Denver Is Still Waiting on a Modern Fare Payment System From RTD

Ever been riding an RTD bus, anxious to get to work on time, and the bus comes to a stop for what seems like forever while a passenger boards? That Guy is counting out $2.60 in exact change and the driver can’t pull away until he’s paid the fare, so everyone gets held up.

Not ready for primetime. Photo: David Sachs

Other major cities like San Francisco and Chicago have modern fare technology that takes care of this problem. Riders can store money on farecards that let you board the bus with a simple tap. It’s not only more convenient than carrying around bills and coins, it also saves bus riders a lot of time by speeding up the whole boarding process.

RTD is working on updating its fare technology with the “MyRide” card, which has been in the works since 2008. Eight years and $21 million later, MyRide is still in pilot phase limbo.

Since January, RTD has distributed 1,890 MyRide cards in a limited release. I have one of them, and it’s clear the system is still not ready for primetime.

The problem is not the card scanning technology. In the eight months since I got the card, only one time did it fail to scan as I boarded a bus, when the card reader malfunctioned. (The driver gave me a free ride.)

What’s holding the system back is the absence of an online system to add money to the cards. Without that system, using a MyRide card just isn’t that convenient. In the latest chapter of an eight-year saga, RTD can’t seem to get the web portal up and running.

“There is an overabundance of caution and double-checking to make sure proper security is in place, because this is the first time ever that RTD will be storing our patrons’ money online,” said RTD spokesperson Nate Currey. There’s no solid timetable on when the MyRide system will be fully functional and ready for the general public, Currey said. According to agency documents, the “web portal has cyber security vulnerabilities” that need to be addressed [PDF].

Since there are no online accounts, right now you have to go to one of just four RTD stations to load money on a card: Boulder Junction, Downtown Boulder, Union Station, or Denver International Airport. I work in LoDo so Union Station makes sense for me, but those stations aren’t convenient for everyone.

Once you’re at a kiosk, you have to wait in line and add value to the card by paying a human clerk. The process has taken me as long as 10 minutes, more than enough time to miss a bus.

Without an online system, the only way to know how much money is on your card is to catch the balance when it flashes across the card-reader screen on buses and at rail stations. If you don’t catch the split-second display, or if you go a couple of weeks without using RTD, it’s easy to forget your balance. On more than one occasion, I wasn’t sure about my balance and rather than risk an insufficient fare, I chose the sure thing and opted for Car2go.

A functional online system would enable people to add value to their accounts and check balances from their computers or mobile devices. MyRide could finally scale up and serve everyone in Denver who wants to use it. Imagine how much faster and more reliable bus service would be if all those people could board with the tap of a card, and digging around for change becomes a thing of the past.