Smart transportation: The Rapid kicks off The Wave smart card for function, ease, and equity

With smart features like online accounts, capped spending, and smartphone scanning, The Wave aims to widen access and increase ease of use to public transportation.
The Rapid will soon launch a smart card called The Wave that offers passengers some compelling incentives to get on board with this new pay-as-you-go electronic fare system. The Wave is intended to make riding the bus easier and, in some instances, at a lower cost due to capped fare.

The smart card’s new features include, but are not limited to, a guarantee that passengers will not pay more than the lowest authorized fee for any period of travel; easy to retrieve accounts if their Wave card is lost; plastic-made Wave cards that are more durable than their magnetic stripe paper counterparts; and shortened boarding time. With smart features that modernize a system in which so many urban dwellers depend, The Rapid aims to widen access to public transportation, creating greater equity among the diverse groups that rely on the bus for their daily commute.

One of the Wave’s most attractive advantages is its connection to an online account. Unlike its magnetic stripe counterpart, its value is not actually on the card.

“So if you lose your e-card and have $50 on it, you can immediately cancel it [and] buy a new card and the funds you had in your card will transfer over to your new card,” says Michael Bulthuis, marketing and communications manager for The Rapid, an independent public transportation authority serving the greater Grand Rapids metro area.

The Wave will be made available to passengers in late spring or early summer, according to Bulthuis.

The new e-fare system can be used for all of The Rapid’s routes, including its Silver Line rapid transit that runs along Division Avenue on the Wyoming-Kentwood border into downtown Grand Rapids. The Silver Line will have a “validator” at each of its boarding stations that is equipped with a fare card vending machine.

For the “regular” routes, passengers who board a bus will “tap” their Wave card to a card reader every time they board a bus or transfer, or use The Wave app on a smartphone to scan their pass. The Wave will not be immediately available for the Go!Bus line, however. “We might try to integrate that at a later time,” says Bulthuis.

Wave cards will initially be available for purchase at The Rapid’s central station at 250 Grandville Ave. SW in Grand Rapids, and online, but plans are in the works to have them also available at area retail outlets.

As part of this new initiative, The Wave will eventually replace the paper magnetic stripe cards that are currently in use for single rides, seven-, 10-, or 31-day rides, which once they are phased out, will save The Rapid the need to print 1.7 million transfers each year.

Cash, however, will always be accepted, Bulthuis emphasizes.

Initially, passengers will have the option of continuing to use magnetic stripe cards, cash, or The Wave, according to Bulthuis. “When we launch The Wave, we’ll run the old system concurrently,” he says. “Nothing in the immediate future is changing. It’s kind of an additional way to pay. Anyone who rides our bus can opt for The Wave smart card but for those who don’t want to for various reasons, they can chose to use their magnetic stripe cards they’ve been using for years, so nothing will change immediately. Three months, six months, a year down the road, we will eventually phase out the magnetic-striped cards.”

In addition to online accountability for funds, ”The Wave will be similar in size to a plastic credit card and thus be more durable than paper. “It can take a lot more wear and tear,” says Bulthuis.

Essentially, The Wave will function as a debit card that allow passengers to load and reload funds through an app, website, phone or at transit locations. "They’re not required to, but we’ll encourage them to go online to The Wave website (not currently online) and register their card so if you lose your card for whatever reason, if you want to cancel that lost card to retain a value in that account, you can do that but you have to have that card registered,” says Bulthuis.

“They can link a bank account to that [card] so they can reload funds to that card through their savings or checking account,” adds Bulthuis. “So every time you tap on, it takes money off the account."

Passengers can also manage multiple cards for a single account, if they wish. “If I’m a parent with several kids using the system, I can have each kid’s card on that account,” says Bulthuis. “I can load funds to each of their accounts. One of the cool features about this, too is if you register your card on our website, you can hit auto load so it’s linked to a bank account and you can say anytime my account gets below $10 I want it to automatically add another $20.”

Perhaps one of the most progressive and cutting-edge advantages of the Wave, according to Bulthuis, is the equity of treatment built in through a capped fare system. Fare Capping is a pay-as-you-go system that guarantees passengers will not pay more than the lowest authorized fare for any period of travel, without having to pay the full cost of a pass in advance. If passengers ride enough in any given time period to have earned a discount, their fare will be capped at that level. If they ride less, they pay for what they rode.

In other words, once passengers have reached the cost of, for example, a monthly pass, they will receive unlimited rides for the rest of the month, giving them the savings of a pass without the upfront cost.

“That is a really revolutionary kind of a program,” says Bulthuis.

“So it is much more equitable, especially for our low-income riders who can’t afford to plunk the $16 or the $47 for those passes. They’re just paying the $1.75 each ride and every time they reach that cap, they earned that daily pass, seven-day, or that monthly pass.”
The Wave will also save boarding time. “Right now, you have a line of people with their magnetic striped card that tends to take a while if you have 10 or 15 people lined up having to insert their card into the fare box. That’s a huge time commitment,” says Bulthuis. “With The Wave, there’s no mechanical parts; it’s all digital. You just tap onto a card reader and it reads it in less than a second so it reduces boarding time significantly.

“So that’s really one of the big drivers of this in helping to really help our on-time performance by allowing passengers to tap on the bus very quickly,” he adds.

Another big reason The Wave is being phased in is because it will save The Rapid (and in turn taxpayers) money.

“As a taxpayer funded entity we take it very seriously using the taxpayers’ funds efficiently,” says Bulthuis. “There’s a significant cost in printing all the tickets because you’re using a paper ticket once, and when it’s done you’ve got to get a new one. When you get the Wave card, it’s meant to be a permanent card to last you indefinitely.

“Quite honestly, a lot of the paper transfers we issue never get used. A lot of them just get thrown on the ground so there’s a huge cost of printing all those transfers that never get used. With the Wave we’ll eventually get rid of paper transfers so again it’s a cost savings for us there.”

Ultimately, Bulthuis says, The Wave will streamline The Rapid’s payment and boarding system that may conjure new passengers.

“It can be a little scary to hop on a system you’ve never used especially with the (magnetic) stripe cards,” he said. “What kind of pass am I supposed to buy? How do I interact with the fare box? All that can be a little scary. With The Wave, I think it’s easier for people to wrap their heads around that everyone taps their card at the same place and you’re good to go. We hope to attract new ridership with this as well.”

Photography by Autumn Johnson of Bird + Bird Studio.
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