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RFID Takes a Ride With School Bus Fare System

South Dakota's River Cities Public Transit is expanding its smart-card bus-fare solution that enables school children and other passengers to simply tap the card when they enter a bus, automatically deducting the fare from their prepaid balance.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 23, 2017

After testing a bus-fare smart-card system for three months using 13.56 MHz high-frequency (HF) RFID technology with school children, River Cities Public Transit (RCPT) is now permanently expanding the solution's use for kids, as well as for adult passengers, on all 80 of its buses. The South Dakota transit company, in partnership with its software vendor, Shah Software, developed the system in-house, using its own software and app to manage RFID-enabled fare card data, as well as on-board tablets and NXP Semiconductors NTAG 213 chips built into its fare cards for all passengers.

RCPT is a private, nonprofit agency that provides transportation services to disabled individuals, the elderly, low-income commuters and school children. The agency buses cover a 16-county-wide area, from the state's east border to the west. The company serves small urban and rural areas, including children who use the service for transportation to and from school, as well as to afterschool programs offered at the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Pierre and beyond.

A driver can use a tablet to view a list of riders on his or her route, including the next child scheduled for pick-up.
Before the smart-card system was launched, passengers, including school children, used a punch-card system to pay for their rides. Parents would buy the paper card preloaded with a specific number of rides, and drivers would punch a hole in the card each time a child presented it upon entering a bus. A ten-ride ticket cost $10. In addition, children using the afterschool bus had a different card prepaid for the entire month for unlimited rides to afternoon programs.

The system proved confusing for passengers and drivers, as well as students' parents. If a child or other passenger lost a prepaid card, he or she thus lost all unused rides on that card. In addition, the punch-card system was sometimes time-consuming when passengers entered a bus, and in some cases drivers accepted riders based on a variety of understandings regarding rider contracts. School children who didn't have the paper punch card could pay with cash, but if they also lacked cash, drivers typically provided them with a ride anyway. Then, after completing their shift, the drivers had to communicate with RCPT's office to contact those kids' parents about the unpaid fare.

The RFID smart-card system makes the system much simpler, says Scott Baker, RCPT's technology administrator. The agency began looking into the smart-card technology in 2012, then implemented the system last year, at which time it provided buses with smart tablets to read the fare cards' tags. The agency began testing the technology with school children in September 2016.

Upon visiting RCPT's office, a passenger or parent can purchase a smart card, which has a unique ID number encoded to it that is linked to a specific student rider in the agency's management software. The software stores data indicating how many rides a particular child is entitled to with his or her card. There are two different cards provided: one for the $1 ride to school or back, the other prepaid for a month's service to afterschool programs. Students' parents can update the card with payments online using a credit card, or make prepayments in cash.

Each bus is equipped with a tablet running RCPT's app that shares data with the agency's back-end software. The device employs a cellular connection or cradle-point Wi-Fi router to link app data with the software. The driver can use the tablet to view the list of riders on his or her route, with the next child or children expected to be picked up displayed at the top of the list.

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