Photo (cc) Oran Viriyincy
What the hell is an ORCA Card you ask? Only a wicked awesome tranist fare Smart Card. The ORCA (One Regional Card for All) is the Seattle area’s version of Smart Card transit fare technology which is taking root around the world. London has their Oyster card, Hong Kong Octopus, and the Chicago Card are among many other Smart Cards out there.
What struck me about ORCA and why it applies to Providence is that the ORCA provides fare services for seven regional transit agencies, and the fare services can be bought in various configurations. For example, say you ride Sound Transit commuter rail into Seattle every weekday, then take a King County Metro bus from the train station to your office. You can have a discount monthly Metro and Sound Transit fare charge applied to your ORCA card. But say you occassionally take Washington State Ferry and occassionally use Community Transit buses? Not every day, so you don’t want a monthly pass for those services. No problem, ORCA can also deduct cash fares from your “e-purse” account built into ORCA.
This makes using transit in the Seattle area seemless. As long as you have your ORCA card in your pocket, you know you can board any transit service. And if you ride a particular service often enough to warrant a monthly fare, ORCA handles that too.
How does this apply to Providence? Well, we have RIPTA and MBTA running into Providence (and the MBTA soon to move further south into the state). Also in our metro area we have GATRA and a smattering of other transit agencies in southeastern Massachusetts. Not to mention transit services in Connecticut. Not all of these services directly connect, but riders may mix through these service areas, especially with the Commuter Rail tying all these service areas together. Say someone wanted to take GATRA to the Attelboro T station, the T to Providence, and a RIPTA bus to their job at RI Hospital. That is three transit systems and three fare products (or the need to keep track of having the proper cash for each of three services).
The biggest benefit of ORCA, or a like system, to me is, the ability to load the card like a debit card and have it in my pocket when I need it. Though I don’t own a car, I actually ride RIPTA rather infrequently, mostly walking everywhere. I’d likely use the bus more if I had a card in my pocket that I knew would get me on it, not needing to dig for change to jump on a bus I wasn’t necessarily planning on taking.
The best RIPTA fare card for me currently would be the 15 Ride card which offers 15 discounted rides, but is still not ideal. I need to remember how many rides I’ve used, say I have one ride left, but need to do a round-trip, now I’m out of luck. ORCA, if I had one ride left, but needed a round trip has an auto re-load option, so when I boarded that return bus but my ORCA was empty, ORCA would debit my account by the amount I told it to auto-debit when my card was empty.
Also, to get a new 15 Ride RIPTA pass, I have to go somewhere. Say I use the last of my 15 Rides to get home. Now I’m stuck at home with no fare card and have to pay cash to go somewhere (for me the most convenient place would be Kennedy Plaza) to get a new card. ORCA allows for me to manage my account online (or if one is not online, then by phone). So if I ever got home with an empty ORCA (if I didn’t have auto-debit), then I could login or call and be good to go with more money on my card.
Photo (cc) ishell
As I said, ORCA is a Smart Card. Currently if one wants a transfer on RIPTA, depending on which fare card you are using (or if you are paying cash), you have to ask the driver to give you a transfer when boarding. You also have to pay for that transfer, which you may or may not use (say you get sidetracked and your transfer expires, you are S.O.L.). ORCA figures out the transfer for you. When you board the next bus (or train or ferry) ORCA figures out if you are eligible for a transfer rate and detucts the proper fare for you. No need to remember to get a transfer, no lost transfer tickets, no paying for tranfers you don’t end up using.
Smart Card techology can even extend beyond transit use. In Hong Kong the Octopus card is a true City Card used for “payment at convenience stores, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, on-street parking meters, car parks, and other point-of-sale applications such as service stations and vending machines.” Introducing a City Card such as Ocotpus is a way to get transit directly into the pockets of non-transit riders. Someone who drives into Providence may buy a City Card for parking, but now realizing that they have a transit card as well, may hop on the trolley or a bus to go somewhere else while parked downtown. A first step toward creating a transit convert. Making the card widely usable also expands the areas where they can be purchased and refilled. Imagine RIPTA Smart Card kiosks in every Dunkin Donuts. If you can use the Smart Card to buy coffee, that incents Dunkin Donuts to install vending machines.
I porpose we call our Smart Card the Quahog, now we just need to come up with an acronym for why it is called Quahog and we can start handing them out.