Smart Cards: The Future Path of Transit Ticketing

14 May

Transit users in London and the South East of England will no doubt be familiar with the Oyster Card;

Similarly transit users in the Netherlands will be familiar with the OV-Chipkaart;

Both are known as “Contactless Smart Card” systems. They are just two examples of a new generation of ticketing systems that are being rolled out around the world. On my recent visit to the IT Trans Conference in Karlsruhe there were many different varieties on demonstration and it was clear from the number of vendors incorporating the technology into their service offerings that we can expect to see more of these systems adopted. Both Oyster and the OV-Chipkaart have courted a fair amount of controversy. Cost of installation, pricing, clear use and even human rights are all popular discussion points, while efficiency, repeat use and speed are the supporting arguments. Whatever the social or political motivation is to adopt the systems, they are here to stay, as they offer a gigantic leap forward in what is most important to transit providers, revenue protection.

Moving one step further ahead though we begin to think how these systems will be used in say 10 years time, and for this example I am grateful for the input of an old friend who recently witnessed an interesting obstacle in their use. James recently visited for the Queen’s Day festivities in the Netherlands. During his stay he purchased a 1-hour ticket for the GVB network which is now sold on a OV-Chipkaart. After use he kept it in his wallet. Upon his return to the UK he then attempted to get on to the London Underground using his Oyster card. The barriers refused him entry. The error message on the ticket gate told him his card was unreadable. Positive that he had a good balance of credit on his card he tried again, but to no avail. James then went over to a station supervisor and explained that the barriers wouldn’t open despite him having a valid card with credit. In explaining this he removed his Oyster card from his wallet and in doing so realised that next to it was the OV-Chipkaart. ‘Ah!’

Having removed the Oyster card he was able to pass through the gates. Being the ever curious person he, when he completed his journey he separated the two cards again and once through the barriers tried to gain entry with the OV-Chipkaart. This time a more revealing message, “Card not configured”

The two systems are incompatible, not surprisingly and by no fault of any party. It would at this stage be an unreasonable expectation. But what about the future? Both Oyster, and the OV-Chipkaart are systems where the card has a built-in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
tag and a small thin aerial around the edge of the card itself. Once the card has been obtained, passengers tap-in at a device at the start of their journey and tap-out on a similar device at the end. Season tickets, credit balances and other tickets can be preloaded onto the cards and the reader devices that the card interacts with validate the card and where necessary, deduct the price of the journey from the balance or flags the card as ‘out-of-bounds’ if the passenger has travelled beyond the scope of the product on the card.

James’ attempted use of the OV-Chipkaart on the London Underground throws up an interesting question. Why can’t passengers use just one smart card on each of the different systems? I won’t attempt to discuss the technological boundaries that prevent that right now, or indeed the political implications. Readers who work inside the transit industry may already be thinking of the cost or other preventions of making this happen but holistically and from the public’s point of view such an ideal should at least be practical and feasible. Historically there are precedents.

The Railway Clearing House in the UK was an organisation that provided a revenue allocation service to pre-nationalised railway companies. A similar organisation serves the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) today, now that the railways have been privatised again. The RCH provided a service where revenue would be allocated to the railway companies depending on where the passenger started their journey, which route they travelled, on whose train, and of course their destination. Importantly, and relevant to this discussion, the RCH also provided the industry with “Common Standards” which made services interoperable.

Already looking at the future possibilities of smart card technology in transport, an organisation has been set up in the UK to investigate and standardise the way in which transit smart-cards will be used. The Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation (ITSO) researches and will establish the specifications of “multi-operator, multi-modal and multi-application smart card services”.

These two examples are only national, but international equivalents also exist. The Euro currency is a good example of a single payment system which is valid in different nations. (At the time of writing it is under fire due to the Greek crisis, however I’ve always believed in its fundamental goal, if not the manner of its political application). Another, perhaps more relevant example, would be VISA, MASTERCARD and American Express. These organisations provide a card, service and brand which is internationally recognisable and usable. A traveller from London can take a UK card and use it in many places around the world. The issuing bank provides the credit service whilst VISA would provide the ‘clearing house’ (amongst other services), properly applying the charge etc;

To do this with transit would mean following similar ideals. First, establish a European Transit Clearing House (ETCH!) which would deal with financial clearing, currency services and most importantly, interoperable standards for the organisations providing the transit and technology. Next, establish a brand name or logo which would be recognisable to users everywhere. Corporations are past-masters at this so this should be no problem. Finally, once the financial and marketing back-end has been introduced, transit providers can then sign up to the system and adopt it. It would be advantageous to look for an ISO mark as well.

The trick here is to think beyond the borders, and whilst this is a very basic argument it serves as a framework for how European transit systems could adopt an international smart card system. Many of us regularly use transit in our daily lives. Some of us undoubtedly use different transit providers along the way, and some even across borders. Having one ticket that allows complete access would only naturally supplement the ever growing number of transit users around the world and provide a service standard that can be relied on and improved upon.

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2 Responses to “Smart Cards: The Future Path of Transit Ticketing”

  1. Jay May 14, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    Just RFID the people. The state needs control. The state wants control.


  1. Paper Tickets vs Smartcards: Endpoint For The Strippenkaart « The Sight of the Navigator - June 9, 2010

    […] far its worst drawback for transit operators was its lack of revenue protection and as I mentioned here the new OV Chipkaart system plugs many of the Strippenkaart’s […]

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