RFID Takes a Ride With School Bus Fare System

By Claire Swedberg

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.

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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.

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.