London Tube Now Accepting Apple Pay

While Philly waits, and waits, and waits for SEPTA Key.



Apple Pay made its London debut earlier this week, which means that travelers and Brits alike can purchase merchandise at over 250,000 shops with a simple tap-and-go of their smartphone. One of the biggest operations accepting Apply Pay? The London Underground. Here’s how it works: you simply hold up your device  — linked to your credit card or bank account with Apple Pay— to a sensor upon entering the metro, zip through the turnstile, then tap a sensor upon exiting which determines your fare.

(Just don’t cross the streams: people using an iPhone to enter and an Apple Watch to exit have been overcharged.)

Card-less fare technology isn’t entirely new. For a while now, it’s seemed like an inevitability in mass transit. Not only because it removes the hassle of refilling fare cards; it saves cities hundreds of millions in the long run, spiriting-away the need for upgrades and maintenance on machines involved in producing and replenishing cards. That’s why cities including Boston, Dallas and Portland have created e-ticket apps in the past few years, allowing riders to generate a one-time fare card on their phone by plugging in start and finish points.

Apple Pay offers the potential to take efficiency one step further. In London, you don’t even have to plug in destination points; you simply tap the phone at on and off junctures. There promises to be fewer traffic jams at the turnstile, and, the technology could become a worldwide transit currency (for, that is, those who own newer iPhones or other NFC-equipped smartphones).

There’s plenty of incentive for transit operators like SEPTA, too. City Lab reports that for every one dollar of fares collected by your typical transit agency, around three or four cents gets reinvested to maintain the fare-card system: “Things like staffing fare booths, processing tickets, maintaining and loading kiosks, and providing payment information to travelers all add up.”

But card-less payments could obliterate those collection costs. That’s why it’s no surprise that Chicago, New York and Dallas are in various stages of rolling out NFC contact-less payment technology to allow smartphone-equipped “universal fare cards.” New Jersey Transit was an early adopter of the technology. As City Lab writes, “Fare cards are on the outs. The future is literally touch-and-go.”

Ummmm, and where is Philly? Stuck in the Jurassic ages with our copper-stripe tokens and waiting for the full roll-out of SEPTA Key. SEPTA Key is a contact-less fare card system, but will it support Apple Pay? SEPTA’s not sure. But there are reasons for optimism. The system will take payments (in time anyway) from NFC-equipped phones, and Apple Pay is pretty much just a well-marketed NFC system.

The official SEPTA Key frequently asked questions page says:

Yes, phones with NFC chips will be one of the options for paying a SEPTA fare but customers should be aware this will be a pay as you go transaction, which is not a discounted fare. We are still working on the details on how a customer could download a pass to their phone. Compliant bank issued cards or other cards linked to a smart phone will be able to be used to pay for a SEPTA fare provided the card is registered through the SEPTA Key Card website (not yet available to the public). More details on how this will work and how you will be able to link a SEPTA Key Card to an NFC chip enabled phone will follow at a later time.

Which is kind of encouraging? Maybe? But SEPTA is even more equivocal on the question of Apple Pay in particular:

SEPTA is looking at all possible options that would enable a customer to use a phone (iPhone or Android device) to pay a fare. When we have more details we’ll update this question.

Here’s hoping SEPTA prioritizes phone payments as it rolls out the new fare system. Sure would be a shame if the system’s looong-awaited payment system is behind-the-times the day it launches.