Via riders arrive at Cento Plaza. Photo by Scott Ball.
The VIA Metropolitan Transit Prímo 103 Zarzamora line will be free to ride on Valentine's Day. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

VIA Metropolitan Transit is going mobile this summer in ways that have nothing to do with the wheels on the bus.

The wait is almost over for VIA’s official new mobile ticketing and trip-planning app set to launch in the coming months after final testing is complete. The goMobile app will be available for free download on Apple and Android smartphone devices. Passengers can purchase fares through the app, then present their device to the bus operator upon boarding. There are no additional fees to use the app when purchasing fares.

Testing is also underway for the forthcoming rollout of goCard – a reloadable smart card that passengers will use to pay for fares via a “tap and go” reader on every bus. The cards will be available at VIA Information Centers and H-E-B. Current reduced-fare ID holders can get a new smart card ID for free.

The six-year, $280,000 project aims to reduce cash handling and load buses more efficiently at each stop, said Jeffrey Arndt, VIA president and CEO.

“The entire industry is moving in the direction of making it easier to pay fares,” Arndt said. “The easier we make it, the less time it takes you, the better. And it may seem small, but incrementally it can make an impact on our ability to maintain a schedule. If you ride a bus, and the person ahead of you is fumbling for change, then imagine if there was a way to flash your phone screen or swipe a card instead. It would be so much faster.”

VIA goMobile will be available for both Apple iOS and Android devices.
VIA goMobile will be available for both Apple iOS and Android devices. Credit: Courtesy / VIA

VIA contracted with a developer known as the moovel Group six months ago to design and market the mobile application. The VIA app is built on a platform already in use with other agencies and is being customized for VIA, according to Steve Young, vice president for information technology at VIA.

“Cash transactions are inherently expensive,” Young said. “Counting the money, the machinery involved and the mechanics that are so prone to failure, the slowness of processing, and the accounting and reconciliation involved. With mobile ticketing, all the transactions are happening somewhere else.”

The VIA board of trustees approved the agency’s fiscal year 2017 operating budget last fall, adopting a $219.9 million budget that kept fares the same while reflecting a 1% increase in expenses over the previous year.

All of VIA’s services carried 39.6 million passenger trips during fiscal year 2016. In January, there were an average of 113,503 bus boardings a day.

Christian Reed-Ogba frequently takes the bus from her home to the Pearl farmer’s market or the Alamo Heights Central Market on weekends and plans to use the bus for upcoming Fiesta events. She has been taking the bus for five years.

“The app will make traveling with VIA much more efficient,” she said.

Payment data will be shared securely between the app and the passenger’s bank. But purchasing data, such as where you activated your ticket, will be aggregated for VIA to use in creating “heat maps,” showing where the highest usage levels might be.

“We won’t have any more information on anyone than a typical online retailer – name, address, geolocation of where the fare was activated – we’re not constantly tracking or pinpointing travel, and the data is reasonably sparse,” Young said.

When the new technologies become available, all buses and routes will accept the new payment systems.

There are no projections yet for how many passengers will use the goMobile or goCards, Young said.

“Other agencies’ numbers vary dramatically,” he said. “We’re hopeful we’ll have big adoption over time. We’re definitely making a push for it. It’s smart and convenient, but we recognize for some customers, it’s not an option.”

For those customers who need to use cash, that option will remain. But Young said VIA is researching a way for passengers who don’t have a mobile phone, credit card, or bank account to leverage cash for mobile ticketing in the future. There’s currently no plan to allow use of debit cards.

Other initiatives in the works at VIA include:

Purchase for VIA Villa: VIA spent $5.2 million on a vacant industrial complex on the Westside as part of its plan to create “VIA Villa,” a mixed-use development centered around its headquarters.

Completion of new bus shelters: In a partnership between VIA, the Texas Department of Transportation, and the City of San Antonio, VIA installed 1,300 new shelters between 1978 and 2014, and another 1,000 between 2014 and 2017. With a goal of providing shelter for 95% of boardings, that project will be complete later this year.

Installation of solar panels at shelters: The solar panels at some shelters will generate energy to provide LED lighting at night. Lighting makes it easier for bus operators to see shelters and passengers, and provides a sense of safety and security for passengers waiting at the bus stop.

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Out with old buses, in with new: In February, VIA began replacing 40% of its buses in the fleet, at eight per week, to reach almost 270 new buses on San Antonio roads by the end of 2017. The new buses are near-zero-emission and use a less expensive fuel than the current diesel buses.

Construction of more rapid-transit Primo lines: The first new Primo line will be located in the Southeast corridor with a route from Brooks City Base to Port San Antonio and Lackland Air Force Base. A new transit center at Brooks is under construction. The second will be located on the Zarzamora Street corridor, from the Madla Transit Center to Fredericksburg Road and connection to the Medical Center.

Trip planning and saving on the app: Future upgrades to the goMobile app will allow potential passengers to map their route and find the least expensive mode of transportation – from personal vehicle or ridesharing to taking the bus or B-Cycle.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.