The MBTA Is Losing Its Mobile Ticketing Crown

Portland just launched a system-wide ticketing app that's raking in the cash. Could an mTicket expansion be next?

mbta app screenshot

Screenshots via MBTA (left) and TriMet (right)

For the past nine months, the MBTA’s mTicket app has been the country’s leader in mobile transit ticketing, but a newly released mobile ticketing app across the country threatens to put mTicket to the test.

Last week TriMet, the public transit system of Portland, Ore., became the nation’s first to offer mobile ticketing across all of its services. Similar to mTicket, TriMet Tickets users are able to pay their fare anywhere, any time, as long as they have an internet connection. But unlike mTicket, TriMet allows passengers to use mobile tickets across all modes of transportation: bus, street car, and commuter rail lines.

These developments on the West Coast beg the question: In order to keep up, could the MBTA soon expand mTicket beyond just commuter rail and ferry services?

“[The MBTA is] continuing to examine how best to introduce and integrate mobile ticketing into the rest of the system,” said MBTA spokesperson Kelly Smith. “… the T looks forward to bringing … customers even more convenient fare tools in the near future.”

The answer is vague for the moment, but reports from when the app was first rolled out indicated the T could eventually consider expanding its use to additional subway and bus lines, but that it might take years to fully implement.

No doubt the MBTA has a few obstacles to consider. Probably the biggest thing standing in the T’s way are fare gates, which are the primary fare collection method. Masabi, the company that developed the mTicket system, recently unveiled mobile ticketing scanners on fare gates at Kings Cross station in London. In order for mTicket to properly function, the T’s existing fare boxes and gates would have to be retro-fitted—like what Masabi did in London. Masabi declined to comment on how much this retrofitting would cost the T. TriMet, on the other hand, doesn’t utilize fare gates. On each of their four modes of transit, a train operator or fare collector must check every passenger’s ticket, which means mobile ticketing works much more seamlessly along their existing infrastructure.

Although the ticket-purchasing options of mTicket are limited right now, the app has been successful so far: In less than a year, it’s generated more than $10 million in sales and was recently named one of the top 10 transportation projects in the country. By comparison, TriMet Tickets has generated more than $120,000 in sales during the first 10 days since launching on September 4, according to a TriMet spokesperson. That’s well more than double what mTicket generated in the 10 days after it first launched and was available only on ferries and the North commuter lines.

The benefits of expanding the mTicket system seem pretty clear. For passengers, it’s like having a personal vending machine that eliminates the wait times associated with Charlie Card (or worse, those people looking for pocket change on the bus). For the T, it reduces the need for cash handling and ticket printing, which could save the MBTA a chunk of change—a bonus for the already cash-strapped system.