Serving Unbanked and Underbanked Riders in Ohio

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: June 27, 2023

In 2019, Stark County’s SARTA system was awarded an Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) grant to make public transit more accessible to all riders. Successful partnerships and communication led to more equitable mobility programs.

Stark County, OH, located about 30 miles south of Kent State University, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the McKinley Presidential Library, was excited to move its transit systems to a digital payment system. By shifting to its EZFare app, residents had the access to a cashless, multi-county mobile ticketing system. Local transit leaders quickly realized, however, that unbanked (folks with no bank account or credit card) or underbanked (may have a bank account but no card associated with it) riders wouldn’t be able to access this convenience. The team successfully applied for an IMI grant to identify how to equitably serve this population.

Today, the EZFare system can be seamlessly used across 13 transit systems in Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky. Customers can add funds to the app digitally or using cash and retail locations.

Virtual Challenges

Prior to the EZFare system, each system across within Stark and neighboring Wayne Counties had their own model and sales window. None of the ticket sales were electronic. This was expensive and challenging to manage. “In the transit industry, the simpler we make riding, the more attractive it is,” said Katherine Conrad, who is the project manager of SARTA’s IMI grant. With EZFare, riders can pay their fare with a major credit card, Apple Pay, or by loading funds digitally. EZFare is also integrated with transit apps like Moovit and Uber, allowing passengers to purchase EZFares through those platforms as well.

For a small group of riders, virtual purchasing created a barrier to access. “The fear was that we would be leaving people out if [cash] is their primary mode of paying for transit and other items,” said Conrad. “It’s not as easy as pulling the plug one day and doing it,” she said.

To make the EZFare system universally accessible, SARTA offers the option for riders to use cash to pre-pay for tickets and services at one of the system’s four transit centers. This enables the cash to then be digitized, giving riders paying with cash the same convenience as customers using digital payment options. Riders can also walk onto public vehicles and pay in cash at each of the group’s member agencies, though as Conrad explained, “getting people to learn that it’s an option and they can still walk on and pay with cash” has been a challenge. To date, the retail loads account for less than 1% of users and most customers are still loading their apps with credit cards.

To evaluate the success of the EZFare system, Cleveland State University did a series of longitudinal surveys of riders who did and did not use EZFare. The positivity rate among people who used EZFare was 95%. The stem made boarding times easier, and customers liked that they didn’t have to carry cash. To evaluate satisfaction, researchers conducted in person interviews, sent out emails, and made phone calls. They recruited respondents through social media marketing, and by contacting EZFare users directly.

Next steps

For frequent SARTA riders, the agency currently offers a closed looped system for riders to buy unlimited monthly passes for $45. However, the team recognized that some users don’t have $45 to lay out up front. By the end of the year, the team will shift the smart cards to a fare capping system within EZFare. “A fare capping system allows you to earn a pass over time,” explained Conrad. “Once you hit that $45 day pass, you don’t have to pay more than that.” 

Advice for other transit communities

  • Strong coalitions matter. “Make sure you have people who are engaged and want to work together,” said Conrad. “It sets the tone for the whole project.”
  • In 2014, Conrad and her colleagues started a council with two other governments that were also establishing new ride integration systems. Now the group has 25 members across five states and are working collaboratively on projects tacking mutual challenges other than EZ Fare and mobile ticketing projects. Consistent, supportive communication has been critical to the group’s success.


For more information contact Katherine Conrad at


We’d love to hear from you!

Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (

Skip to toolbar