Honolulu officials debuted “Holo,” the city’s new smart-card pass Tuesday, a program that should eventually give public transit users another option besides cash or passes to ride TheBus, the Handi-Van and, years from now, the rail system.

The new smart card is slated to roll out early next year after some 5,000 bus riders test it out this summer. If all goes as planned, Honolulu’s public transit system will finally catch up to others around the globe that have offered such smart-card passes for years.

Holo means to “ride,” “go,” or “flow” in Hawaiian. It’s modeled after the smart-card system that Portland’s TriMet public transit uses, and it will surpass much of the technology that’s already out there, said Roger Morton, president of Oahu Transit Services, which runs TheBus and the Handi-Van for the city.

The Holo system, similar to TriMet’s Hop Fastpass, will store riders’ account data on remote servers managed by the city’s Department of Information Technology instead of loading that data directly onto the cards, as the earlier systems were designed to do. When a rider’s Holo card gets read, the charge will get sent over a cellular network to those remote servers, Morton said.

Councilman Brandon Elefante displays the city’s new “Holo” smart cards on Tuesday. Oahu Transit Services President Roger Morton  is at left and Mayor Kirk Caldwell, right. Marcel Honore

Riders will be able load more money onto their cards using an app on their smart phones or by calling a Holo hotline, system officials said. If they lose their card, they can buy a replacement for several dollars and regain access to their account on the server.

That “account-based architecture” makes it cheaper to design future changes into the system, Morton and other transit officials said Tuesday.

Specifically, Holo’s architecture could eventually allow Honolulu riders to use their smart phone to pay their fare — eliminating the need for a card altogether.

“The technology is there,” Morton said of using smart phones. “What’s more complicated is the institutional issues.”

Mobile phone payment apps — such those designed by Apple, Google and major credit card companies — are just emerging and “everyone wants a piece of the revenue package,” Morton said.  That industry needs to sort itself out first, he added.

In 2016, the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation jointly awarded the global ticketing firm INIT a $31 million contract to produce what eventually became Holo.

Not The First Shot At A Smart Card

It’s not the city’s first stab at creating a smart-card pass for TheBus. In 2003, Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris declared in his state of the city address that riders would soon be able to use such a pass. That never materialized, however, after the city awarded the contract to build a state of the art system to a company with no experience in the transportation and high-tech fields.

City leaders such as Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Brandon Elefante sounded a more optimistic note about Holo at a press conference Tuesday. They hope Biki riders will eventually be able to use the pass for Honolulu’s new bike-share system as well.

“We’re ready,” Biki CEO Lori McCarney said Tuesday. “When we picked the system that we did, we made sure that we’d be able to integrate with the (Holo) program down the road.”

BIKI bike sstand on Mililani Street, downtown Honolulu near the Post office.
Transit officials hope riders can use the upcoming “Holo” pass to access Biki bikes, such as these parked at a station downtown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Riders will still be able to buy passes for TheBus, but they’ll eventually need to buy a Holo card (likely about $3) to use those passes, Morton said.

The new cards will allow the city and OTS to look at patterns in Honolulu’s collective ridership — but they won’t collect details on where individual passengers are using the bus, he added.

The smart-card pass should also help bus routes run more smoothly, with fewer riders digging for cash or exact change to board TheBus. It could also lead to fewer fare-related arguments between passengers and bus drivers, Morton said.

About a dozen drivers get physically assaulted each year, and about 80 percent of those assaults stem from disputes over fares, Morton said.

He’s hopeful that Honolulu’s upcoming smart-card system will eliminate many of those assaults — plus other arguments that arise on TheBus — going forward.

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