From an article in the Ottawa Citizen:
By the year 2012, Ottawa residents should be able to buy their morning coffee, hop on the bus, borrow library books, and go for a skate in a community arena, all using the same pre-paid smart card, says College Councillor Rick Chiarelli.
Hey, that sounds kind of familiar. If fact, if I were to drop the 'pre-paid' and 'smart' adjectives before talking about this futuristic card, it sounds like something I already use all the time, to pay for public and private services: A credit card.
In fact, taking advantage of existing card payment technology, New Jersey and New York transit agencies (all three of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA], the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [PATH], NJ Transit [NJT]) have partnered with MasterCard to install the PayPass tap-and-pay system on certain buses and trains in the area. From the official press release announcing the pilot program:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH), NJ TRANSIT (NJT) and MasterCard Worldwide today announced the launch of a six month pilot program in which MasterCard PayPass will be accepted for fare payments on select train and bus routes throughout New York City and New Jersey. Today's announcement enables riders of the three transit systems to purchase fares and transfer between transit systems simply by tapping a single type of contactless credit or debit card or device.A deal like the above one with MasterCard or some similar arrangement could provide certain benefits over installing an unique O-Card system, first and foremost being the existing infrastructure for payments already in place. It would also place the management of the system on the shoulders of a company whose primary responsibility is management of these types of payment systems; no matter how competent any city might be, few have any experience with this industry. It would also offer citizens from outside Ottawa a very simple way to pay for transit in the city, rather than having to purchase a pre-paid O-Card.
"The technology that we're testing will make life easier for our customers and help reduce our cost of doing business at the same time," said MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder. "By using an open network we'll break down regional barriers and let people travel across the region with a card that's already sitting in their wallets. We're thrilled to be working with the Port Authority, NJ TRANSIT and MasterCard to test these innovations for our customers."
On the other hand, there are significant obstacles a personal credit-based MasterCard when paying for city services. Primarily, the fact that not everyone can actually have a credit card (based on their personal credit ratings), while every citizen should be able to access municipal services. And perhaps more importantly, the pre-paid nature of the O-Card would preclude interest charges, while a credit card virtually promotes them. So there are distinct and inherent differences between the two models.
Somewhere in the middle there may be a solution which blends the benefits of each style. Whether it comes through a partnership with some payment company, or the incorporation of certain practices into a city-managed pre-paid card, but there are ample possibilities for making the system as effective and cost-efficient as possible.
UPDATE: Transit Toronto recently had a blog post about that city's pilot project using Presto cards for tap-and-pay fare payments.