Edmonton Transit Service’s cash-only fare system lags behind other cities

When will Edmontonians be able to stop carrying change to use public transit?
WATCH ABOVE: The City of Edmonton is spending billions of dollars to expand its LRT system and is hoping to increase the number of people who use public transit. But so far, passengers can only pay their fares with cash and as Sarah Kraus reports, it could be years before that changes.

If you want to hop on public transit in Edmonton, you need to have cash on you. Even at LRT stations, the ticket dispensers do not accept debit or credit cards.

“It’s a little bit not convenient for people,” said Andy Qu, who works at Southgate Centre. “Most often, people just carry their debit card [or] credit card. There’s very few coins or cash in their wallet.”

Qu said people are often coming into his shop and asking him to make change for the bus.

“I work in the mall and some people take a super big bill, like a $50 [bill] or $100 [bill], and they’re just like, ‘Can you do an exchange for me? I’ll just buy a small thing.'”
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Qu is a casual transit user, one of thousands that the city is hoping to convert into regular riders by making improvements to the transit system.

Edmonton is investing billions of dollars into LRT expansion and to make transit more accessible. However, in 2019, the payment methods remain inconvenient, especially for younger generations that don’t commonly carry cash.

“I really think that they’ve got to catch up in the 20th century — or is it 21st century now?” Tim Lajeunesse said.

“Most people use their phones for everything. They use the Apple Wallet.”

Other major Canadian cities are miles ahead of Edmonton when it comes to ease of payment. Ottawa introduced its smart card system, Presto, in 2013. Edmonton’s neighbours down south in Calgary have been using debit and credit cards to buy tickets at CTrain stations since 2011.

READ MORE: London transit passengers can now opt for stored value smart card

An Edmonton Transit spokesperson acknowledged the problem.

“We’re well aware that this is something important that needs to be updated, so we’re actively working on implementing a smart fare electronic payment system,” Rowan Anderson said.

The smart fare system would connect Edmonton with regional transit services in St. Albert and Strathcona County.

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“You have a card that you could load money onto and then you would basically tap that, if you’re getting on a bus for instance.”

But when will the smart fare become a reality? The city’s website says “as early as 2020.”

City council is scheduled to get an update on the project on Tuesday, however, it will be behind closed doors.

Councillor Michael Walters said the project has already encountered delays.

“It’s a regional project, so we’re doing it with our neighbours,” he said. “And there’s procurement issues that have led to us needing a little more time.

“It’s too bad that we’re still dealing with a cash-only situation, and I’m hopeful that within this council term we’ll have smart fare. We’re working towards it.”

This council’s term isn’t even halfway through. The next municipal election isn’t until October 2021, more than two-and-a-half years from now.

Anderson said only 13 per cent of riders pay with cash; the vast majority use bus passes or purchase tickets. Both are cheaper per ride.

In addition to the smart fare system, Anderson said other improvements are also being made to existing public transit infrastructure.

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“There’s certainly some retrofitting and some upgrading that we need to do across the system, on a variety of different tools. It’s not just the payment system — it’s some of our maps, some of our lighting.”