When Will All Transit Systems Adopt RFID?

The technology is not only more convenient, but also saves millions of dollars in costs.
Published: July 20, 2009

On Saturday night, my wife and I went to see Sir Paul McCartney at Citi Field. We parked our car in Queens and took the subway to the stadium, in order to avoid getting stuck in the parking lot as thousands of concert-goers tried to get out at the same time. Instead, we got caught in a “traffic jam” of another sort at the subway station, as we waited in line for people to swipe their archaic Metro cards through the mag-stripe reader. I said to my wife, “If they used RFID, there’d be no line here.”

Asian cities, and even many in Europe, know well the benefits of radio frequency identification. Hong Kong’s MTR, for instance, switched to RFID-enabled Octopus cards a few years ago for stored value tickets. And Seoul recently went a step further by adopting RFID for single-trip tickets. By eliminating 450 million printed tickets, the transit agency expects to save $2.4 million annually.

The agency didn’t mention any additional savings from staff reductions, but it will likely save millions more by reducing ticket-takers, those who collect the cash and coins, and security to protect the money. I’ve been told that in some cases, it would be cheaper to let people ride for free than to spend the money to manage fare collection, but cities don’t do this because it’s politically unacceptable.

RFID fare-collection systems not only save transit operators millions, they’ve also been extremely well received by riders, who don’t have to stand and wait for the person in front to swipe their card three times. My kids travel to Hong Kong every year, and ride the subway frequently. They think the New York subway system is antiquated.

One day, all transit systems will adopt RFID because the benefits are so significant. Many cities have already made the change, but here in the United States, we’ve only begun to tap RFID’s potential. Employing RFID along train and bus routes could tell you, for instance, precisely how far away the next ride is. The data collected using RFID could help transit operators better manage resources and put more rail cars or buses on routes during peak periods. Data could be used to pinpoint causes of delays and improve service.

New York has just hired Jay Walder, the public transportation expert who brought RFID and other improvements to London’s aging transit system, to be chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. So perhaps there is hope for the crowds leaving many of New York’s big events.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.