CDTA's new fare smart cards are now available

CDTA Navigator card in hand

This Navigator card belongs to Albany Public Library executive director Scott Jarzombek. He was at today's public roll out of the new system because APL employees -- including himself -- were using the cards during a pilot test over the past year. (APL has a universal access agreement with CDTA for employees to ride the bus.)

CDTA opened its new Navigator fare card to the general public Thursday. The new system includes a bunch of potential benefits for riders as well as the transit org -- and it opens some interesting possibilities for transportation in the Capital Region that extend beyond the bus (hello, taxis).

"It makes everything quicker, everything more convenient," CDTA CEO Carm Basile said Thursday. "But most importantly, the customer manages their own account. They do what they want to do when they want to do it and how they want do it."

Here's a quick overview, along with a few bits about the upcoming bike share and a common taxi system for the Capital Region.

Navigator basics

+ The new fare system uses smart cards -- they look and feel almost exactly like credit cards -- that riders can load (reload) with money to buy rides. When you board, you tap the card on the reader on top of the fare box.

CDTA fare box closeup

+ The biggest benefits for riders is that now you can set up an account with CDTA online, via phone, or in person and its retail outlets and then link the Navigator card to the account. The money then isn't really "on" the card -- it's in the account. The card just becomes an extension of the account, so if it's lost, you can just get a new one and link it -- no money or pre-paid fares lost. You can also add money to the account online, on the phone, or in person. (There's an "autobuy" function if you add a credit card to the account that allows you to replenish the card automatically if it gets low.) And it's also possible to link multiple cards to the same account.

+ The new Navigator cards are not available on the buses.

+ We registered a new Navigator card online today and it took less than a minute.

+ The cards can be loaded with money for pay-as-you go riding (minimum $10 added at a time) or for a 31-day pass ($65).

+ Individual rides are $1.30 with the Navigator card (.20 less than if you're using cash), and the system tracks the number of rides you take in a day, capping the total overall fare at $3.90 (no more than a day pass).

CDTA Navigator account screen

+ Carm Basile said the cards will allow CDTA to offer special discounts in the future, like maybe free rides on your birthday or something like that.

+ CDTA also plans to roll out a mobile device payments for Navigator later this year. Then you'll be able to use a mobile phone like one of the plastic cards.

+ The old swiper cards are still available, and will continue to be available through most of this year.

+ And the fare boxes will continue to accept to cash. Basile said Thursday cash is a hassle to handle, but "it's never going away." Apparently folded, bent, mangled paper currency doesn't play well with machines that take it and count it. Said Basile of the process of collecting cash from buses: "If you follow the money, it's amazingly archaic. ... You'd shake your head and say 'Is this really 2017?'"

CDTA's put together an FAQ for the new system.

CDTA as a platform for other services

Navigator will potentially be more convenient for riders, and could also help things run more smoothly for CDTA. But it also opens the way for the transit org to continue its push to become something more like a platform for transportation services rather than "just" the bus.

An upcoming example: CDTA will be administering the bike share planned to start this year. And Basile said Thursday that Navigator will be the payment mechanism for renting a bike.

Capital Region bike share demo project bikes

And if you can use Navigator to pay for a bike ride, then theoretically couldn't it also be used to pay for a taxi ride -- especially since CDTA is in the process of creating a regional setup for cabs in this area?

"[It's] more than theoretical," Basile said of such taxi payments Thursday. "It's in the thought process, sure."

So you could use Navigator to pay for a taxi. And Navigator also will eventually be part of a mobile app... that sounds a lot like a situation in which someone could theoretically order a local taxi and pay for it all from their phone through a common platform run by CDTA. (You might have heard similar such systems are rather fashionable these days -- if not yet available here.)

"That's two different functions," Basile said of taxi payments and taxi ordering, "but it's something we're thinking about."

About a regional taxi system

Just because that sort of setup is theoretically possible doesn't mean it will actually work out. There would be a lot of steps to get there. And there isn't even a regional system for taxis in place, yet.

Basile said CDTA is hoping to roll out a common ordinance for taxi service this spring. And he said that, so far, both municipalities and taxi operators have been very amenable to the idea because it holds the promise of simplifying the situation greatly.

