Metro Evaluating Options for Off-Board SmarTrip Loading

November 6th, 2013

Metro seeks to reduce delays to Metrobus caused by on-board SmarTrip card loading by installing off-board SmarTrip® Recharge Stations at key locations across the region.

Metro has been quite successful at increasing the use of SmarTrip® card usage on both bus and rail.  As noted in a previous post, many initiatives — including surcharges for paying cash — have been successful at raising the the SmarTrip® use rate to about 90% on both Metrorail and Metrobus.  As many readers have noted, many Metrobus customers load small amounts of cash — enough for one or two trips — onto their SmarTrip card in order to avoid the surcharge.  This on-board load transaction can take between five and 30 seconds and, on average, one out of every 14 trips on Metrobus involves a small value load. On some routes it’s as frequent as one out of every seven.  This behavior results in longer dwell times, slower rides, and less efficient operations of Metrobus.

One possible solution is to increase the opportunities for loading value onto SmarTrip cards before the customer boards.  While SmarTrip cards can be reloaded online, at Metrorail stations and at a variety of retail outlets around the region, the frequency of on-board loading indicates the need for additional, convenient opportunities to add value to SmarTrip cards.


Example of potential SmarTrip Reload Station size and location. Image updates every 5 seconds. Click image for larger version.


Metro is seeking to meet this need by developing and deploying SmarTrip Recharge Stations (SRS) at selected bus stops around the region.  In addition to facilitating the loading of fares and passes to SmarTrip cards and working with Metro’s current back-end systems, the requirements for these recharging stations include:

  • Payment Options:  cash (bills and coins), credit, debit; no change returned
  • Design:  attractive with reasonable footprint
  • Durability:  ability to work under DC’s weather conditions
  • Security:  vandal and tamper resistant, encryption
  • Regulations:  utilities, permitting, meeting the needs of protected communities (persons with disabilities, low-income and minorities)

Metro planners have made the decision to go solar/wireless for these devices.  Using such technologies drastically reduces the cost of implementation, as the SRSs will not need physical connections to power and communications grids.  No vendor has yet been selected for the devices, as is indicated by the animated graphic above that illustrates the look and feel of devices of two potential vendors.

A proof-of-concept will be conducted in June of 2014, with 14 devices installed along the 16th Street NW corridor.  The bus stops were selected based on the on-time performance of the Metrobus routes and the frequency of small-value, on-board SmarTrip loading along the corridor.

What other strategies could Metro employ to reduce low-value, on-board SmarTrip loads?  What locations or routes do you think could be good candidates for these vending machines?


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Categories: Metro 101 > Fares and Service Tags: , ,
  1. Stephen
    November 6th, 2013 at 15:06 | #1

    Please put it on the 50s series! Anything to speed up that line would be great, and I imagine that the 70s series would benefit too. Do you have any idea which lines or which portions of lines get the fewest boardings that are transfers from Metrorail? I would imagine that transfer passengers either have more money on their cards (given the higher fares for Metrorail), or that they would have been able to stop at a fare machine on the way out of the station in order to top up their card.

  2. Jacob
    November 7th, 2013 at 12:20 | #2

    Great idea. A few comments:

    1) These devices should be placed in the furniture zone, adjacent to the curb, not on the portion of the sidewalk where people normally walk.
    2) You should design these to one day be used for off-board fare collection, which would dramatically speed up buses. This is what NYC has done for its SBS corridors.

  3. Arlington Travler
    November 7th, 2013 at 14:27 | #3

    I like this idea. However, you should take it further and have the machines produce one time use tickets. At the stops with machines, neither loading cash onto a Smartrip card or using cash to pay for the fare should be allowed. Transport for London achieves like a 98 percent Oyster penetration rate, but not allowing ANY loading of Oyster cards on buses (only payment) and charging a surcharge which can be higher than the fare for those paying cash.

  4. Kelly B
    November 10th, 2013 at 13:04 | #4

    The Seattle area’s Swift system retrofitted parking machines for their off-board payment, which cost about 10% of typical transit fare machines… something to look into!

  5. Gavin
    November 12th, 2013 at 13:48 | #5

    This is a promising idea. Some suggestions:

    Prominently mark the stations so that people can easily identify them. They look similar to some parking stations in the area, and people might not quickly associate them with Metro.

    Ensure the stations provide instructions in both English and Spanish, to serve the clientele on this route.

