This Time Self-Hosted
dark mode light mode Search

Travel cards collection

As some of you might have noticed, for example by following me on Twitter, I have been traveling a significant amount over the past four years. Part of it has been for work, part for my involvement with VideoLAN and part again for personal reason (i.e. vacation.)

When I travel, I don’t rent a car. The main reason being I (still) don’t have a driving license, so particularly when I travel for leisure I tend to travel where there is at least some form of public transport, and even better if there is a good one. This matched perfectly with my hopes of visiting Japan (which I did last year), and usually tends to work relatively well with conference venues, so I have not had much trouble on it in the past few years.

One thing that is going a bit overboard for me, though, is the number of travel cards I have by now. With the exception of Japan, here every city or so have a different travel card — while London appears to have solved that, at least for tourists and casual passengers, by accepting contactless cards as if it was their local travel card (Oyster), it does not seem to be followed up by anyone else, that I can see.

Indeed I have at this point at home:

  • Clipper for San Francisco and Bay Area; prepaid, I actually have not used it in a while so I have some money “stuck” on it.
  • SmarTrip for Washington DC; also prepaid, but at least I managed to only keep very little on it.
  • Metro dayLink for Belfast; prepaid by tickets.
  • Ridacard for Edinburgh and the Lothian region; this one has my photo on it, and I paid for a weekly ticket when I used it.
  • imob.venezia, which is now discontinued, and I used when I lived in Venice, it’s just terrible.
  • Suica, for Japan, which is a stored-value card that can be used for payments as well as travel, so it comes the closest to London’s use of contactless.
  • Leap which is the local Dublin transports card, also prepaid.
  • Navigo for Paris, but I only used it once because you can only store Monday-to-Sunday tickets on it.

I might add a few more this year, as I’m hitting a few new places. On the other hand, while in London yesterday, I realized how nice and handy it is to just use my bank card for popping in and out of the Tube. And I’ve been wondering how did we get to this system of incompatible cards.

In the list above, most of the cities are one per State or Country, which might suggest cards work better within a country, but that’s definitely not the case. I have been told that recently Nottingham has moved to a consolidate travelcard which is not compatible with Oyster either, and both of them are in England.

Suica is the exception. The IC system used in Japan is a stored-value system which can be used for both travel and for general payments, in stores and cafes and so on. This is not “limited” to Tokyo (though limited might be the wrong word there), but rather works in most of the cities I’ve visited — one exception being busses in Hiroshima, while it worked fine for trams and trains. It is essentially an upside-down version of what happens in London, like if instead of using your payment card to travel, you used your travel card for in-store purchases.

The convenience of using a payment card, by the way, lies for me mostly on being able to use (one of) my bank accounts to pay for the money without having to “earmark” it the way I did for Clipper, which is now going to be used only the next time I actually use the public transport in SF — which I’m not sure when it is!

At the same time, I can think of two big obstacles to implementing contactless payment in place for travelcards: contracts and incentives. On the first note, I’m sure that there is some weight that TfL (Travel for London) can pull, that your average small town can’t. On the other note, it’s a matter for finance experts, which I can only guess on: there is value for the travel companies to receive money before you travel — Clipper has already had my money in their coffers since I topped it up, though I have not used it.

While topped-up credit of customers is essentially a liability for the companies, it also increases their liquidity. So there is little incentive for them, particularly the smaller ones. Indeed, moving to a payment system for which the companies get their money mostly from banks rather than through cash, is likely to be a problem for them. And we’re back on the first matter: contracts. I’m sure TfL can get better deals from banks and credit card companies than most.

There is also the matter of the tech behind all of this. TfL has definitely done a good job with keeping compatible systems — the Oyster I got in 2009, the first time I boarded a plane, still works. During the same seven years, Venice changed their system twice: once keeping the same name/brand but with different protocols on the card (making it compatible with more NFC systems), and once by replacing the previous brand — I assume they have kept some compatibility on the cards but since I no longer live there I have not investigated.

I’m definitely not one of those people who insist that opensource is the solution to everything, and that just by being opened, things become better for society. On the other hand, I do wonder if it would make sense for the opensource community to engage with public services like this to provide a solution that can be more easily mirrored by smaller towns, who would not otherwise be able to afford the system themselves.

On the other hand, this would require, most likely, compromises. The contracts with service providers would likely include a number of NDA-like provisions, and at the same time, the hardware would not be available off-the-shelf.

This post is not providing any useful information I’m afraid, it’s just a bit of a bigger opinion I have about opensource nowadays, and particularly about how so many people limit their idea of “public interest” to “privacy” and cryptography.

Comments 3
  1. Well Suica is amazing good for micro (and not so micro) payments (well, you want to have Mobile Felica so you do not need suica and icoca…On the other hand the Felica technology is there to be used and it is used quite a lot.And that reminds me that I should figure out where I shoved my Suica.

  2. One of the prposed reasons for TfL’s strong push towards contactless debit cards as method of “pay for travel” is “MiFare license fees”. Each Oyster card has a small amount of fee, for the MiFare implementation (sure, you now have to actually pay for the cards, but that is a fee they have to pay you back, should you choose to give them the card back) and by pushing that onto the banks, there’s less fees for TfL and no obvious drawback.I won’t transition off using an Oyster, though, since my normal travel between work and home actually ends up being cheaper using a monthly ticket (would probably be even cheaper, using annual tickets, but that’s a hefty-enough cash outlay) than 20 daily tickets (at least one, sometimes both, directions is in “rush hour”, so I end up having to pay the expensive daily). Depending on if I go by the PAYG cap or the price of a “1-day travel card”, that’s either £9 per month or £117 per month in savings and I can’t with confidence say that I understand exactly what the cap means, because if the cap is a daily cap, then it would be cheaper for me to use PAYG than a 1-day travel card, no matter how you slice and dice it.

  3. I did not think of the MiFare fees, that’s an interesting point as well, and I wonder how that fits together for smaller cities that are migrating to NFC/MiFare chips as well. I think this would be another interesting analysis of the current closed-source solutions all around.As for the monthly/yearly tickets — I hear you. I don’t think contactless payments *only* is a valid solution for this, not only because of the monthly tickets, but also because not everybody can afford a bank account with contactless payments (in the case of Ulster Bank/RBS, their default card is not NFC), and it has its own disadvantages.On the other hand it’s a terrific option for people like me who use the public transport more casually — I sometimes use it in Dublin, too, and I go to London or Paris many times a year; enough that paper tickets are a nuisance but not enough to have a monthly ticket.It’s kinda like the problem with mobile phone roaming across the world.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.