News & Politics

You Can Start Paying for Metro Using Your Phone (or Watch) in January

The transit agency is going to test out mobile payments.

Pay like this. Photograph via Shutterstock.

Apple’s announcement of a new mobile payment system has the potential to replace the need to carry cash and credit cards for just about any transaction. Turns out Metro is a step ahead of the computing giant.

While tech journalists in California were fawning over Apple’s newest gizmos on Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced the introduction of a pilot program that will install turnstiles at ten Metrorail stations and on six bus lines equipped to take payments through mobile phones, contact-less credit cards, federal identification badges, and other nontraditional forms of payment.

The technology, known as near-field communication (NFC), will be deployed at the Shady Grove, Eisenhower Avenue, Bethesda, Pentagon City, Pentagon, Ballston, Gallery Place (Seventh and F streets), Farragut West, Navy Yard, and Suitland stations, Metro says. (The parking lots at Suitland and Shady Grove will also be outfitted with the new system.) It will also appear on the 37, X9, 39, K9, J4, and Richmond Highway Express bus routes. Installation will begin in October, with the pilot program set to begin in January, around the time Apple’s fancy new watch goes on sale.

There’s no reason to panic about carrying around fare cards and SmarTrip cards for now—the pilot program will run for about six months. If the test run goes well, Metro says it plans to install the NFC-equipped gate at every rail station and on every bus starting in 2017. Metro’s long-term plan is to make it much more efficient for people to enter and exit the system. The prospect of waving one’s phone (or wrist accessory) at the gate to board a train seems far speedier than having to queue at a kiosk to ensure there’s enough money on your fare card.

And early adopters don’t need to worry about using the right payment platform, says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. The new fare gates will work with devices using Apple Pay, Google Wallet, “and probably devices that haven’t been invented yet,” he says.

“Most important, though, is that residents and visitors alike will no longer have to convert US Currency into ‘Metro money’ before traveling, making for a more convenient travel experience,” says Stessel.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.