London's Tube Is Getting 'Contactless' Payments. Could They Work in the U.S.?

But for now, the idea that contactless payments would become mainstream enough to be used  for public transportation is still far-fetched. Although London officials have tested out mobile payment prototypes for the underground several times, none have taken hold; the most recent effort was rejected because the NFC technology it used was deemed too slow.  In the mobile gadgets world, debates have raged about NFC, which uses radio waves to let devices -- like two smart phones, or, potentially, a smart phone and a digital cash register of some sort -- communicate instantly. Critics say the technology does not improve efficiency enough to gain widespread popularity, and unless it is used in a broad ecosystem of consumers and businesses, it won't make noticeable changes in the mobile payments space.  

Perhaps there's a future for Silicon Valley companies like Square in San Francisco's public transportation system (which happens to be in particular need of technology overhaul), but it's a future that will likely take a long time to come. In the fall of 2011, New Jersey Transit became one of the first transit authorities in the U.S. to accept Google Wallet and other forms of contactless payment at certain bus stations, which expanded to the Port Authority in 2012. According to a spokesperson, they see around 10,000 contactless "taps" per month, which could be payments for single or multi-fare transactions.  But across 12 rail lines, 260 bus routes, and three light rail systems, NJ Transit serves just under 900,000 customers per day, and while they are in "testing phases related to contactless payments," a full-scale roll-out is a distant possibility.  (Excitingly, Boston has just introduced a new system of mobile ticketing -- see more details here.)

Regardless of the path that U.S. mass transit systems ultimately take to make their payment systems more efficient, those changes seem to be in everyone's best interest: in a perfect world, in which a contactless or mobile payments ecosystem has been well-established, these kinds of payment systems would significantly decrease the inefficiencies of current fare systems.  Costs associated with operations like producing and maintaining card machines and even transporting and counting hundreds of thousands of coins every day would be virtually eliminated.

And what might make capturing those efficiencies more attractive? The amount of data that could be gathered and directed toward targeted marketing is staggering.  According to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average public transportation user spends 95.4 minutes commuting every day, and this represents only a percentage of the total time Americans spend on buses, trains, and underground rail. If even a small chunk of riders started using contactless cards or mobile payments to pay for the bus, credit card companies or start-ups like Square would gain access to daily information about when and where their customers are traveling. Harnessed correctly, this kind of data could be used to tailor advertising to fit a subway rider's morning commute perfectly -- who wouldn't use a coupon for coffee at the Cosi near Dupont Circle if it popped up on their phone as they exited the metro?  

Of course, this kind of "secondary use" of consumer data raises red flags about privacy concerns. In some ways, the interests of a private credit card or mobile payments company would be aligned with that of the bus rider. In a perfect world, companies could provide riders with more tailored and relevant information (i.e. advertising) about the world around them.

Then, again, the world of targeted marketing hasn't always been perfect. One can imagine ways in which uses for this kind of location data would not align company and consumer interests, which is somewhat more problematic. In a conversation with Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington and privacy expert, he pointed out that if companies use information about how people ride public transportation against them, say to create a system of price discrimination so that coffee at Cosi is more expensive during the hours of the bleary-eyed commute, that would constitute a kind of harm to the consumer.  

The online world "is a mediated environment, in that there's a layer between what you do and your experience," Calo said, but when this kind of data use "begins to spread to the offline world...[it] blurs the distinction that we have between the online world and the brick and mortar world." This highlights the important distinction between "push" versus "pull" data transactions, to borrow email terms for a moment: if we automatically give up ever more information about our location and traveling habits every time we ride the bus, then morning commutes become just one more space in which profitable information about our private lives becomes thoughtlessly available to private companies who might not have our best interests in mind.

Despite these cautions, there are responsible ways to deploy more efficient public transit payment systems, especially if consumers are aware of how their information could be used if they choose the convenience of a contactless or mobile swipe. But at this point, at least in the United States, this potential is a long way from being realized -- the technology market is too fractured to support a major shift in the way we pay for the bus any time soon.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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