Upon obtaining Israeli citizenship in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a remarkable convenience: the ability to seamlessly traverse the entire nation’s transportation network. Israel’s comprehensive public transit system allows individuals to access trains, light rails, buses, and subways with a single, unified pass.

From Kiryat Shmona, which is the northernmost city in Israel, located directly on the border with Lebanon, all the way south to Eilat, which is the southernmost city in Israel, it is located along the border with Egypt, every public bus, train, light rail, subway and cable car is accessed via a single pass which is called a “Rav-Kav,” which translates into English as “multi line.”

So, as I rode on buses, trains and light rails throughout Israel, I began to wonder, could a comparable system ever work in the US?

Note that the public transit systems throughout Israel are all still operated by different agencies.  All of the decisions regarding routes, schedules, hiring drivers and vehicle maintenance are still made entirely by the administrators who work at local and regional public transit agencies.  It is only the method that passengers use for paying our fares which has been adapted into a nationwide system.

A similar system which is called rejsekort (“travel card”) has been in use in Denmark since 2003; people who live, work or travel in Denmark use the single rejsekort to pay the fares for all of the buses, trains, light rails and subways in all of the cities and towns throughout the entire country.

Obviously, the U.S. is a much larger country than Israel or Denmark.  The entire population of Israel is 9 million people, and as of January of 2023, the population of Denmark is approximately 6 million people.  

And I believe that is quite possibly part of the reason that it may be worth considering proposing a comparable system here in the U.S.  A person who lives in one city, works in a second city, frequently travels to visit family members or friends in two or three other cities, who travels to one or 2 other cities for business trips and then travels in entirely different regions or states for vacations, tourism or to pursue their hobbies and leisure activities could easily have to keep track of 8, 9 or 10 different bus, train and subway passes with 8, 9 or 10 different accounts.  Our lives are busy enough these days, and our schedules are likely to become even busier throughout the 2030’s and the 2040’s.  While keeping track of multiple public transit passes for the different cities and counties that we travel in is not a particularly stressful or complicated task, as someone who travels frequently throughout different cities throughout Israel, I can tell you that it’s far more convenient and notably less time consuming to keep track of one (1) single account than it is to attempt to keep track of 8 or 9 different accounts.

Is A Comparable System Actually Potentially Feasible For The US?

The Rav-Kav system was initially introduced in a handful of cities in Israel in 2007, and it took a full five years before every train, light rail and subway station as well as every bus in the country accepted them.  It would take several years to implement a comparable system in a country the size of the U.S.  However, the technologies for such a system do in fact exist, and it would be easier to install the technologies which are involved in implementing such a system on a national scale today in 2023 than it was 15 years ago when the Rav-Kav system was being installed throughout Israel.

The charging of fees for entry onto buses, trains, subways, light rails, cable cars and passenger ferries is already accomplished by scanners on the various smart card systems and apps that are in use in public transit systems throughout the US.

bus stop printed on asphalt road
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Replacing the scanning mechanisms with a single scanning system that would work on all public transit throughout the country would be comparable to the US Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department Of Transportation’s efforts to install scanners at all of the toll booths on all of the roads and highways throughout the US so that all of the tolls in the US could be paid with a single transponder. 

The terms of The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (the “MAP-21” Act) of 2012 had stated that this was supposed to have been accomplished by October of 2016, and as I pointed out in the article that I wrote which appeared in the January 8th, 2017 issue of The Pavlovic Today, although a number of factors including various different transit authorities’ inability to respond to each other’s communications in a timely manner has been delaying the implementation of a single unified tolls system in the US, the delays which have been involved with the Federal Highway Administration’s efforts to unify the tolls on all of the highways throughout the US into a single payment system have not been due to the technologies which are involved in the system.   

How Could A Single System Which Could Be Used For Paying Public Transit Fares Throughout The US Work?

