A screenshot of the menu of Big Blue Bus passes available for purchase through the Token Transit smartphone app.

Starting April 3, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus will give riders the option of paying their fares through their smartphones.

According to a report released today on the City’s website, the municipal transit service started a pilot program today with Token Transit that allows people to buy passes through a smartphone app and then board buses by showing the driver the pass on the passenger’s smartphone.

“The customer interface is simple. Customers download the [Token Transit] app from Google Play or the App Store, set up their accounts, and then purchase passes,” according to the report [PDF].

“All BBB passes are available, as well as single ride tickets. When ready to ride, customers activate the prepaid tickets shortly before boarding, which appear as colorful, animated tickets on their phones,” the report reads.

As the rider boards the bus, they show the pass on the phone to the driver, according to the report.

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According to the report, the pilot is relatively limited in scope. The initial agreement sets a limit of $50,000 to be paid to Token Transit in commission, which means a maximum of $500,000 spent by transit riders through the app for passes.

Officials estimate that based on anticipated use, the pilot could end in a six-month period.

“Although the pilot could run for as long as one year, given BBB’s current ridership and known fare collection behaviors, staff projects that the threshold will be reached in approximately six months from launch. At that point, customers would be informed that sales of new passes will end, and BBB would continue to honor purchased passes for an additional 120 days to allow customers the opportunity to use their tickets,” according to the report.

Token Transit is already working with Regional Transportation Commission in Reno, Nevada and with Eureka, California.

Portland, Oregon (TriMet), Seattle, Washington (King County), and Chicago, Illinois (Ventra for the Chicagoland region), have all adopted or piloted mobile payment apps successfully.

One of the main reasons to allow for payments through mobile phones is to speed up boarding time, which the report notes remains one of the top priorities to Big Blue Bus riders in customer surveys.

“A cash transaction, upon boarding the bus, at the farebox typically takes 23 seconds, whereas, using a prepaid pass (magnetic or TAP) takes only 3 to 4 seconds,” the report says.

“In order to improve trip time speeds, which continually rank high in priority in BBB customer feedback surveys, staff has implemented new solutions to reduce cash payments by providing other, more convenient options, including the provision of a mobile application fare payment alternative to complement the other fare media options currently available to BBB customers,” the report said.

In March of 2015, Big Blue Bus began accepting fare payments with the regional TAP (Transit Access Pass) cards, which allowed riders to more seamlessly transfer from Metro buses or light rail.

Still, according to the report, as of last December, nearly half (47 percent) of Big Blue Bus riders still pay their fares with cash.

Should the pilot program be a success, then Big Blue Bus staff will put out a call for proposals for “a more robust mobile ticketing solution,” the report reads.

Success, the report noted, will be measured in part by whether the new payment option brings in new riders. Recently, the Big Blue Bus has seen its ridership drop, a trend that has been seen in public transit systems across the nation.

  • Jason

    They think stupid fucking gimmicks like this are going to improve ridership?!?! This isn’t rocket science. There’s ONE line, Route 1, that runs better than every 20 minutes for more than a couple of hours a day. All other lines mostly run every 20 minutes or more, outside of a couple of hours a day during the week where some of these lines run every 15 minutes (often just one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon). On the weekends, forget about it, the most frequent buses are every 20 minutes, everything else is every 30 minutes or more.

    The commonly accepted best practice for the bare minimum to count as frequent service is to run every 15 minutes. Instead, they pair these abysmal headways with completely unreliable service. Far too often, I’ve had experiences like the bus running 30 minute headways, one bus coming five minutes early, and the next bus coming 10 minutes late (so effectively a 45 minute headway). Most frustrating of all is that the buses are unreliable even if you get on at the origin point of the route. Again, far too often, I’ve had to deal with buses running on 20-30 minute headways leaving 20-25 minutes late FROM THE START POINT OF THE ROUTE.

    So, HMMMMM, I wonder why a car-addicted city that’s used to being able to get into their cars and go whenever they want isn’t willing to get out of their cars in favor of riding unreliable buses with 30 minute headways. Truly a COMPLETE MYSTERY that’s impossible to accurately explain.

    • Jason

      P.S. To be clear, I’m not saying that a transit agency shouldn’t experiment with new fare collection methods. But it’s absolutely fucking asinine to justify this as a pilot program whose primary goal is to bring in new ridership.

