Calgary Transit: The Electronic Fare Saga

Ever since Mayor Nenshi said “Please, please, please, tell me you’re going to those cities not just to spend money looking at their smartcard systems,” when Council was informed (November 2016) Calgary Transit officials were headed to Vancouver, Salt Lake City and Philadelphia, I have wondered why Calgary can’t just buy somebody’s smartcard technology and get on with it.

So after a few months of asking around and doing some digging, I’ve discovered that despite all the customer conveniences that an electronic fare system offers, developing the system isn’t as easy as one might think. 

And it doesn’t come cheap. 

What I learned

The use of electronic fare systems has evolved in leaps and bounds over the past five years.  Many of the early systems were not very reliable.  Many transit systems have moved to electronic fares, but with mixed success.  

Other systems of similar size to Calgary Transit with fare electronic cards include Seattle, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Miami, Cleveland, Salt Lake and Phoenix.  There is also a good system in Saskatoon.  Many have experienced high costs to implement their systems and glitches in implementation.  Winnipeg’s smart card system know as peggo was 10 years in the development, before being launched in 2016.

In all fairness to Calgary Transit, there is much to be learned from these other cities. 

Over Promise, Under Deliver

The cost of a full fare card system appears to be in the $40 to $70 million range with implementation times of up to or exceeding 4-years due to the complexity of the systems involved. I have learned the reliability of such a system is more complicated to develop since payment card standards are changing and the reliability of on-board electronic equipment using GPS is difficult to achieve.  The systems are notorious for errors which result in lost revenue - even 0.5% loss of revenue is significant for any transit system.  

It seems too many systems over promise and under deliver.

Link: Florida Department of Transportation  Mobile Fare Report


The advantage of the current cash / ticket / pass system is its reliability. Customers pay a fare and transit gets the money. Cost for printing, distribution, vender commissions, and cash/ticket handling is low.

On the negative side, the disadvantages of our current fare system is that it makes introducing more flexible (e.g. sliding scale of single fares based on usage) or distance-based fares very difficult or impossible.

An advantage of a smart card system is it removes the burden on the customer to plan ahead to have exact change or having to purchase books of tickets or monthly passes in advance. 

As for the electronic system, not only does the technology cost millions, but on top of that, is the transaction fee from the finance provider for each transaction plus the cost of maintaining the equipment, software and accounting.

“New” technology

In fact, the standard of a transit system-only fare card is already outdated.  New fare systems are being developed using credit or debit cards or smart phones to pay fares. These latest systems remove the operating burden from the transit system and take advantage of cards already in customer’s wallets. 

Promises! Promises! Show me the card!

Edmonton Transit is getting close to implementing a Smart Fare card system. Hmmmm….perhaps they would like to share their technology, after all, we are living in a sharing society. 

Wouldn’t it have made sense for Calgary and Edmonton to have gotten together 10 years ago to develop a made in Alberta card and share the costs?  Why can’t we work together?

Today we could be exporting smart fare technology rather than importing it?

After posting this blog several readers suggested that perhaps we can do a swap with Edmonton or another City, we can give them our ParkPlus technology and they can give us their smartcard technology. Sounds like a good idea to me. 

Link: Edmonton Smart Fare

Something To Think About

As an entrepreneurial city, full of engineers and software developers you would have thought Calgary would be a leader and early adopter in the field of electronic fares.

Perhaps we are just not that smart?  Or maybe we are…. as early adopters often get burned!

If you like this blog, you will like:

Everyday Tourist: Transit Tales

Calgary Transit: The Good & The Ugly 

7th Ave Transit Corridor: Good but not great