As I’ve mentioned, the technologies which would be involved in creating a system which would enable people to pay fares for public transit throughout the US with one single pass are not terribly complicated, the technologies which would enable such a system to function smoothly are comparable to the technologies which banks and credit card companies have been using with credit cards and with ATM cards since the 1980’s.  Such a system has not been proposed yet because although the technologies which would enable such a system to function do exit, until relatively recently it would have been very expensive to install such a system on a national scale and it would have taken approximately between 5 to 10 years to do so. 

To use New York City as an example, construction on the first subway lines began in 1900, the first subway lines opened in 1904 and the various lines operated independently of each other until 1940.  In 1940 the New York City Board of Transportation, which was the predecessor agency to New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority assumed control over the different lines which has been operating independently and since June of 1940, all of the subways throughout New York City have been operating as a single system under the authority of one single city transit agency.  

Beginning in 1948, passengers were able to use a single token to pay the fares for all of the subways and buses which operate throughout New York City.  Beginning in 1973, passengers had the option to use the same tokens that they’d been using to pay for city subway fares to pay for some of the buses which run into the suburbs in Long Island.  The NYC Metro Card system which is presently in use had originally been proposed in 1983, the New York state government allocated funding to the MTA for the system in 1990, and the system became operational in 1992.  The Metro card system is also now used to pay the fares for the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) trains which run into New Jersey as well as on the Bee line buses in Westchester County.  The Metro card system which is presently in use throughout New York City is scheduled to be replaced with the “One Metro New York,” or the “OMNY” system in October of this year, and the MTA has stated that within the next few years, the Long Island Railroad trains as well as the Metro North trains which run into the northern suburbs of New York City and into Connecticut will also adopt the new OMNY system.

Creating a system which would enable people who ride on all of the trains, buses, light rail lines, passenger ferries and cable cars throughout the US would only involve upgrading the scanners which are used for payment of fares, comparable to the manner in which the various agencies which oversee the trains and the buses that operate in the suburbs of New York City will be changing the scanners which are used to verify payment of fares over the course of the next few years as the OMNY system becomes operational throughout the suburbs.  All of the other decisions that city, county, state and regional transportation agencies make regarding every aspect of public transit would still be made by those same agencies, including regulating the costs of fares. 

A single system which people use to pay fees for public transit throughout the US could be a either physical plastic card or an app, and people would have the option to use either a plastic card or an app with such a system.  The accounts would be stored in a database, you’d deposit funds into your account, every time you use public transit, the fees would be debited from your account, and when your account reaches a low balance, you would replenish it.  If your card or your phone is lost, stolen or damaged, then you would temporarily suspend the account and the agency which oversees the system would send a new card or a new app to you so that you can resume using it for payments.  All relevant discounts will be included within the card or the app (i.e., reduced fares for military veterans, students, handicapped, discounts for senior citizens, etc.).  

As I’ve mentioned, the MAP-21 Act of 2012 had stated that the USDOT and the Federal Highway Adminstration had expected that the various systems which drivers use to pay tolls on all of the roads throughout the US would be linked together into a single national system by 2016, and a number of factors have delayed the Federal government’s efforts to complete this project.  Creating a single unified system which would be used for paying the fares on all of the public transit throughout the US will only work if enough funding is allocated for the numerous agencies which will be involved to be able to hire enough workers in all of the relevant trades to be able to install the scanners within a reasonable timetable.  

What Can You Do About This Issue?

While this has never been proposed in the US, having a single unified system for paying all of the fees for all of the public transit within a single country does work well in the countries which use such a system.  A single system which would enable people to pay public transit fees for all of the public transit throughout the US would be beneficial to everyone who rides public transit throughout the US, and there’s no reason why politicians should wait any longer to propose such a system.

Decisions regarding public transit are all accomplished by various agencies within city, county and state governments.  If the idea of being able to use one single plastic card or an app to pay the fares for all of the buses, trains, light rails, subways, cable cars and passenger ferries throughout the US sounds appealing to you, you have to let your politicians as well as candidates who have announced their intentions to run for office know that this sounds appealing to you.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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