Griffin on Tech: hurray for universal transport payments - why has this taken 13 years?
Here’s some good news to end the week - we will soon have one contactless payment system we can use to tap on and off across all modes of public transport everywhere.
That’s not just within a city, but across most of the country, spanning buses, trains and ferries. This is something public transport users in other countries have taken for granted for years. I love the Opal system in New South Wales which, as a visitor, lets you simply tap your Paywave-enabled credit card on a terminal to get onto a bus or train.
Our own story around digital transport payment options has been a sorry saga of poor planning, competitive and regional rivalries trumping the public interest and bizarre technology choices. It has meant that different modes of transport, in one city alone, require differing and separate payment types.
If I head up to Auckland for the day I have to think about how I’m going to pay to take a train trip because the Snapper card I use for Wellington bus trips won’t work there. Finally, the government has cottoned onto the fact that if people are going to increasingly use public transport, they want the hassle taken out of the payment process.
“To encourage public transport as the preferred travel choice for more people, more often, we must invest in modern technologies to improve the customer experience,” transport minister Michael Wood said today as he announced the unified payment scheme that will roll out from 2024 and cover a contactless national transport card as well as options to pay with debit and credit cards as well as Apple Pay and Google Pay, including using your smartphone.
The NTS (National Ticketing Solution) will also be able to handle tariff caps and automatically calculate the appropriate discounts for users. The move reflects research from contactless card provider Visa and others that clunky payments are a major bugbear for people using public transport.
Cancelled or delayed bus services are probably more front of mind at the moment as bus driver shortages plague transport operators everywhere.
But the massive transport mode shift we face to achieve the Net Zero 2050 goals the Government has outlined will require more sophisticated and join-up use of technology to encourage people to go on that low-carbon journey.
Waka Kotahi came in for criticism in a 2019 consultant’s report for “unfocused” leadership holding back plans for a national transport payment system, which was first floated in 2009. Finally, we are on the way to achieving that original goal, but let’s not get too excited just yet - there’s a major integration project required to make this work.
The technology provider selected for the project, US-based Cubic Transport Systems, certainly has lots of experience in providing innovative cross-mode transport payment systems. The initial cost of procuring Cubic’s technology is $27 million, but the total cost of implementing the system has been budgeted at $1.3 billion over 15 years.
That’s a major investment, the bulk of which is coming from central government, but Cubic’s president Jeff Lowinger said today that national payment systems usually see a bump in public transport patronage of 10 - 15%.
Waka Kotahi now needs to show the leadership that was lacking for so long and local authorities need to smooth the way to speed up this transition. It's a big and complex tech project that will need solid management.
It’s not just about payments. All of that data from tapping on and off could give the transport agency better insights in real-time into public transport traffic flows, helping improve the network and hopefully see the buses, trains and ferries arriving on time, more often.
But a similar unified approach could be applied in other areas of transport, such as mapping usage and demand for EV charging stations so that new stations can be strategically placed as EV car sales increase rapidly. Big data is being used in conjunction with artificial intelligence and machine learning internationally at a national level to reveal insights that are improving bus routes, preventing accidents and tackling road congestion.
The national travel card and contactless payments are a good start in modernizing the experience of taking public transport. But we’ll need more innovation to spur the type of green transport movement we’ll need to achieve our emissions reduction targets.
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