The Pros and Cons of RTD’s Long Overdue “Smart” Fare Card

More like "load, wait up to three days, and then go."
More like "load, wait up to three days, and then go."

You might want to curb your enthusiasm about Denver finally getting a new fare payment system with the release of its MyRide card to the general public. Yes, it will be a faster way to pay fares, but it comes with plenty of inconvenient quirks that will limit its appeal.

A refresher: The MyRide fare technology lets people load and store money on a card, and tap it on buses and train station kiosks to pay fares quickly and easily. RTD began its transition to a “smart card” system more than a decade ago and has spent upwards of $21 million to get it up and running. Now that MyRide is finally here, the tech is getting overtaken by mobile ticketing — which, to RTD’s credit, could go live by the end of this year.

Here’s a look at what Denver transit riders will get from the new system.

Faster boarding, shorter rides

Fare technology can make a real impact on service. Tapping a card instead of digging for change or dollar bills speeds up the boarding process, leading to quicker, more efficient trips.

This is supposed to be the biggest advantage of modern fare technology — it makes the whole transit system faster for everyone, as long as everyone uses it. But there are drawbacks to the MyRide card that will hinder widespread adoption and limit these system-wide benefits.

Speak up or get overcharged

Card validators on the bus will automatically charge riders the highest fare available on that route. If you’re traveling locally on a regional route, it’s up to you to tell the bus driver, who will lower the fare.

Adding money instantly is not convenient

Unlike, say, the DC Metro system, RTD won’t have any kiosks at every rail station where riders can load cash onto the cards. To add to your balance instantly, you have to visit one of five RTD stations or certain Safeways. King Soopers may participate down the road, RTD spokesperson Nate Currey told Streetsblog.

Adding money online takes one to three days

The glossy envelope that MyRide cards arrive in markets them this way: “Load. Tap. Go.” A more accurate tagline would be, “Load. Wait one to three days. Go.”

That’s because while loading money online is a nice new feature, the credit card transaction will usually take between 24 and 48 hours to process — 72 hours “on rare occasions” — according to the 20-page instructional booklet that comes with the card. Riders can thank obsolete technology resulting from the long, dysfunctional process that plagued the smart card project from the beginning.

There’s a lag in processing your balance after you pay for a trip, too. While electronic card validators will show your balance after tapping MyRide, your online account might show a different balance, because RTD collects the data in bulk at the end of each day.

You can’t use it for unlimited ride passes

RTD’s day pass gives transit riders unlimited rides for the cost of two one-way fares — $5.20 for local trips and $9 for regional trips. But day passes are not available on the MyRide card.

In other words, if you use a MyRide card to take three local trips in a day, it would cost you $7.80, four trips would cost $10.40, and so on. At least the cards recognize free transfers for up to three hours on one-way trips, like paper tickets.

There’s also no monthly pass available with MyRide, but RTD is working to change that, Currey said.

While the bulk discount of an unlimited pass isn’t available, MyRide users do get a 25-cent discount per fare compared to paying with cash or paper tickets.

  • mckillio

    I have an EcoPass so this new card is worthless to me so far but it’s at least a step in the right direction. My biggest question though is, if I’m on the LRT and forget my pass, can the officer look me up and then charge/check my pass that way? One of the most frustrating things as a monthly pass holder is that if you forget your unlimited pass, you still get a ticket.

    And why doesn’t RTD give a discount for round trip tickets in general? Even if it’s only 25 or 50 cents.

  • John Riecke

    Jeez guys, it shouldn’t be this buggy. Maybe they stopped putting money into it because they’re moving to mobile ticketing?

  • EMB

    I got a MyRide card yesterday. It’s a bit frustrating that I had to go out of my way for it (Union Station) since there are so few places to get them, and you have to load money onto them immediately. So grabbing a handful of empty cards that I could give out to co-workers wasn’t an option.

    I think they’ll work well for me, since I’ve used the 10-trip ticket books for years, and these are a same-price replacement that allows me to add money with my commuter benefits debit card. That wasn’t an option when I bought ticket books at King Soopers (the FSA card gets declined even on transit-only transactions, and I have to remember to submit the expense for reimbursement.)

    Though just because they should work well for my limited use case doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a better option that’s more broadly useful. It would be great if, during a month it makes sense for me to buy a monthly pass, if I could use the same card and system to do that. They should certainly be made available at any ticket machine (and any ticket machine should be able to dispense the same kinds of tickets. Having to plan ahead to buy the ticket books has always been a pain.)

  • MT

    Nice work Xerox, the better part of a decade and millions of dollars and you got almost half the functionality of a MetroCard.

  • Vertigo700

    How “smart” of RTD to make a new system that figures out how to overcharge its customers at every possible opportunity. RTD wasn’t satisfied literally nickel and diming its customers with it’s ridiculous fares (I know I always care exactly $2.60 with me). This plus what basically amounts to a reduction in their low-income passes (After promising to expand the program after the fare hike), RTD basically appears to be in the business of fleecing its riders at every opportunity. No wonder ridership is stagnating and people are choosing Uber and Lyft instead of RTD’s overpriced and inconvenient “transit.”

  • Hypnotist Collector

    Why is RTD so hopelessly behind the curve on everything? Not to beat a dead horse, but IF they keep their latest “promise,” Boulder will have light rail by, wait for it, 2042. When everyone else will have personal jet packs, we’ll finally get a train. Meanwhile, faux BRT (the Flatiron Failure) and dumb smart cards.

  • iBikeCommute

    Con- first day of operation and the website has already crashed 🙁

  • Camera_Shy

    So sad that all of the technology needed to make this system kick butt is already in use around the world. Why do we (usa?) always have to re-invent the wheel on stuff like this?

  • Camera_Shy

    In London, UK. they have the “oyster card” for transit. Charge it up with money and use it by tapping on the reader inside the bus or at the gate for trams and trains.

    One feature I loved: your max daily charge was the equivalent of 2.5 trips. This made it very easy to get around the city by taking more than one trip on the buses. So, for people taking transit to and from work, they paid their normal 2 trips per day. But for tourists using it to get around the city, they could ride 3, 4, 5 times or more and not be penalized. It was great!

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