      • Sirinya Matute


        I work for BBB but am not responding in an official capacity. I appreciate hearing from our customers, even the ones who are frustrated.

        We’re always looking for ways to do things better. Introducing mobile ticketing is one of them. People have been asking for the option of paying with an app for a long time. I guess you can say we listened! But more importantly, instituting new, faster ways for people to pay should benefit everyone. We’re doing anything we can within reason to cut down how much time we spend at bus stops waiting for people to board and pay, especially in cash. In fact, one of the goals of the pilot is to cut cash transactions by 3%. It takes on average 23 seconds to process a cash transaction. Imagine digging around for cash and stuffing money into the farebox. TAP transactions take 3 to 4 seconds. With the app, you just have to show it to the operator, which should also be pretty fast. (Just to be sure, we’ll be tracking this.)

        I understand that the introduction of mobile ticketing may not address any issues you have with transit, but it does for a number of other customers. But, if you are someone who usually pays to ride BBB with cash, I hope you’ll consider downloading the Token Transit app and giving it a try.

        • Jason

          Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m aware of how large an impact people paying cash has on dwell times, and do have a TAP card. Of course anything that helps keep buses on schedule would be expected to have benefits for ridership, but as I said in my previous comment, I’m not criticizing BBB for experimenting with new fare collection methods. My only criticism is trying to directly use ridership changes as a performance metric for this fare collection pilot.

          I have a few reasons for thinking that fare payment options and ridership don’t really have anything to do with each other, but the biggest one is that I would think that people sufficiently in the know to get the app to buy a pass were already fairly dedicated riders.

  • Public Transport at About.Com

    Except of course R3, 7, R7, and R12 also run every 15 minutes or more the whole day on weekdays. But yes hopefully at some point they will make people ride the Expo Line and cancel the 10 and spend the hours improving their local route frequency.

    • Jason

      Fair enough on the R3, 7, and R7. However, I did see the R12 when I reached this conclusion and was disinclined to count the it considering it runs entirely outside of Santa Monica. What’s the deal with those routes that run entirely outside of Santa Monica anyhow? Are they routes Metro is contracting out, and if so how much money is BBB making from those contracts/would BBB be able to run more local service without those routes?

      However, on the whole, Big Blue Bus service seems oriented around providing a means in/out of Santa Monica and overall is pretty useless for getting around within Santa Monica for a very large number of trips. Which is kind of baffling, the city is on a grid. This shouldn’t be that hard, but they don’t really make great use of the grid, and they seem to love designing routes that do stupid shit like make tons of left turns.

      Plus the bus service isn’t even great at doing things like funneling people to the Expo. I know personally, by the time I wait for the bus, or walk to Wilshire to catch the bus, and then get on the bus, and then make it to the station (I’m not even including time waiting for the train here), I could be most of the way to my destination in an Uber. Expo was a giant letdown for me considering BBB reacted by slashing a ton of the bus service I was using.

    • Sirinya Matute

      (See below – I work for BBB, not responding officially).
      1) Thank you.

      2) Re 10 – we love our R10 riders, even if they are shrinking in size as a group.

      3) Jason: We’d like to hear more about the service you used to use that went away. Maybe that was a mistake. You should tell us through GO: http://www.smgov.net/GO.

      For everyone else
      1: We’ve expanded the number of north/south lines going through the City (see Route 16 that goes Centinela to Stewart/23rd/Walgrove); Route 18 (4th St in Ocean Park), Route 42 (14th and 20th St), route 43 (26th St). No, they don’t run enough, no, some of them don’t run on weekends. (BTW 41 and 42 used to run weekday only and now it runs on weekends). We’re working the best we can given finite resources.

      16, 41, 42 and 44 make a lot of interesting turns as they wind around the 17th Street station. Tell me it’s a bad thing not to feed the billion dollar investment we made in light rail.

      We had to make sharp tradeoffs when we realigned the service. We’re also in the midst of evaluating the changes. Nobody thinks the plan was perfect and even the best laid plans sometimes need to be revised. We’re interested in your feedback. Message us through GO or give us a call. The line here is 310-451-5444. Thanks and have a great weekend.