"It's not like the people who live and work here are asking for something that's unreasonable," Basile of the area's much-criticized taxis. "I just want to know who to call, who to tap to get a cab. I'd like that cab to come in a reasonable time -- I'd like to know when it's coming. And I want to know what the fare is. Cleanliness and customer service, we'll get that, too. But if you do those three things, most people are happy."

Earlier on AOA:
+ CDTA: Bike share planned for next summer
+ CDTA wants to know what you think about taxi service in this area
+ New York State could be closer to allowing Uber and Lyft to operate here. Maybe. Sort of.

CDTA advertises on AOA.


Wow this is great! I used to take CDTA every day and I couldn't believe there was no "smart card". Glad to see that they added a lowered fare, when I did the math it was cheapest to pay cash every day - weird. Tbh they should make transfers to another bus within ~20 minutes free as well

Very cool. As someone who has never ridden a city bus, to me this makes it seem a little more friendly - more like the subway.

But I'm really interested in more info about the bike share. I definitely plan on using it, but hope that it's reasonably priced and has more than one or two locations for the whole region...

I've been pilot testing it, and I'd like to hear from anyone who is able to "tap" the card and have it register on the reader. I always have to slap the card down on the machine, move it around, push down on it, until it finally recognizes the card. Sometimes it doesn't work at all. In Boston recently I used a bus card that really did work with just a tap. Not this one.

Aside from that, and some bizarre problems with reloading (Amex cards don't work but they don't tell you that on the website), it's a great system.

I've been using it for a while and I haven't had any problems with it. The main thing I notice is that I need to let it hover an extra second beyond what other tap systems need in order for it to register. Also, it doesn't make as loud or as satisfying a sound as I like. But overall it's a million times better than the old ten trips. I love it!

Sounds great! I like that the money isn't stored on the card, unlike NYC Metrocards. Presumably the money in your account won't expire, unlike more traditional subway fare cards.

Peter, I actually called CDTA to ask about that after the press conference. According to their FAQ, cards expire 10 years after purchase, and the balance on the card does not expire before that time. I'm getting one for my mom for her visits from Vermont, so I had the same concern.

I've been using the CDTA Navigator Card on and off for times that my Swiper Card has expired. No more worrying about having one dollar bills or those pesky change cards. As long as I have my wallet, I can board the bus without concern.

It works well, although I wish the card readers were more sensitive -- I hate having to pull the card out of my wallet when I get on the bus. A few times it has double charged the card. I probably should have disputed the charge with CDTA, but usually it was 90 cents for the third ride of the day that I didn't take, and wasn't worth my effort.

I am looking forward to when I can use my Price Chopper discount with CDTA Navigator Card. I would like to see the $55 5-day card brought back, but I guess that is not to be. Also, I wish the the cards would be capped at $65 a month, so they would not cost more then $65 a month for frequent riders.

Anyone know if they will just accept NFC/wireless payments on these new scanner/terminals just like cash? I honestly think this is a major fail if they can't.

Jake, from about midway through this post: "CDTA also plans to roll out a mobile device payments for Navigator later this year. Then you'll be able to use a mobile phone like one of the plastic cards." Whether it will work as cash or through a CDTA or Navigator app, I don't know, though I would bet on the latter. In effect, I would think either method would be the same experience.

I've been using the Navigator since the pilot began and have found it to be a great improvement over the paper based system. As mentioned by a few others, my only compliant is that the card reader needs to be a bit more sensitive, for sometimes it requires some extra effort for it to register my card. I can't wait for mobile payments and find using the card/mobile application with other services (e.g. bike share) to be an intrigue way to add value and convenience to our maturing mass transit options.

Seems like CDTA is rushing this to the public much too fast. The fare boxes are always breaking down as it is. The new boxes seem to be just as bad if not worse. The Navigator card should be implemented more slowly with the current day passes still available. This all or nothing approach is just wrong.

I have to disagree with JD. I've been a heavy user of the Navigator cards for about seven months now across a variety of routes and I have yet to experience a single problem with the card system.

The only incident of any sort I've encountered was when the fare box broke down completely on one bus and would not accept any fare at all - no cards, passes, or cash. So, the ride was free for everyone.

Otherwise, the only "problem" has been a few new users having a little trouble getting the hang of just how to place and swipe the card and that is certainly no big deal (and most of the drivers handle it patiently).

@JD - i thought existing products (e.g. day pass) were still available from the fare boxes? Has that changed?

@ed and JD - yes, the regular cards like day passes are still available and a lot of people use them.

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