Halifax Transit made a splash recently with the announcement that in a few months, it will be introducing enormous paper tickets to replace the current small square ones.

Twitter users did not disappoint in poking fun at the new out-sized discount fare medium:

A series of diagrams to illustrate the size of the new Halifax Transit tickets pic.twitter.com/8uI32YxCXo

— bc | Paige ☆ Hex @ TI8 (@TheBase16) August 16, 2018

The giant tickets are being introduced to match new fare boxes that the city has purchased from Trapeze Group (the same company hired for transit’s last tech upgrade, the automatic vehicle location system, which gave us real time data). The fare boxes will get installed sometime in early 2019, according to Marc Santilli, Halifax Transit’s manager of technical services, as part of an interim phase of a larger fare management project.

In addition to being barcode and RFID (radio-frequency identification) ready, the fare boxes are designed to accept and automatically verify paper money (though they will not disperse change). And because the scanner is built for a paper currency, Halifax Transit opted to follow the manufacturer’s advice and change the size of their tickets to match.

This seems like a lot of trouble to go to to ensure that you can accept paper money on a bus, considering the smallest Canadian bill in circulation is a $5, enough for two adult fares on Halifax Transit. But Santilli says that people still do occasionally use paper money to pay their fare. “I would say anecdotally it occurs at least a few times a day,” says Santilli.  It happens most often at the ferry terminals, he says. “Multiple people boarding together, they’ll pay with a bill.”

Ticket size might not be the only change that gets passenger attention, though. Once the new boxes are installed the transfer system will become much more automated. Here’s Marc Santilli to explain:

There’s a button on the farebox that they simply press and the farebox will spit out a transfer. And then there’s also the reader for the transfers, so once you get on your next bus you just take that printed transfer, scan it, and just like when you’re paying a fare, it will ding if you’ve paid the right amount or give you a little buzz sound if the transfer is no longer valid.

If passengers forget to get a transfer upon boarding, they will still be able to get one from the driver, but only when the bus is stopped (which is actually not that much different than now; I haven’t noticed too many drivers who hand out transfers mid-ride).

Of course, both paper money and transfers would go down in circulation (and be nearly eliminated) if there were another way to pay available to riders, such as a bespoke smart card system, or an open system using tap-enabled credit and debit cards. Santilli is clear that something like this is in the plan, and that the installation of fare boxes is only an interim phase of a longer plan.

Two dedicated fare management contractors have been hired, through Barrington Consulting (the sole bidder for the RFP to expand Halifax Transit’s transit technology team by a total of six back in September 2017). As soon as this two-person fare management team has seen to the installation of roughly 600 new fare boxes on buses, they will turn to Phase Two: future payment methods.

“We don’t anticipate it being a long transition to the next phase,” says Santilli. “We recognize how eager the public is to have better payment methods.” Santilli estimates an 18-month “ballpark” timeline until new payment methods are available.

That may be optimistic, considering that Halifax Transit has yet to do any consultation on what sort of future payments riders would like to see, which Santilli says is part of the plan as Transit develops a fare management strategy. (Curiously, the strategy is coming after the installation of the fareboxes, which seems a bit like putting the horse after the cart.)

Another hilarious image parodying the size of Halifax Transit’s new-to-come tickets, courtesy of Twitter user @thebase16

The new fareboxes, which cost about $8.6 million, including five years of service and maintenance, feature bar code and RFID readers. They don’t, however, include the physical technology required for tap-enabled debit or credit cards. That technology, which is being piloted and adopted more and more in North America, would require a separate reader to be installed.

The transit system in Laval, Quebec (which has been using the Opus card system, along with Montreal and neighbouring systems since 2008) has been piloting a credit card payment system since spring 2017. Half of the Laval fleet was outfitted with tap-enabled credit card readers beside their standard Opus card reader.

The response has been positive enough that Laval is foregoing Phase 2 of its pilot (to include debit cards) and going straight to full network-wide (Montreal included) installation of credit and debit scanners.

Accepting credit and debit payments, says Laval’s general manager Guy Picard, “is something new for our industry, but it’s a no-brainer for every other industry.” Picard expects the convenience will mean less cash for the transit agency to process, and more occasional ridership, as people become aware that they can use their debit or credit cards for the odd bus fare.

For regular riders, however, it seems that smart card systems, in place in 19 different transit agencies across Canada, are the way to go. While there are concerns about the initial costs to riders (many charge a basic fee for the card, and then have a minimum initial amount to load), smart cards provide flexibility in terms of how fares are charged and allow for something called fare capping, designed to guarantee riders always pay the minimum required fare.

