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A Smartphone Can Be a Ticket to Ride

Taken from the New York Times, by Joshua Brustein

APP NY Waterway

PLATFORM iPhone, iOS devices and android


When New York Waterway expanded its service from the Hudson River to the East River last year, it had to create much of the new ferry system from scratch. And if you are building anything new these days, it could well involve a smartphone app. It follows, then, that the ferry operator recently introduced a smartphone app that allows riders to use their phones as their tickets.

Once you download the app, you have to establish an account with a credit card. With that done, buying a ticket is relatively simple. I bought one while sitting on my couch, then headed to the pier at East 34th Street.

When I saw the ferry arriving, I activated the ticket, which gave me a 90-minute window in which to use it. When I stepped aboard, I showed the deckhand my phone and tapped the screen, which caused the ticket to change color. (By using a person to read the app, rather than a scanner, New York Waterway was able to design it using relatively simple technology.)

And with that, I was off to Brooklyn.

Only about 30 percent of those who have downloaded the app have used it to buy tickets. The ferry system has also equipped its shuttle buses with GPS sensors, and the app includes a map that shows where the buses are in real time. It also includes timetables and service alerts.

New York Waterway says tickets will still be available through more traditional means for the foreseeable future. But transit systems across the country are using smartphones and other inexpensive gadgets, like GPS devices, to improve service. The larger systems are still in the planning stages or running pilot programs, but because of New York Waterway’s modest scale, it was able to adapt its entire system all at once.

Commuters using other forms of transit in New York will have to wait a little longer. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning to equip its entire subway and bus system to run off a “tap and go” system, which will allow riders to use a phone, credit card or custom keychain in place of a MetroCard swipe. It plans to introduce the new technology in stages, completing the project by 2015, but does not yet know when the first stations will be ready.

In November, Amtrak began allowing riders on its Downeaster line, which runs between Massachusetts and Maine, to download tickets to their phones, then show the screens to a conductor, who scans them with a mobile device. Amtrak says it plans to equip the entire system to handle electronic tickets by this summer.

Late last year, New Jersey Transit developed a ticketing system that uses Google Wallet, a technology that transmits payments from a phone to a special receiver when the two are brought into close proximity (it’s called “near field” communication).

Google Wallet is not yet available across the entire system, but it can be used for all trips that begin at Pennsylvania Station and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, though it works with only one smartphone for now — the Nexus S 4G.

Paul Goodman, the chief executive of BillyBey Ferry Company, one of the two ferry companies that makes up New York Waterway, said he believed that near-field devices will eventually replace the ferry’s new app. But he could not bring himself to wait for the technology to be ready. “That’s potentially where this is headed down the road, but it’s not there yet,” he said.

Have a favorite New York City app? Send tips via e-mail to appcity@nytimes.com or via Twitter to @joshuabrustein.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 12, 2012

The App City column in some editions last Sunday, about the NY Waterway app that allows riders to use their phones as their tickets and also to track shuttle buses, omitted a platform on which the app is available. Besides the iPhone and iOS devices, the app is also available on Android devices.