Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for September 2nd, 2006

TransLink studies ‘smart card’ fare systems

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TransLink studies ‘smart card’ fare systems

Another “no news” story put out by Translink ahead of one of their staff reports. Smart cards have been studied at Translink for as long as it has been in existence. We don’t have them have them because the market for them here is too small to be financially viable. Small transactions are of no interest to the banking system, and cost merchants a fortune. For example, Dairy Queen (where my son works) charges an additional 25c flat fee for Interac transactions. Many other merchants refuse debit cards for amounts under a specific limit, reflecting the transaction cost.

Since I started looking at the issues of small cash payments, back in London in the eighties – first for parking meters, then for the Underground – matters have changed a little, but economies of scale still have to be present to make the considerable up front investment in kit worthwhile. Hong Kong and London both have Oyster systems, which have been very successful, but they are orders of magnitude bigger in number of transactions than Vancouver. Experiments such as VISA cash have been small and have not developed into full blown systems. Parking can now be paid for by cell phones, and this kind of convergence may betoken the future. Other types of card – such as the Starbucks card – are more about retaining customer “loyalty” than reducing costs.

The other big issue is the complexity of Vancouver’s fare structure, which has grown incrementally with the years and is now so byzantine as to require a purpose designed software suite for the bus farebox as to be prohibitively expensive to change. And it can only be done by Cubic, the original contractor, since they own the source code. And, yes, it can have a Cubic smart card reader added to it , but only to their spec. And the Electronic Fare Box (EFB) cannot talk to all the other electronic systems on the bus such as the destination display, communications systems and so on – which requires several separate log ins by the operator.

To be fair, Translink did pay someone on staff for several years to work on the “architecture” of ITS – to no useful output that I can recall.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 2, 2006 at 8:14 am