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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

When a passenger enters a bus, he or she presents the card by tapping it against the tablet mounted on the driver's console. The RFID reader built into the device captures the tag's ID number and emits a beeping sound, and the app synchs that tag ID data with the software in order to determine whether the card is authorized. If it is, the tablet displays approval for the card, along with the passenger's name. If the prepaid afterschool program card is being used, the system simply confirms that the card is paid in full for that month. In either case, the driver selects the prompt on the tablet screen to indicate that the passenger is being accepted onto the vehicle, and the software deducts $1 from the card's balance.

If a card's account lacks sufficient funds for a ride, the tablet indicates a warning to the driver, who can then use the device to select a prompt for management to send a message to the account's owner (the child's guardian) that the card needs to be replenished. The driver simply selects the rider's displayed name, Baker says, "and a couple of clicks later, they can get the message out" to management in the back-end office. The outstanding $1 can then be deducted from that future replenishment.

RCPT's Scott Baker
There have been a few challenges with the technology that the agency had not anticipated, Baker reports. For one thing, he says, it wasn't as easy to find RFID-enabled tablets as he had hoped. In addition, the school bus environment poses its own obstacles. Although the agency trained drivers to listen for the tablet's beep as each card was being read and approved while children boarded their bus, he explains, the drivers soon realized that the beep was inaudible among the noise of passenger chatter. "Sixty kids on a bus make a lot of noise," Baker says. Drivers now simply watch for the visual cue on the screen when a passenger's card is being read.

To date, Baker reports, the system has provided the agency with several benefits. For one thing, the loading of riders can be accomplished twice as fast as with the manual punch-card or cash-payment method. That means buses stay on schedule and passengers arrive at their destinations faster. Because the cards can be cancelled in the software if they are lost, parents are spared from having to pay to replace misplaced punch cards. If someone were to find a lost fare card, that person would be unable to use it, since it would be linked only to one specific rider, and would have been cancelled once its loss had been reported.

According to Baker, the agency has noticed a reduction in confusion regarding riders' status as well. Since the smart-card system was taken live, he says, "It's dug up some communication gaps that we were unaware of." In some cases, for instance, drivers might be providing free rides for some passengers due to a lack of communication about each rider's agreements with the agency. In the future, RCPT plans to offer its app to customers, such as the parents of student riders, who could use the app [which will be dubbed "Where's My Bus"] to view, for instance, whether their children were picked up, and when this occurred.

Approximately 1,800 RFID-enabled fare cards are currently in use, Baker says, and every bus contains a smart tablet. While the system is currently being used for school children, the cards will also be available in the future for use by adult passengers who regularly ride the bus. In addition, the company is testing the fare cards' use as prepaid gift cards for customers who wish to buy tickets for friends or family members.

This year, the agency also intends to install cameras on each of its buses, with data from those cameras also transmitted to the software, along with smart-card ticket read data via the Wi-Fi router. This will provide security and any necessary confirmation, if needed, regarding who was on the bus at any specific time.

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