Transit system operators were already thinking about making at least a partial switch to contactless payments long before a global pandemic disrupted any and every element of how people moved between Point A and Point B.

Mary Kay BowmanVisa’s global head of buyer and seller solutions, told Karen Webster in a recent conversation that some operators had contactless payments already partially available in segments of the public transportation system, while others had it earmarked for a project several years in the future. But overall, there was a collective consensus on the part of transit operators worldwide that tap to pay was essential to making the daily commute easier and more convenient.

Then a funny thing happened in late February/early March. The global pandemic moved contactless up the priority list — with an additional incentive to accelerate systems’ plans.

Transit operators now view contactless payments as a way to align their operations to make the post-pandemic experience on public transportation not only convenient but safer. Bowman said that what she hears now from operators is: “We need to do this now.”

“Transit systems took this as an opportunity to say: ‘We cannot slow down, these are essential services,’” Bowman said. “They saw that their work servicing the essential workers made them essential as well —  and that they have to be part of the recovery.”

She said transit operators aren’t only thinking about contactless as it relates to their piece of the consumer’s transit journey, but rather across the customer’s entire journey away and then back home.

Making any part of the journey safe, Bowman told Webster, means making every part of it safe — from the trains to the buses to the subway systems and beyond. It also means modernizing the transportation-payment ecosystem’s entire infrastructure, a project that transit operators are increasingly committed to.

Visa’s announced Thursday (July 16) an expansion in its efforts with Cubic Transportation Systems to not only accelerate contactless deployments but create infrastructure to grow, scale and make systems interoperable across an entire public-transportation journey. That will build on work the company is already doing with more than 500 transit authorities around the world.

“We wanted to do something that is more standard [and] a little more scalable so that transit operators don’t have to build their own customized solutions,” Bowman said.

Why Contactless Payments Are The First Part Of That Journey

The general surge in contactless payments since coronavirus isn’t surprising, as COVID-wary consumers would prefer not to physically interact with anything that others have also touched. But the advantages of touchless when it comes to transit go much, much deeper, Bowman said.

“Contactless also means there are fewer queues at the ticketing terminal,” she said. “There aren’t as many people in the line swiping to get in, because it’s faster. There are actually a whole collection of benefits that come with touchless. [It] creates a multiplying effect.”

Consider a pilot program Visa is currently working on to create a contactless-transit program in Central  California. Working in conjunction with the California Department of Transportation, Visa aims to make bus operator Monterey-Salinas Transit the first California transit agency to have contactless payments. More broadly, the project aims to establish a solution and set of contactless standards that can scale to create consistency across hundreds of Golden State transit agencies as part of the California Integrated Travel Project.

“In the world of the mass-transit transaction models, [there] weren’t really standards before now,” Bowman said. “We took it as a high priority to create a standard model, something that we’re very good at — standards and practices, interoperability and ubiquity. Those are all key to the Visa network, and what transit payments need.”

Bowman said she hopes such a template will help other transit authorities that want to do the same thing do so in a much more efficient, faster way.

A Remaking Picking Up Speed 

While the future isn’t easy to predict these days, the transformation of transit payments toward contactless systems is gaining speed worldwide. Bowman said that’s partly because many transit operators know and regularly interact with each other. As more and more systems add contactless options, operators are looking to one another and feeling inspired to move forward.

Bowman said Visa’s partnership with Cubic is an important piece of building that momentum. Together, the two firms are integrating payments with a rigorously standardized operating procedure compatible with transit systems worldwide. For operators, that means making contactless payments seamless, familiar and scalable.

“Operators have been committed to protecting the safety of their riders and employees — and we want to be critical in helping that effort,” Bowman said.