Advanced fare collection
Another way subway systems are improving rail travel is by streamlining the purchase process.
Unlike most mass transit systems, which operate at a deficit that requires government subsidies, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation is completely self-sustaining in part thanks to its “rail plus property” model. The corporation, which reported a net profit of more than HK$16 billion in 2018, makes money from its real estate investments as well as transit operations. MTR’s financial stability enables bold moves and advancements in the services it provides.
In the mid ‘90s, MTR pioneered advanced contactless smart cards with the Octopus card, which has a built-in microchip that can now be used on all public transport in the region. This advancement inspired similar systems around the world including London’s Oyster smartcard.
Since 2014, travelers on the London Underground were given an additional option with the Future Ticketing Programme, which allows travelers to use contactless credit and debit cards. This transition coincided with the overall adoption of contactless purchases throughout London.
Shashi Verma, the chief technology officer at Transport for London (TfL), the government body responsible for Greater London’s public transit, said in a statement that they are delighted with how popular the contactless option has become.
According to a 2019 report from TfL, customer satisfaction on the London Underground has been consistently high–fluctuating around 85 percent–since 2014. Annual surveys have shown an overall rider satisfaction increase this century.
“We are also now working with other world cities to share our experience and knowledge to help them introduce a similar ticketing system in the coming years,” Verma said.
But digitizing private transport in London recently hit a roadblock. On Nov. 25, TfL announced it would not renew ridesharing company Uber’s license, citing a “pattern of failures” that placed passenger safety and security at risk, such as letting passengers get into cars with drivers who are “potentially unlicensed and uninsured.” According to TfL, a change to Uber’s system had allowed unauthorized drivers to upload their photos to other drivers’ accounts.
Although New York never adopted smart cards and still uses the MetroCard, a magnetic stripe card introduced in the early ‘90s, the city is in the midst of rolling out the same contactless technology that’s already available in London. With this new system, OMNY, New Yorkers can use contactless bank cards or smartphone digital wallets to travel at select stations in Manhattan and buses on Staten Island.
“Our customers have adopted OMNY at impressive levels during the public pilot and I expect that to continue now that we're beginning to roll out to the rest of the system," Al Putre, the OMNY program executive, said in a statement on Nov. 12.
“We are working relentlessly to deliver this new fare payment system effectively through meticulous and continuous testing and monitoring,” he continued. “We are excited to start this next phase to bring all MTA customers the ease and convenience of tapping at the turnstile.”
Time will tell if these changes improve the overall subway experience for New Yorkers. Earlier this year, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office released a survey of roughly 10,000 subway riders. Sixty-two percent of participants said they were either “not satisfied” or “highly unsatisfied” with the service. The most common complaints were delays, overcrowded trains, and frequent route changes.
Future of subways
The key to digitally transforming subway systems throughout the world is making the traveler's experience easier. That’s it. New technology can help transit systems achieve this goal, as long as it’s not superfluous or more trouble than it’s worth.
Digital solutions can help advanced metro systems hone what’s already there and developing systems close the gap.
Data can help guide these developments to offer a user-focused, digitally enhanced transit experience. But taking a cue from design strategy, we don’t need to burden travelers with these data–just their benefits.