Paying bus fare in Manatee? There’s an app for that

The No. 9 bus stops at the Downtown Station on Monday. Manatee County Area Transit launched a new way for passengers to purchase bus passes on their smartphones.
The No. 9 bus stops at the Downtown Station on Monday. Manatee County Area Transit launched a new way for passengers to purchase bus passes on their smartphones. hemorse@bradenton.com

Manatee County Area Transit passengers have a new option for buying bus passes.

MCAT is trying out a yearlong pilot program with Token Transit, a mobile ticketing app where bus riders have the option to purchase a single ride, day pass, week pass or month pass on their smartphone with a credit or debit card.

Riders can also use the app for the No. 99 route, which runs between Manatee and Sarasota, and may vary between a MCAT or SCAT bus. Discount rates are available for purchase with ID proof.

After the transaction is complete, passengers show the mobile ticket to the bus driver who then validates the corresponding words, colors and images of that day. The app also shows a countdown clock to when each ticket expires.

Two-thirds of the nearly 5,000 daily MCAT passengers buy their passes at any of the bus stations or participating Goodwill stores, said Ryan Suarez, planning manager with the Manatee County Transit Division.

“If you did want to buy a pass, you’d have to go to the booth,” Suarez said. “That’s not very convenient for passengers.”

Otherwise, riders pay with cash on board the bus; if they don’t have the exact amount, they’re given a change card which Suarez said are “not very functional or easy to use.”

As of 11 a.m. Monday, nearly 12 hours after the app first launched in Manatee, one single-ride pass was bought through the app. Suarez is confident that as time goes on, it’ll become more popular.

This app was a way to improve access to the bus system without having to install hardware on every bus, like you might see if you’ve used a rechargeable card-swipe system on public transportation elsewhere.

Brian Rankin, 29, rides the No. 6 bus daily to his job at a resort on Longboat Key, which also requires a leg in an on-demand shuttle. He’s part of the 34 percent of riders who pay for their tickets on board. He’ll only spring for a day pass if he thinks he will ride the bus more than twice that day.

“I’ll be honest with you, you’ve got to think about the people who take buses though,” Rankin said. “They’re typically lower income people” and might not have cards or bank accounts.

Suarez is cognizant of this.

“We do have a lot of riders who don’t have bank accounts (and) a lot of riders who don’t have smartphones with data plans,” Suarez said. He imagines that the app will be popular with college students or passengers that have the option of driving a car but choose to use public transportation.

Token Transit is based in San Francisco and primarily caters to California-based transit systems, but other states that have signed on to the app reach from Washington to Pennsylvania. The only other Florida bus system to use Token Transit is StarMetro in Tallahassee.

“I think it’ll be great for the people that do have cards, and everything in life now is technology-based,” Rankin said. “I feel like it is going to be successful. It may take a while to get there.”

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse