question, and now are testing different approaches to bring this idea to life. Eventually, this means you might pay transit fares just as you do everything else you buy with your card, without having to transfer money into a separate transit card.

What’s Next in Transit Technology: Paying With Your Mobile Phone?

But what if you could just pay using your cell phone in place of a card? New technology called NFC (Near Field Communication) would make that possible, and it is expected to be the next hot trend in payments. NFC technology is the wireless connectivity standard endorsed by the industry for short range data transfer – including payment information – from your mobile phone to something right next to it, such as a transit turnstile. With this technology, you can store your payment information in your mobile phone, and use it to pay instead of a card. This is called “NFC mobile payments” or sometimes just “mobile payments.”

Industry experts see NFC mobile payments as a natural evolution from contactless smart card payments. Why? Because NFC mobile payment is based on the same technology as contactless payments, so the readers that accept your contactless payments can also accept NFC payments. From this, might you expect to someday be able to pay for your public transportation with your cell phone? It is possible, and it is already happening in the USA and other parts of the world. Cities in China, the Czech Republic and Malaysia are among those testing NFC mobile payments for transit. With technology moving quickly and transit authorities right behind, there is a good chance that NFC mobile payments for transit could be the wave of the future for the United States.

To sum up:

1. Several U.S. cities have implemented what is called “automatic fare collection” (or AFC) systems with contactless smart card technology for faster, easier and more convenient fare collection for riders 

2. With these technologies, your personal data is secure

3. Future applications will develop for mobile payment and ticketing for transit with a unique payment card


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