Bloomington bus riders to get smartphone ticket option starting July 1

Riding the public bus in Bloomington will get a bit easier starting July 1.

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On July 1, 2019, Bloomington Transit will be rolling out the Token Transit app. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

For most Bloomington residents, boarding the local public bus is already easy. It just means flashing the right ID card at the Bloomington Transit driver. About three quarters of all BT riders can board the bus because they have the right ID card—one that proves affiliation with Indiana University as staff or student.

Those rides are taken at no cost to the rider—but the university pays about $1.1 million a year to cover those trips.

The convenience for IU affiliates is not purely financial—it’s also the option to board a public bus with an object they nearly always have handy.

Starting July 1, rank-and-file residents who aren’t affiliated with the university will enjoy a similar kind of convenience, if they generally carry a smartphone.

According to a news release posted on its website, Bloomington Transit is partnering with a San Francisco-based company called Token Transit, to offer ticketing through a smartphone app. Using the app, riders will be able to buy tickets and board the bus. For now, the one option for fixed-route riders will be 31-day passes. Paratransit riders will have 10- and 30-ride options with Token Transit.

A Token Transit rider will board the bus by showing the driver the digital ticket displayed on their smart phone. BT special projects manager Zac Huneck told the Beacon that BT drivers have completed training to spot valid digital tickets. The digital tickets have built-in security measures, like some scrolling text.

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A BT bus plies a Third Street route on the east side of town. June 20, 2019 (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Responding to an emailed query from the Beacon, Ekaterina Kuznetsova, Token Transit’s CTO, wrote that the company is currently working with a California transit agency on a pilot for an automatic system for validating digital tickets. (The smartphone would communicate directly with the farebox.)

Using the Token Transit app to purchase passes eliminates a trip to the Bloomington Transit Center. It also adds flexibility for use of the pass. Paper monthly passes are keyed to the calendar month—they’re good from the first day of the month through the last day of the same month. Token Transit passes will be good for 31 days, starting whenever they’re activated, Huneck said.

A monthly pass to ride BT buses now costs $30 and that amount will stay the same. Hunek said Token Transit will be paid 10 percent of purchases. BT currently sells about 10,000 monthly passes a year, which currently works out to $300,000 in revenue, Hunek said. If all monthly passes were converted to Token Transit passes, that would mean $30,000 paid to Token Transit.

Kuznetsova said the per-transaction financial structure is designed to align the company’s incentives with the riders and the agency: “This ensures that Token Transit will always care about transit riders and keep the app up to date.”

Transit riders are a category that include the founders of Token Transit, who are former employees of Apple and Google. Responding to an emailed question, Kuznetsova wrote: “I don’t even have a driver’s license. When I was a kid, I took the city bus in my suburban town every day. None of the founders have ever owned a car, and don’t plan to start.”

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As of June 18, 2019, Token Transit has partnered with 70 transit agencies across the country. According to Token Transit, the app was first deployed by RTC Washoe of Reno/Sparks, Nevada, in December 2016. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

One of the features of the Token Transit app is the ability to send a ticket to someone else’s smartphone. The feature seems connected in part to the origin story of the company, which Kuznetsova told this way: “A friend of one of the founders was visiting us. There was a direct bus to his hotel, but he didn’t have any cash on him … and ended up calling an Uber. We wanted to fix this—how do you get someone on the bus, as smoothly as you would get them into a taxi?”

Hunek has been working on the mobile pass project for about a year. He said BT looked at a few different options, but chose Token Transit because they have experience working with smaller transit agencies, especially in college towns. Token Transit was also highly recommended by other Indiana public transit agencies, in Fort Wayne and West Lafayette, Hunek said.

Hunek said Token Transit has proven to be a good partner as BT has prepared for the July 1 rollout. As an example, he gave the company’s work on the voice-over functionality for Android and iPhone, which affects low-vision users.

Hunek said  fixed metrics have not been established that have to be achieved for continuing with Token Transit after the one-year pilot. Rider feedback will be a factor, he said. Hunek said he hopes that for the first year, 1,000 30-day passes will be sold through Token Transit. Hunek said that he doesn’t think it will a magic bullet that will reverse a declining BT ridership trend over the last few years, because the trend is nationwide.