Over 60% of all transit trips in Washington are paid through ORCA Smartcard

ORCA ‘One region card for all’ smart card was launched in April, 2009. ORCA smart card is a plastic card containing an embedded microchip processor that can keep track of travel fares. It uses contact-less technology so user needs to bring it within a few inches of a card reader for it to work.

The smart card was launched through an agreement of seven agencies - Community Transit, Sound Transit, Kitsap Transit, Everett Transit, Pierce Transit, King County Metro, and Washington State Ferries. These companies signed a contract of $43 Mn and awarded it to vendor ERG transit systems. More than 120 retail stores, including Safeway and Saar's locations, local QFC, just joined the 40 transit agency venues that sell ORCA cards.

ORCA card costs $5 for standard riders and $3 for those who qualify for reduced fares (senior, disabled individuals). It can be bought through online (, phone, customer service center and ticket vending machines. This card claims to replace about 300 different transit passes, cards and tokens used by various transit providers.

The video below demonstrates how to add money to your ORCA card and how to use it while commuting:

Source: Sound Transit

Type of offerings:

ORCA E-Purse

  • It is like a prepaid card (Like Coffee/mobile card) loaded with pre-paid value.

  • The purse automatically deducts fare value of the ride from the card and if anyone needs to transfer to complete the trip, transfer credit is calculated too.

  • If user`s 2nd trip costs more than 1st trip then additional fare will be deducted automatically from card and shown on the card reader.

  • E-purse value may be purchased in dollar increments with a minimum purchase of $5 and a maximum of $300.

  • User can add value at any time by phone, online or in person, or set the card to auto-load whenever the balance falls to zero.

ORCA monthly pass or monthly pass/E-purse combination

  • For frequent users covering more than 18 roundtrips per month, ORCA provides monthly passes.

  • User has to select the pass based on the fare value of his/her frequent trip.

  • If user travels by train or bus having higher fare, then user has to pay the cost difference with cash or E-purse value added to ORCA card.

  • ORCA account can be automatically loaded every month with a new pass.

As reported by Metro, ticket book sales have decreased from an average of about 25,000 per month to only about 3,000 per month. At present, more than 60% of all transit trips in Washington are paid by ORCA.

Some concerns of using ORCA cards include

  • Most of the frequent-user and business-account markets prefer ORCA cards, but these cards are not fully understood by other segments of the market. People with low income and who travel infrequently may not prefer to use ORCA cards.

  • Users also face barriers while getting and adding value to ORCA cards. One time cost of $5 to buy card may deter people with low income to purchase this card.

  • Security can be one of the major concern of these cards. Privacy of user’s can be compromised as companies or third parties can have access to a user`s personal, spend and travel details.

Some other smart card operating systems include Chicago Transit Authority (Ventra Card), San Francisco Bay Area (TransLink); Ventura County, Washington, D.C. (SmarTrip); CA (Go Ventura); Hong Kong (Octopus) and London (Oyster). The Oyster Card was introduced in July 2003. The card has an inbuilt chip system and is based on RFID technology. Lets Talk Payments’ article on Oyster can be Read here.

LTP View: As ORCA cards stores history of fares paid by the user for different routes, this data can be used to analyze for improving productivity and cost effectiveness of commute services. However, more efforts may be needed to enhance the accessibility of these cards and overcome security issues. Promotional schemes like discount on trade fares, loyalty collection points can further promote the usage of these cards.

We wonder what will it take to put ORCA card on a mobile with contactless tech. That way a commuter doesn't even need to carry the card.