Electronic fare payments come to transit in the Edmonton region

· The Pulse

Transit riders in the Edmonton region can now use Arc, the new electronic fare payment system that has been in the works for nearly two decades.

Arc is available for use by standard adult riders in Beaumont, Edmonton, Spruce Grove, Strathcona County, and St. Albert. Fort Saskatchewan and the City of Leduc require more time for implementation due to bus replacements and the need for handheld fare validators on the fleet, so they will launch support for Arc next year. Also coming in 2023 is support for discounted fare groups — including seniors, youth, and low-income individuals — and riders who use paratransit services such as DATS.

"This is an important milestone toward building a strong, integrated transit service that gives people a more modern, reliable, and seamless way to travel around the greater Edmonton region," said Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, branch manager of Edmonton Transit Service.

Wade Coombs, transit director of Strathcona County Transit, said Arc makes the Edmonton region the first in Canada to offer regional fare capping. "This will enhance regional mobility and reduce the financial barrier for riders who prefer not to pay for a pass upfront," he said.

Fare capping is one of the key features of Arc, intended to replace monthly passes. Once a rider hits the fare cap for their region, they ride for free during the rest of the month. Each region has a slightly different cap, ranging from $52.50 per month in Fort Saskatchewan to $100 per month in Edmonton for local adult riders. Commuter caps are higher, ranging from $85 per month in Beaumont to $135 per month in Spruce Grove.

Though seven regional municipalities are involved in Arc, the initiative is separate from the Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services Commission.

"Arc has a governance structure with members, including a regional executive steering committee, to oversee the implementation," Hotton-MacDonald told Taproot. "Faring is not in scope for the Commission's first phase of operations." She said the EMTSC will work with municipalities on faring in "future phases of work."

Edmonton city council is expected to vote on its involvement in EMTSC's first phase of operations during the 2023-2026 budget discussions.

Staff and outreach teams from the participating transit agencies are handing out complimentary Arc cards to riders at transit centres and LRT stations until supplies last. Arc cards can also be purchased for $6 online, at fare vending machines, and at select retailers.

Elected officials from the Edmonton region hold up Arc cards in front of three buses

Leduc Mayor Bob Young, Strathcona County Mayor Rod Frank, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron, and Spruce Grove Coun. Danielle Carter celebrate the official launch of Arc for standard adult riders on Nov. 21, 2022. (Supplied)

How we got here

The City of Edmonton first developed a business case for "smart fare" in 2003, initially intending to deploy a "civic card" that would support transit, libraries, recreation centres, and other city services. Funding for that initiative was not approved, and the project was shelved until an updated business case was developed in 2012 with an estimated cost of $30 million and a focus on transit. That year, alongside a "regional fare strategy review" undertaken by the Capital Region Board, Edmonton city council requested an expansion of the scope to make the system regional.

By 2014, the estimated cost for a coordinated regional system had grown to nearly $62 million, with Edmonton contributing about $55 million. Edmonton approved $42 million for the project in the 2015-2018 capital budget, contingent on the Government of Alberta contributing funding via the GreenTRIP program. In September 2015, the province agreed to fund two-thirds of the $51.6 million project costs.

While discussions between the three had been ongoing for years, the City of Edmonton, the City of St. Albert, and Strathcona County first entered into an agreement to implement a smart fare system for transit in 2016, initially targeting the development of a brand in 2017 and full rollout in 2020. Leduc and other regional municipalities were invited to join the project starting in 2018.

Even with the funding in place, implementation did not start immediately. Vix Technology was selected in 2017 to implement and operate the system with a 15-year contract. In early 2019, the first equipment was installed on ETS buses, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the following year caused another delay to the project.

In June 2021, the Arc brand was unveiled and card validators were enabled for pilot testing. UPass riders and participants in the Arc pilot have been using the system since August 2021.

What's next?

The full rollout of Arc could lead to cost savings, better service, and increased ridership.

ETS said continued growth of the service was "constrained by the limitations" of the old paper-based system, which required manual tracking and reconciliation. The new electronic system will make it more efficient to manage fares.

Edmonton plans to discontinue paper fare products sometime in 2024, Hotton-MacDonald said. "Paper fare products will not be discontinued in Edmonton until all rider groups have been transitioned to Arc and Arc equipment is installed on all vehicles, including paratransit. Riders will be notified well in advance of paper fare products being phased out."

St. Albert Transit said it will continue to accept paper passes and tickets for the foreseeable future. Spokesperson Marci Ng told the St. Albert Gazette that "cash will be accepted and will likely remain indefinitely."

Perhaps the most important result of the Arc rollout is the opportunity for data-based decision-making, Speaking Municipally co-host Troy Pavlek said on Episode 199 of Taproot's civic affairs podcast. "Right now, we don't know how many people ride the bus. We don't know where they ride the bus. And we don't know what the popular routes are, other than some drivers pressing a clicker. It's, at best, estimates."

Knowing the actual behaviour of the ridership will make it easier to plan routes and time transfer points, he said. "This is going to be a huge boon for transit reliability, as long as we implement it properly."

Hotton-MacDonald agreed that Arc will help ETS improve service. "The tap-on and tap-off data will help further inform how riders are using the system and allow us to better support their needs and improve the overall transit experience," she said.