Recently, some of you may have noticed the curious looking validator machines at the entrances to the Proof of Payment areas in all LRT stations. I, too, was curious about these contraptions but was rather pleased when I finally learned what they were; smart card validators!

Starting this week, Edmonton Transit and the University of Alberta are collaborating to demonstrate the potential of transit smart card technology called “ETSBlue.” Smart cards are not a new idea and are popular among users of European and Asian transit systems, and they’re being used or planned by dozens of North American cities.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, replacing traditional transit tickets and passes with smart cards holds the promise of reducing cash handling, equipment maintenance, and security costs, increasing convenience for riders, improving collection of ridership data, lending a more modern image to transit and providing new opportunities for innovative fare structures and marketing.

For now, however, the validators located in LRT stations are just for demonstrating and testing the equipment. However, the benefits of an expanded smart card system are numerous, and what ETS learns through this test will help it to evaluate the feasibility of expanding the technology system-wide. The demonstration project is scheduled to last two months.

“We’re very excited to be working with the university on this demonstration project,” said Patricia Waisman, director of business development for Edmonton Transit. “University staff travel frequently on the LRT and their card use will provide us with significant data for evaluating and planning future smart card applications.”

“It’s not just a convenient way to pay,” said Gordon Dykstra, supervisor of fare programs for ETS.

“Smart cards allow us to build incentives into the system; they’re simple, clean and require no change.”

However, much work needs to be done on ETS’s end before smart card technology can be expanded to the broader transit system. It’s a big leap from having readers at 13 stations to having them on hundreds of buses, so, for the time being, there are no plans to expand the technology system-wide just yet.