    Add signs and audio announcements (in English and Spanish) on the 16th Street buses to advertise the service.

  6. Abby
    November 12th, 2013 at 14:12 | #6

    As a daily bus-rider, this will be a great improvement to my commute. Faster service, and fewer runs to the ATM for last-minute reloading.

    Could the machines also be outfitted to display Next Bus arrivals or route advisories?

  7. Ab
    November 12th, 2013 at 14:29 | #7

    They should onsider putting them outside metro stations as well by the bus bays. It sounds silly but many people just don’t seem to want to spend the extra minute walking inside and instead load it on the buses which is annoying.

  8. Michael P
    November 12th, 2013 at 14:49 | #8

    @Arlington Traveler: I like this idea, but I’m worried that the bus tickets will be fraudulently sold on the street similar to the old bus transfer slips. Right now, to ride the bus you either have to pay real money or swipe a smartrip card. If we have little slips of paper that are worth a bus ride, people will trade, share or sell them.

  9. Michael M
    November 12th, 2013 at 16:47 | #9

    The first thought that pops in to my mind to discourage loading small amounts is to provide an incentive for loading larger values. For example, adding $10 gives you two free bus trips. Adding $20 gives you 4 free bus trips. Take it a step further and only apply the incentive to transactions occurring off the bus (e.g. retail locations with reload capability).

  10. Jared Christian
    November 12th, 2013 at 17:34 | #10

    Love this. Somewhere down the line it would be awesome to have these in high traffic areas outside of metro stations just to make loading of cards easier. Put one on the Mall.

  11. ana
    November 13th, 2013 at 10:19 | #11

    This is pretty exciting. Combining a smartrip reloading machine with a nextbus display would make this an even better addition to the bus system. Another idea that could be useful is access to the WMATA website at these machines- especially in areas with high tourist traffic like the Mall or Georgetown. As for where these machines should go, I would suggest college campuses, such as American University, where a large part of the student body heavily uses the bus on a daily basis. They would also be useful at intersections within walking distance of several bus routes, such as Wisconsin Ave & Massachusetts Ave (30s, Ns, and 96 a block away), or Wisconsin Ave and M Street (30s, Ds, and Circulator).

  12. SC
    November 13th, 2013 at 11:58 | #12

    FINALLY. But please don’t forget east of the river, ESPECIALLY at Minnesota & Benning. Crowding to get on the X2 or X9 can be alleviated with this machine. The community tried to get Metro & Donatelli to coordinate on installing this machine & other Metro-user devises (e.g., time signage) at their building but to no avail.

  13. November 19th, 2013 at 14:28 | #13

    Great idea, and I look forward to its implementation. If the devices do end up looking like parking meters, though, some care should be taken to make sure that the two are visually distinctive. Placing the machine next to bus shelters, and using a common color scheme, might do the trick.

  14. November 20th, 2013 at 13:08 | #14

    My concern seeing this has happened to me at a Metro Stations,what would a customer do if they lose money in the machaine ?

  15. January 16th, 2014 at 12:28 | #15

    What is the capacity of these solar/wireless maschines to carry out payment, rather than just loading smartrip cards? BRT systems work best when not just loading but payment are offboard. Also, which vendor did WMATA engage to provide these machines? Thanks!

  16. Michael
    January 16th, 2014 at 12:43 | #16

    Hi, Scott.

    Thanks for your note about off-board payment. These machines should be spec-ed out similar to multi-space parking meters including receipt printers. As such, they should be able to be used for payment if Metro decides to move towards a proof-of-payment system.

    When this post was written, no vender had been selected yet. Stay tuned.

  17. Matt Dickens
    August 11th, 2014 at 11:23 | #17

    So, whatever happened to this project?

  18. JDC
    August 11th, 2014 at 16:15 | #18

    It’s way past June 2014, and still no update….

  19. Michael
    August 20th, 2014 at 09:58 | #19


    @Matt Dickens

    Sorry for the lack of update on this project. I just spoke with the project manager and he told me that it’s been cancelled. The two primary reasons for the cancellation are: 1) Preliminary cost research indicated that it would be more expensive than initially thought, and 2) The award of the new electronic payments program (NEPP) contract and the speed with which that project is moving would obviate these off-board payment systems in a few short years, reducing the value of the investment in the technology.

    Stay tuned for a NEPP pilot next year.

  20. Matt Dickens
    August 20th, 2014 at 10:48 | #20

    Thanks for the update, Michael.

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