Under fare capping, the price of your transit fare is determined by how much you use the bus in a given month. While your first rides each month are charged at full fare, as the number hits a discount level (10 or 20 rides, whatever the number is) or a monthly pass level, the fares cap out.

Fare capping is one of the key recommendations in A New Way to Ride, a report from US think tank TransitCenter focussed on opportunities for New York City’s new fare management system.

Another key recommendation is “make bus boarding seamless,” which includes implementing all-door boarding, allowing off-board payment (at major stops and terminals) and eliminating on board cash payments. Halifax’s new fareboxes are doubling down on accepting all forms of cash on board, so off-board payment and all-door boarding are the best hopes for more efficient, ultimately faster boarding.

Santilli says that there is currently no plan for all-door boarding, but that it could “potentially” be part of a new fare management strategy.

Photo: Stephen Archibald

There are, of course, pitfalls in a new smart card system. The Peggo card in Winnipeg has had problems with the system that allows riders to top up their cards, meaning riders are getting on buses thinking they have loaded cards and then having the scanners beep at them. The Peggo card system allows riders to load funds online, but then makes them wait before the funds become available on their cards.

One of the reasons Halifax Transit decided to upgrade its fare technology in phases, starting with fare boxes and then moving to a new fare management system, is the “horror stories that you can read about other agencies trying to implement a fare management solution,” says Santilli. “We didn’t want to run into some of the other problems that other agencies have experienced in terms of cost overruns, delays, and whatnot.”

Halifax Transit’s original RFP on fare management included a full overhaul, looking for a company to replace all fare boxes and implement a new system in one go. It turns out there just weren’t any vendors able to do all that. So the city scaled back, and so now, apparently, a fare management system is still in the cards, and the sky’s the limit.

“We know of some of the options available to us that we will be investigating but we don’t have a preferred option in mind yet. We’re going to kick off a process to go through a fare management strategy that will allow us to take a holistic look at what we do currently for fares, and what we hope to accomplish with it. The outcome of that exercise will hopefully give us a little more direction in terms of what options we should pursue,” says Santilli.

But for now, we will be stuck with essentially the same system for fares, albeit with bigger tickets and transfer printers. Access to tickets (currently available at just 50 locations in the entire system) will not improve, despite the fact that it’s a very prominent complaint, at least in my social media feeds.

One improvement that the two-phased approach has brought is the introduction of some public consultation on the new system. While the original 2015 RFP called for a complete system, it went out without any public consultation into what Transit was asking for and how it would work, which seems like a disastrous strategy, especially for Halifax Transit.  But now, according to Santilli, “we definitely want to take the public’s thoughts on the matter into consideration. We haven’t worked out the details about how exactly we’re going to do that yet but that will certainly be part of the plan.”

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. The new Halifax Transit fee collection system…

    Does it mean cheaper fares?
    No. On contrary we’ll end up having to pay for new ticket machines one way or the other.

    Is it more convenient to handle than the old paper tickets?
    No. It’s several times longer and wider than the old tickets so the bus machines (designed originally for paper currency) can easily read them.

    Will it mean faster entry onto buses?
    Not obvious how.

    Will it be distributed more widely than the way tickets used to be?

    Can I can use my credit or debit card now?

    Can I buy a reusable card I can top up online or at drug stores or vending machines like Toronto, Montreal or any other modern city?

    Will it let me enter/exit from the middle or back doors on a crowded bus?

    What use is it then?
    Maybe it makes payment easier to manage for Metro Transit.

    The good news is that some day many years hence we may upgrade or replace it with a modern fare collection system. Just be patient.

    H/\LIF/\X. Love the way we live.

  2. Please someone intervene and bring an end to the corporate incompetence plaguing Halifax Transit. First of all the justification of having giant tickets is beyond comprehension in 2018. The focus should 100% be on moving to electronic transactions.
    As far as accepting paper money goes, they are essentially saying “pay us $2.50 (minimum) for the convenience of using paper money” because they wont give change or print out a usable ticket. Also no suggestion at all of dispensing machines anywhere that could accept cash or credit for ticket purchase.
    There are dozens of transit systems around the country which are using better systems than those proposed for Halifax. To bad nobody knows how to pick up the phone and benefit from the experience of others.

  3. All of the issues above would go away if transit were free. I would love to see a detailed analysis of the total costs of fare collection (technology, printing and distribution of tickets and passes, collecting, sorting and counting fares, and slower buses while people pay fares at each stop), and what percentage of the total fares collected are used up by these costs. Then we could consider the road maintenance savings of increased ridership through free transit.