As a lifelong resident of the Boston area, I can say with some confidence that the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has never been thought of as leading edge when it comes to technology, or anything else for that matter. Yes, Boston was the first city to have a subway system but these days the MBTA, which runs the Boston-area public transportation system, is better-known for its chronic budget woes, delays and the occasional crash or derailment.

So I was more than a little surprised to read that the MBTA (better known as the T in these parts) will be the first U.S. railway system to enable riders to order, pay for and display tickets all through their smart phones.  As Network World reports:

“Here’s how it works: Users download the MBTA’s app onto their smartphone and selects a starting location and destination. From there they enter in their credit card number one time to process the transaction. In subsequent purchases, the app will save the credit card data and users will only have to enter in the three-digit security code on the back of their card for verification. After purchasing their pass, the ticket will then display on their smartphone with a specially designed marker that constantly shifts colors to let train conductors know the ticket is not a simple forgery.”

I don’t ride the T much but had occasion to about a week ago when taking my daughter to a Red Sox game. I drove to Riverside Station at the end of the Green Line, the one that goes to Fenway Park, but got shut out of the parking lot – it was already full. Which was fine with me because there was a huge line queued up to use the ticketing machine, where you use your credit card and get a mag stripe card loaded with whatever value you put on it. Apparently on Red Sox game days the T gets lots of folks like me who don’t normally use the train and, hence, don’t already have such a card.

I drove to another station a bit further down the Green Line, got the last space in the lot (yes!) and had to use both card machines before I could get one to work. I also had next to no clue how much value to put on it, since I wasn’t sure whether the driver would charge for my 9-year-old daughter (he didn’t, making some crack about how she’ll be paying for the rest of her life; true enough, to get the T out of the multi-billion dollar hole it’s in).

It would’ve been a whole lot easier to conduct the transaction with the smart phone app, which – it sounds like – would’ve told me exactly how much the fare was. And I suspect it would’ve dramatically reduced that line for the card machine at Riverside.

The larger point is, if the MBTA is out in front on a smartphone-based mobile payment system, you can bet lots of other sorts of companies are, too – some of your competitors, perhaps. The other day I used my iPhone to pay for gas at a Gulf station that’s part of the Cumberland Farms convenience store chain. That application, dubbed SmartPay, needs some work. In the time it took to log in with my username and password, tell it what pump I was at and such, I could’ve easily just swiped my credit card, so I’m not sure it was worth saving 5 cents per gallon. But at least the company is out there trying, and in a new area like mobile payments, and mobility in general, it’s going to take some trial and error to get things right. So there’s no time to waste in getting your mobility strategy together and getting some skin in the game.

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