Here’s why you can’t pay for transit with Apple or Google Pay


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Charles Stewart, a schoolteacher in New York City, should be able to pay for his daily subway commute with his phone or the tap of a credit card — just as he might pay for coffee at Starbucks.

But he can’t. And Stewart doesn’t know why.

After hours of sleuthing, I finally figured out the hang-up for Stewart and many people like him: A financial middleman hasn’t turned on the option to use digital wallets like Apple Pay with his workplace commuting benefit. No one told Stewart this.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard that for sure,” Stewart, 32, said. “It would be nice to be able to tap that card in my wallet.”

Keep reading for advice if you’re also having trouble paying for public transportation with Apple Pay, Google Pay or a tap of your credit card.

But even if you never use public transit, Stewart’s subway mystery is a glimpse at the complexity that keeps technology conveniences just out of your reach.

If you’ve struggled to buy an e-book in an app, access your electronic medical records, book a vaccination appointment online, or pay for the bus with your phone, you might have wondered: Why is this so hard?

In Stewart’s case, three convoluted systems — public transportation, financial payments and especially workplace benefits — are conspiring to make paying for his commute like a circle of hell that Dante never imagined.

A crash course in the complexity of transit payments

New York is among about a dozen American cities, including Chicago, Miami and Portland, Ore., where people have the option of paying for the bus or train without a separate transit ticket, fare card or app.

Instead, you can use Apple Pay, Google Pay or tap most credit and debit cards at payment terminals like those you see at a coffee shop.

Visa says about one out of every three in-person payment transactions in the United States are now made by a smartphone digital wallet or tap-to-pay card. Particularly for tourists or occasional transit riders, it’s easier to hop on board public transportation with one of those familiar digital payment methods.

(There are downsides to these open-fare systems, too, including the risk of leaving behind people who don’t have smartphones or bank accounts.)

For regular commuters like Stewart, this system promises to automatically charge him the lowest price from his pattern of subway rides. He wants the flexibility to buy a monthly subway pass during the school year and skip it during vacations and summers.

In some other cities, including Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, you can buy transit rides in an app or a virtual transit card saved on your smartphone. Digital payments work, but differently than those in open-fare systems like New York’s. (Did I mention that transit payments are complicated stuff?)

New York is slowly phasing out its 30-year-old transit payment system. Now, nearly half of subway rides are bought with Apple Pay, Google Pay or a tap of a credit card instead of a dedicated transit card, according to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Stewart wants to be among them. But enter the extra complication of a tax break for commuters.

Another frustration: Workplace benefits providers

Some employers, including Stewart’s, give workers the option to set aside money from their paychecks for the costs of taking transit or parking for work. You get a tax break and so does your employer.

Stewart has what looks like a regular debit card loaded with money from his paycheck that he can only use to pay for public transportation. The card comes from a company called Edenred, which contracts with human resources departments on health-care and commuting benefits.

If you have one of these commuter cards, it should work like a regular debit card to add money to a transit fare card from a vending machine.

But if you’re trying to use one of these cards to pay in a transit authority’s app, or add it to Google Pay or Apple Pay to pay for rides — you might be able to. Or you might not.

What you can do: Rally your co-workers to ask H.R.

Ed Fleischmann, Edenred’s chief executive, told me that if you have a commuter payment card from his company, it’s possible to use it for digital payments — but only if your employer turns that feature on.

Stewart needs to wait for New York City and Edenred to complete negotiations on a new contract affecting hundreds of thousands of government workers. Enabling digital payments is part of those contract talks, according to Fleischmann and a spokesman for the mayor of New York.

If you work for a private employer, Fleischmann advised you to contact a benefits manager at your company. Ask that person to ask Edenred to turn on digital payments.

Read to the bottom for information on how other workplace benefits providers, including HealthEquity (also known as WageWorks), handle digital transit payments.

Executives and advocates for transit riders told me that many people — particularly in New York — are complaining about the same difficulty Stewart has in using commuter benefits cards to pay for transit with their phones.

Depending on your local transit agency and benefits provider, it might be easy to pay for public transportation with your phone. If it’s not, you and your colleagues need to advocate to push benefits providers to support Apple Pay, Google Pay or tap-to-pay features on your commuter payment cards.

A spokesman for the New York MTA said that it is “actively encouraging” commuter benefits providers to “make the transition to contactless cards and compatibility with digital wallets.”

Difficulty paying with your phone isn’t the most pressing priority in your life nor the biggest problem with public transit. But communications are confusing or nonexistent to Stewart and other people affected by workplace benefit hang-ups for transportation.

When I called an Edenred customer support hotline, an automated recording said Edenred commuter payment cards cannot be used with digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay. Fleischmann told me that the message was incorrect. He said the customer service line is being overhauled.

Stepping back: WHY is this so hard?

I tried to help Stewart answer what I thought was a simple question — why can’t he pay for a subway ride with his phone? — and I fell into a complexity abyss.

Public transportation and financial payments are notoriously bureaucratic. The bigger culprit, though, are the commuter benefits providers that have moved too slowly to keep up with your desire to pay for stuff with your phone.

They have to deal with complicated tax laws and your employer, which often wants to provide you with a commuter benefit but not think too much about it. No one is advocating for what you want.

“What you have identified is absolutely a core issue,” said Matt Caywood, chief executive of Actionfigure, a start-up that works with companies to help employees use public transportation.

If you participate in a commuter benefits program at work, you might have what looks like a credit or debit card. The name of the employee benefits provider should be written somewhere on your card.

If you use one of these providers’ cards to pay for parking or public transit, here is how digital payments work:

  • HealthEquity (also called WageWorks): A spokesperson said its payment cards are not yet capable of working with Apple Pay and Google Pay. You may be able to use them to pay on transit agency websites and apps where those are available and compatible with IRS regulations, the spokesperson said. Again, the best way to change this is to make a stink with your employer. HealthEquity commuter cards do work with tap-to-pay card terminals, the spokesperson said.
  • Edenred: As I explained for the teacher, some employers’ commuter cards can be used for digital payments and others cannot. Ask your human resources department to have your workplace added to Edenred’s digital payments upgrade list, which is updated monthly.
  • Ameriflex is slowly starting to make digital payments an option for anyone who has that company’s commuter benefits payment cards, said Rashmi Daryman, an executive vice president. If you’re having trouble, Daryman advised contacting the Ameriflex customer service number on the back of your payment card.

I couldn’t list every employee benefits provider, but I want to help you. If you have tried and failed to use your commuter benefits money with Apple Pay or Google Pay — tell me. In general, if you can’t figure out how to pay for transit rides with your phone or tap-to-pay credit card, ask me. I want to be your guide through the insanity.

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